The journey from boom towns to urbanization has not been a straight-line progression for oil country, but it’s been a progression nonetheless, and one that has brought with it an ever-finer standard of life.
by Bobby Weaver
The residents of Texas oil towns are proud of the accomplishments and contributions of their respective communities, and rightly so. However, the first thing that pops into the mind of the general public in regard to oil towns is the term “Boom Town,” with all the stereotypical trappings of social chaos as depicted in the 1940 motion picture of the same name. Thus the soiled reputation of oil towns as being somewhat less than mainstream American urban centers appears to be frozen in a sort of time warp. It is enough to make residents of thriving urban centers like Midland, Odessa, Wichita Falls, Tyler, Beaumont, and a host of other oil towns grit their teeth.
With that in mind it might be useful to explore the nature of oil towns and how they have evolved from boomtowns to solid mainstream communities over time. It is a multidimensional story that is much more complex than a simple narrative that (A) oil was discovered, (B) thousands rushed to the scene, and (C) everybody that didn’t get killed by the bad guys got rich. By the same token it is a colorful tale often dominated by larger-than-life characters who, by their very nature, have attracted the attentions of Hollywood, and accordingly have become tinged with Hollywood-style sensationalism. But when all is said and done it is the saga of hard-working people who built an indispensable industry that has become the basis for much of the wealth of this nation.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, to boom is “to prosper or cause to prosper vigorously and rapidly” and a boomtown is “a town that experiences a boom.” During the first half of the 20th Century one boom after another defined the nature of the oil and gas industry in Texas. Those discoveries resulted in the rapid growth of numerous existing towns and the establishment of many new ones. The social chaos of inadequate housing, lack of municipal facilities, and a general lack of social order created by oil booms were always of short duration. Many of those booms lasted only a few months and few lasted longer than two years. The short-lived chaotic aspects of those boomtowns quickly captured the public’s imagination and raised them to mythical status, while raising the odds against those same towns’ chances of comfortably settling into stable urban environments.
The pattern of town development in the oil patch is intertwined with transportation. That became evident with the first Texas oil discovery at Spindletop in 1901. The Spindletop boom developed less than five miles from the well established lumber town of Beaumont, which was situated on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Within weeks of the discovery, the towns of Gladys City and Spindletop as well as Little Africa (alternately, South Africa), which was dedicated to African American workers, sprang up on the edges of the drill sites. Those three entities developed so that oilfield workers could easily access their workplace in an era when local travel was done either by walking or by going horseback. Thus Beaumont became the location where all freight destined for the boom arrived and meanwhile the surrounding smaller towns became the residences of the workers in the field. Over the next few years, as the boom waned and the field settled into a production mode, the three new towns disappeared while Beaumont became the economic and administrative center for Spindletop and subsequent booms that cropped up across Southeast Texas.
In general terms that is the pattern that developed across the Lone Star State over the next several decades with various modifying elements. One of those elements pertained to intensity of the lawlessness that existed. As a general rule places where a town had an infrastructure already in place tended to maintain a more stable situation whereas those newly established towns with no existing infrastructure often fell under the influence of a lawless element. Those were the places that really gave the oil patch its bad name.
One of the most notorious of those was Borger, up in the Panhandle, closely followed by Wink, in the Permian Basin. Both of them were established by townsite companies: Borger in 1926 and Wink the following year. Both of them were characterized by unbridled illegal alcohol sales, gambling, prostitution, and a general lawlessness either condoned or ignored by local elected officials. Within a year of Borger’s founding, Texas Rangers were dispatched there, and they proceeded to remove the entire town council and to restore order. However, only a few months after their departure, the same clique was back in office. In 1929 a crusading district attorney attempting to clean up town corruption was murdered, causing the governor to declare martial law and send in the National Guard to maintain order. That event put an end to the uncontrolled lawlessness in Borger, which soon settled into a normal pattern of existence.
When the Rangers raided Borger in 1927 much of the criminal element transferred their activities to the newly established Wink just south of Kermit in Winkler County. The newly unincorporated town was dependent upon the Winkler County Sheriff’s office to maintain law and order. That understaffed department called in the Texas Rangers as well as federal liquor enforcement agencies on several occasions, but those activities had little impact on the rank lawlessness. Luckily the Wink boom ran its course in less than two years and the exodus of the population ended an uncontrolled situation.
The area of West Texas represented by the Permian Basin adhered to the general pattern of oil town development much like the rest of oil country. At the beginning of the 1920s many of the counties in the region could not boast of a population exceeding 100 citizens and well established towns were few and far between. The drilling of the Santa Rita #1 discovery well 12 or 14 miles west of Big Lake in Reagan County in the spring 1923 set off oil and gas development in the sparsely populated region. Providing food, shelter, and protection to the thousands flocking to the new discoveries was a daunting task. Big Lake proved totally unable to house the influx of workers, so almost immediately a settlement called Santa Rita developed adjacent to the wellsite, although it only lasted a few months. In 1924, Best, with a rough boomtown reputation, came into existence as the residence of the oilfield hands for the field although it only lasted as a viable community for a few years until the boom passed. However, the most important town in that area was Texon.
Texon, built by the Big Lake Oil Company between 1924 and 1926, holds the distinction of being the closest thing to a company town associated with oilfields in Texas. It was built to house company workers in lieu of them having to live in a shack town like Best. Texon was widely regarded in its day as being a model town. Unlike the company camps, it had a post office—a distinction that set it apart as a bonafide town. All the buildings in the community were owned by the company, with corporate officials housed at one end of town and the oilfield labor at the other, and with the quality of accommodations divided accordingly. Although private business operated within the town they were housed in company-owned buildings. Texon remained in existence for more than 30 years.
Drilling picked up throughout the region, with living conditions confined to crews living in tents and other temporary quarters adjacent to drill sites rather than in formal towns. The next large find came in 1925 in Upton County, about 50 miles west of the Santa Rita #1 location. There the town of McCamey grew up around a railroad siding used for delivering supplies to the boom. The following year Crane was established 20 miles north of McCamey as a result of the Gulf Oil Company activities in the area. In that same year, 1926, Iraan, some 20 miles south of McCamey, was also established amidst the booming Yates field. Red Barn, a couple of miles south of Iraan, appeared first and remained for a few years and was noted as being somewhat rough and rowdy. Then in 1927 Wink, far to the north, was formed.
The establishment of those few towns that have survived, plus the scores of others that faded with the booms, marked the first ten years or so of Permian Basin activities. It also marked the establishment of hundreds of oil camps ranging in size from a half dozen houses to large complexes of 100 or so, complete with recreational facilities and other amenities designed to ease the living conditions of company employees. The camps developed as a result of oil company efforts to attract a stable work force away from the rag-tag boom towns where the contract workers congregated. The company camp system stayed in place until the late 1950s and early 1960s, when they were dismantled as better transportation allowed company people to travel greater distances to and from their work places.
The onset of the 1930s caused a general collapse of major Permian Basin oil activity due to the development of the gigantic East Texas boom, combined with a major drop in oil prices. By the time work picked back up in the post WWII period, the nature of regional oil towns had changed and activity had moved north around the Midland/Odessa area and up through Andrews to the newly formed town of Denver City. Advances in transportation and better roads let workers drive from a central location to the various fields. This concentrated the oilfield population on Midland, which became the avowed regional center of oil company administration, and Odessa, which developed as a transportation hub and gained the reputation as the working man’s town.
The last big boom in the Permian Basin that approximated the nature of those of the earliest days took place during the first years of the 1950s at Snyder in Scurry County. This time improved transportation allowed workers from as far away as Midland and Odessa to travel long distances to work, thus alleviating much of the overcrowding of an earlier time. Additionally, large scale use of mobile homes, which disappeared when the boom ended, negated the establishment of the traditional shack towns commonly associated with earlier oil booms. In recent years the portable housing concept has been expanded to create the so-called man camps composed of portable housing that can be dismantled and moved from site to site as labor demand dictates.
Those changes made over time in the Permian Basin have been dramatic. From a beginning in the 1920s, when temporary shack towns with primitive living conditions were built close to the site of large discoveries so workers could access their work place, it has evolved into a dynamic region dominated by the urban area of Midland/Odessa. Population change is a prime indicator of that evolution. For example, according to the 2010 census, Odessa had 118,918 residents and Midland had 111,147. At the same time those earlier oil towns like McCamey had 1,887, Wink 940, Iraan 1,229, and Snyder, with a high of approximately 20,000 during the boom, had11,202. Obviously the metro area of Midland/Odessa, with its three college level institutions and its variety of cultural organizations as well as its niche as home to most of the regional oilfield related businesses, dominated life in the region. Towns like Texon, Santa Rita, Red Barn, Judkins, Frankel City, Tulsa, Cheyenne, Coyote Corner, Brookfield, and dozens of others who once counted their populations in the thousands, along with scores of oil company camps, remain only as a memory of a time gone by. It has been a massive change indicative of the part oil towns are playing in the growing urbanization of modern America.
Bobby Weaver is a frequent contributor to PB Oil and Gas Magazine. His humor column, “Oil Patch Tales,” appears elsewhere in this issue.