There are few examples of the company town concept in oil country. Some come close, like the town of Philips near Borger up in the Panhandle. Others, like the company camp concept, fall peripherally within that range. The reasons they do not qualify are threefold. A company town, to be rightly deemed as such, must be a community is totally owned by the company, that has a post office that identifies it as a town but (meanwhile) has no elected central authority to govern it, and that it has an active retail business section controlled by the company. The only oil patch town that fulfilled all those requirements in Texas was Texon, located in southwestern Reagan County a few miles west of Big Lake and close to the field’s discovery well, the Santa Rita #1.
Texon was nothing if not distinctive. And that distinctiveness served to help define the broader surrounding region that was this burgeoning oil country known as the Permian Basin. Though the oil play was less than a decade into its existence, it was displaying a rough-and-tumble frontier quality to those who were taking notice. And it was exhibiting a rugged, enterprising, can-do spirit that would carry it through the remainder of the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Traditionally the term “company town” is associated with extractive industries such as mining, but not always. In Texas the coal mining town of Thurber in Erath County comes to mind as a classic example. At Thurber the company held title to all the land, and owned all the businesses, churches, schools, and homes. The Thurber example is probably the purest example of a mining oriented company town in Texas, but that concept did not transfer well to the oil and gas industry. Unlike mining, where the main labor force remains at one spot for as long as the mines exist, the oil patch has a much more fluid labor force that peaks during the short lived boom-and-flush production period and then quickly wanes as the field settles into steady production.
Back in 1955 Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit song entitled “Sixteen Tons” concerning the travails of a coal miner. The song emphasized the generally accepted notion that the company town, along with its company store, was designed to keep the miners in subjugation. The refrain for “Sixteen Tons” went:
You load 16 tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
The generally held belief that the company town is a bad thing is not necessarily true. More often than not the idea of a company town was tied to the paternalistic desire of owners to provide a better life for their workers that would in turn make them better employees. That was definitely the case with Texon.
Texon’s founding was a direct result of the completion of the Santa Rita #1 in May of 1923. The well was the discovery well for the Big Lake oilfield, a field that provided the impetus for the opening of the vast Permian Basin region. The Santa Rita #1 was drilled by the Texon Oil and Land Company, which lacked the wherewithal to develop the leases they held. Consequently, in October of 1923, Pittsburgh wildcatters Mike Benedum and Joe Trees assumed ownership of a number of Texon’s leases and formed the Big Lake Oil Company and began drilling up what was known as the Big Lake Field.
Almost immediately “the boom was on” and the little railroad siding of Best, adjacent to the site of the Santa Rita #1, morphed into a stereotypical wild and wooly oil boom town. Just a couple of miles down the track Santa Rita became another overnight boom town sensation although it lasted a shorter period as a town and did not have as lawless a reputation as Best. Both of them, however, consisted of a variety of tents, shacks, and other types of primitive living accommodations. Meanwhile, the Big Lake Oil Company management was saddled with the dilemma of providing housing for a large work force needed to drill and produce their holdings. Those raw conditions in the newly established boom towns did not fit the bill.
Levi Smith, Vice President and General Manager of the Big Lake Oil Company, was so appalled by the chaotic conditions in Best that he decided to build his own town, one whose residency would be restricted to company employees. He reasoned that by providing good living conditions he would attract married family-oriented workers who would stay with the company rather than attract the usual single men who followed the booms. He felt that would translate into a stable work force, one likelier to power a more efficient and profitable operation.
The site Smith chose for Texon lay barely outside the two-mile-by-four-mile field production and just south of the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railway tracks, about 14 miles west of Big Lake. Between 1924 and 1926, Texon, named in honor of the company that had brought in the discovery well, became a reality. It was an oasis of calm and refuge amidst the hurly burly of a full fledged oil boom in that isolated part of West Texas. Indeed, Texon was widely touted in publications of the day as a fine example of a well ordered community that exemplified the benevolent nature of the oil companies toward their employees.
Early in 1924, amidst the frenzied drilling program of the boom, Smith started building Texon, starting with the installation of supply warehouses, pipe yards, and workshops on the railroad side of town. That was quickly followed by a series of two-bedroom houses along the main street leading into town, a step taken to provide housing for administrative personnel. Immediately across the street from those first houses he began construction of a number of buildings designed to be rentals for a variety of businesses. At the same time he began building a huge number of one-bedroom shotgun-type houses for the hourly employees. That push stretched outward to make up the larger portion of the town.
In the early days of Texon, utilities were at a premium. Although gas was piped in from the field for heating purposes, it was a while before a generator was installed to provide electricity of homes and businesses. Water was even more difficult to obtain and the precious fluid was either delivered to the homes by tank trucks or fetched by residents from a centrally located water tank. In those early years the company also provided two large bath houses, one for men and one for women, near the center of town, where bathing could take place.
By the time construction ended in 1926, electrical power was available and water was piped to all the homes. By then businesses had cropped up in all the rental spaces along Main Street. Ultimately Texon sported a café, a drugstore, a grocery store, a drygoods store, a boarding house, a filling station, a movie theater, a barber shop, and all the other retail accoutrements of a town. Additionally, the company provided a post office, a community church, a hospital, and an elementary school. The school served those children from the first through the sixth grades while those older were bussed to schools in Big Lake. Recreation also played a big part in the life of the town, as evidenced by the existence of a company-built golf course complete with “greens” of oiled sand in lieu of grass, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a club house, and a baseball stadium.
The baseball stadium was particularly interesting because Smith, who was an avid fan, organized a semi-pro baseball team to play there. The summer of 1925 saw the completion of the baseball field and the following year a 500-seat grandstand was added. Although originally called the Big Lake Oil Company Oilers, the team soon became the Texon Oilers. Their roster was filled by former college athletes as well as seasoned semi-pro players hired on a full time work/play basis. In 1929 the company began hosting a huge annual Labor Day barbeque and baseball game for all employees and friends. The Texon Oilers had a successful run in various West Texas leagues from the time of its founding through the decade of the 1930s. However, with the waning of oil production and the decline of the town’s population, the team was disbanded at the beginning of the 1940s just as World War II began.
All during its heyday Texon experienced a considerable competition among company employees to acquire one of its rental houses and escape primitive living conditions in the field. Rental for the homes varied wildly, from $4 per month for the little one bedroom shotgun houses to as much as $35 per month for one of the larger two-bedroom houses along Main Street that were reserved for management personnel. The population of the town peaked at 1,200 residents during the first years of the 1930s. Among the residents were two or three African American families whose menfolk were hired to perform general maintenance on the various town buildings.
By the beginning of the decade of the 1940s, the town’s population began to decline in a direct relationship to the production of the Big Lake field. Some employees were transferred to other locations by the company, some retired, and some just left as the job market dried up. During the first years of the 1950s the population of Texon fell to less than 500 residents. In 1956 ownership of the town passed to the Plymouth Oil Company and the population continued its decline. Then in 1962 the Marathon Oil Company purchased the property and ceased maintaining the town, whose population had fallen to fewer than 100 souls. In 1986 the post office was closed and by the turn of the 21st century the last of Texon’s residents were gone. During its lifetime Texon engendered an amazing sense of camaraderie among its residents, who shared the unique lifestyle of living and working together within the culture of the oil patch.
Although the town withered and died along with the slow ebbing of oil production, a vivid memory remained in the minds of those who lived there. In 1962, when Marathon discontinued maintaining the town, those still living there, along with others long gone from the community, organized a reunion held over Labor Day weekend just as they had done in years gone by when the company had hosted the big barbeque and the Oilers had played ball. Later, the date was changed to the first weekend in June on an annual basis. Over time this was changed to every two years. It was always a pleasant event where old friends met and swapped yarns of the times when the town was alive and thriving. As late as the first few years of the 2000s more than 100 attended the affair, but like so many gatherings of that nature, old age and changing times gradually caused reunion attendance to dwindle until, in 2014, it was discontinued altogether. Today there are almost no structures left on the site of Texon, but its memory lives on as the example of the only true company town established in the oilfields of Texas.
Bobby Weaver is a regular contributor to Permian Basin Oil and Gas Magazine. He is the author of Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch.