Oil shaped Permian Basin, changed world

It’s a common part of Texas lore that the 20th century began not New Year’s Day 1901 as it did for the rest of the country but 10 days later and at a specific location: Spindletop.

In West Texas, the 20th century didn’t arrive for another two decades.

The Texas oil boom transformed the world and what it could be, and it took the Lone Star State from a poor, agriculture-centered and in many ways backwards corner of the United States to the giant of industry, technology, energy and politics that it’s known for today.

While in East Texas the transformation meant a swift movement from farms to cities, the impact on West Texas was even more stark: it meant there could be cities at all.

Areas unable to support a few dozen cattle during some dry years were suddenly home to thousands of mostly single young men working furiously to build rigs, drill holes, construct facilities to store any oil they got and then pipelines to transport it to somewhere less remotely situated. It needed people to keep all of these things happening when something broke down, and it needed more people to feed and house all of these.

This pattern of boom towns springing up next to the latest big find continued unabated until the oil industry facilitated its own transformation and made it possible for all of American society to do what had been impossible just decades before.

SAINT OF THE IMPOSSIBLE

After Spindletop, discoveries spread through Gulf Coast then North Central Texas then the Panhandle, then at last to West Texas where booms jumped from place to place for almost 40 years and became as central to daily life and culture as anything has for anywhere

The rig Santa Rita No. 1 near Big Lake, legendarily financed by a pious group of Catholic women from New York State, came in on May 28, 1923, and suddenly gave thousands of people a reason to live hundreds of miles away from anything else — this at a time when roads as commonly defined were practically nonexistent.

Bobby Weaver, a native of Odessa and author of the Texas oil boom history book, “Oilfield Trash,” described driving as an act of one person steering while the other constantly worked to repair flats and free the car from numerous sand bars.

But as workers flooded the area to get black gold, towns like Big Lake, not even incorporated before the discovery, were overwhelmed with humanity. Towns like George B. McCamey’s titular city came into existence, besieged by camps of men. In a time before good roads and with relatively few automobiles, surrounding all of these boom towns were camps – the Gulf Oil camp, the Humble Oil Camp, the Phillips camp – for company men and their families. The ultimate company “camp” Texon was actually a city, built by the Big Lake Oil Company from 1924 and 1926 between Big Lake and Rankin.

The discoveries continued to come, moving south for the Yates field in Iraan, north where it saved the ailing agricultural town Grandfalls and gave birth to a new community nearby in Royalty. In 1926, a discovery in Winkler County brought a mass of people to brave the sand dunes, eventually to get to Wink. Pyote, the closest town on the Texas and Pacific railroad, teemed with thousands as heavy equipment was brought in and transported by animal to drilling sites. A railroad spur to Monahans signaled the end of that period of prosperity for Pyote, and by 1930 the enormous oil discoveries in the Tyler-Longview area pulled the boom energy back to East Texas.

CITIES OF CONTRAST

The boom would be on in West Texas again, but when it came back there would be important differences. Wooden cable-drilling rigs that pounded away at the earth would be replaced by the more complex but more efficient steel rotary drilling rigs that could really dig and get deep. The two-man driller and toolie team would be replaced by the five-man roughneck team.

Technology changed more than just getting oil out of the ground. It also affected getting people in position to do it.

As self-propelling personal vehicles improved and became more common—as graded roads became as important a transportation artery as railroads—the various finds in West Texas began to be better linked together.

Weaver makes the case that the rise of Odessa and Midland wasn’t a fluke of history, and even the characters of the two cities progressed logically from their situations.

Odessa was centrally located along the railway, east and west, and between the early finds of the 20s as well as the newer ones north and west. It was also neatly between the earlier finds to the south and east and the more recent finds to the north, such as Wink, Goldsmith and Andrews. As roads connected Odessa to the other oil patches, Odessa was the consolidated spot to unload equipment and ship it where it needed to go. The ranching town traded its cowboy hat for a blue collar and its population skyrocketed from its pre-oil figure of 750.

Midland, meanwhile, was already established as a legitimate city so it had the infrastructure to absorb more people and provide amenities. It, too, was fairly centrally located and already the regional financial center for ranching. It was only natural that it would do the same for oil, only exaggerated in the way oil wealth exaggerates everything.

Tempered by the development of the massive East Texas Oilfield, finds continued to be found in the Permian Basin and people continued to move in.

THE BOOM IS ON

While the situation in West Texas was relatively good for a nation going through the Great Depression, it was nothing compared to the boom that would hit following the World War II.

The United States needed oil to make its military machine work, but it also needed men and industrial material, and Uncle Sam got first pick of both.

“The war effort curtailed the acquisition of steel to the point that no new rigs were allowed to be built and drill pipe was almost impossible to obtain,” Weaver writes in “Oilfield Trash.”

The industry was also mostly restricted to women, and then men older than 38 or younger than 20; an influx of inexperienced oil hands using aging technology were tasked with providing the fuel for the nation’s war machine. But they did it.

As soldiers began to return from the war and steel could be allocated for civilian purposes again, the oilfield was allowed to take off again.

But a curious thing happened. Even though there continued to be new finds all over the Permian Basin, often on ranches far away from established populations, the true boomtown phenomenon didn’t happen.

“The reason there were so many boomtowns—literally thousands—was that in the earliest days, a new drilling site had to be reached by horseback,” and often by walking, Weaver explained. “So workers had to be very close to the site.”

Cheap vehicles, affordable, plentiful fuel for them and better roads meant that limitation no longer existed. Trailers replaced shanties and you didn’t have to be a young, rough, single man to follow where the action was.

“Snyder is the first and last real postwar boom,” Weaver said. While housing shortages were still a problem, with places like the 100 prefabricated unit Victory Village built and immediately filled in Odessa, it wasn’t the same as it had been. Snyder swelled by thousands of people in less than a year following a discovery in 1948, but it wasn’t the same as it had been.

“It is estimated that 3,200 trailers were stationed on the streets, on vacant lots, and in parks provided for them, during the most active months in the oilfield nearby. The mobile home units are generally credited with preventing a housing crisis of serious dimensions,” Samuel D. Myres writes in “The Permian Basin: Era of Advancement.”

Workers could also stay in a motel, or commute from a nearby city.

Increasingly, those cities were Odessa and Midland.

The development of the Sprayberry trend didn’t lead people to settle Hadacol Corner (later Midkiff). Why would they when they could drive in an hour or less?

DRYING UP AND BLOWING AWAY

The oilfield camps that had been tents and lean-tos didn’t persist once the initial drilling boom passed, but the company camps and more permanent “poor boy” housing for hourly workers or associated independents produced many good people such as former state representative Buddy West and 358th District Judge Bill McCoy.

McCoy, whose father was a pumper charged with manually keeping the tank batteries from overflowing, said he came to the area in about 1949 when he was in seventh grade and lived in the North Cowden community.

“There was a lot of people out there in those days,” McCoy said.

However, his family had to live in a lease house close enough for his father to be able to get to all of his responsibilities and turn them off if need be.

“I thought the people who lived in the camps were the luckiest people in the world – because they had neighbors,” McCoy said.

Local attorney Michael McLeaish lived in the poor boy camp south of Goldsmith associated with Gulf Oil, now Chevron. He didn’t entirely agree.

“They say fences make good neighbors. Well, we didn’t have any fences,” McLeaish said. And their houses weren’t made of brick and his family’s doesn’t compare especially favorably to the office he has now.

But his community of about 50 people from 20 homes was a happy if unprivate one, and he described his childhood as mostly idyllic, a kind of rural existence with chickens and a garden, hunting rabbits in the pasture with his pet mutt Lady. Moving to the area in 1945 when he was 6 months old, McLeaish said his family didn’t have much, but he got to ride pumpjacks and swim in caliche pits in the days when nights were so bright and country so thick with rig lights and gas flares it could hardly ever be said to be night at all.

Both men were gone by the early ’60s, though, pursuing their educations and eventual legal careers.

McCoy’s father continued to work, but the Gulf Oil moved their home to West Odessa and he was able to drive to his job in the oil patch. No more camps were built and the ones that had been there were closed or moved closer to towns. They were no longer necessary.

People didn’t have to go into town just every two weeks anymore. And they didn’t have to live right next to their job. They could live pretty much anywhere and go pretty much anywhere they wanted to as their life’s work had completely remade all of American society in less than 40 years.

“It was just a different lifestyle,” McCoy said.

Information from this article comes from Bobby Weaver, over the phone and through the e-book version of “Oilfield Trash: Life and Labor in the Oil Patch,” as well as the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum and Handbook of Texas.

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