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Nothing New Under the Sun

Oil patch interstate

If you are like me you can’t help but feel a certain amount of gratification when you are gate guarding out in the middle of nowhere and you actually sorta like it.  We do tornadoes, rattlesnakes and choking caliche dust all in stride so why not puff your chest out just a tad and bask in the uniqueness of what it is to be an oilfield gate guard.   I hate to break the news to all my brothers and sisters of the clipboard and orange vest but we ain’t the pioneers we think we are.

One of the impediments to commerce in Texas has always been the distances involved and the remote aspect of some areas of the state.  Sometimes I just wonder what the Old Timers were smoking in those roll-your-owns back in the day when they came up with these impossible schemes.  If you go back to the 1920-1930 era when the Permian Basin was blowing and going you will understand what I mean.   Some petro-engineer figured there might be oil in that triangle formed by Midland-San Angelo-Monahans.  The start of the Permian Basin begins with Santa Rita #1 which was punched down just outside of Big Lake, Texas in 1923.   For those that care, Santa Rita is the patron saint of the impossible.  Nuff said on that one, right?

Rig move back in the day

So Big Oil knew the oil was in that dried up ocean they called the Permian Basin but just how in the hell were they gonna manage to drill for it?  You could drive a whole day in those parts back then and not find a place to buy so much as a baloney sandwich.  Not to be thwarted, those Oil Boys in that Houston just figured if they couldn’t drill close to a town they would just bring the town to the oil field and the oil camps were born.   I do believe everyone understands the concept of a company town that exists solely to benefit the company but when I think ‘company town’ I think coal and Appalachia.   Well, we had our share of company towns here in Texas back in the day and they were called oil camps.

Downtown Crane, TX back in the day

In the early ’20′s, oil camps were wild and woolly places- half walled tent structures and ramshackle shacks that sprang up by necessity in the drilling locations.  Over the years, the oil companies stepped in and set up the oil camps; lock stock and barrel with the necessary amenities to survive.  You have to understand just how sparsely populated the region was before oil became a way of life.   The Permian Basin was particularly affected because the region was so sparsely populated as to be an almost uninhabited region where counties like Winkler with 81 citizens and Crane with 37 set the tone. There were so few towns from which to operate that the oil companies were forced to build hundreds of camps ranging in size from a few houses to those with more than 100 or more structures.

A small oil camp three miles outside Iraan, Texas is a perfect example. The camp abutted the huge and prolific Yates field, which is still in production. The town of Iraan was named for ranchers Ira and Ann Yates whose ranch sat atop the Yates field.  Pronounce it IRA-ANN y’all or forever be discounted as a foreigner.

Growing up in the early 1950s in an oil camp miles from the nearest large city (10,000 population or more was large ) had its moments. The camp, a Gulf Oil Company production camp, was comprised of two rows of houses facing each other over a single street. At one end stood the company warehouse and at the other, the company field office. The houses had been moved to the camp from a similar camp near Burkburnett and dated from a 1920s oil boom there. Although they housed families, they were designed as gang houses composed of a common room followed by a couple of bedrooms placed end to end (in other words, the house was only one room wide), then a kitchen and, finally, a bathroom/back porch combo. Each room had its own exterior door, much

like the house from the Texon camp pictured here. Hot water, and heat, came from field gas.

On the other end of the oil camp spectrum was the Texon oil camp.  Texon is a small place between Rankin and Big Lake almost dried up by time. But for people who lived there, the memories are strong.

“Texon was the first oil camp in the Permian Basin and one of the largest,” says Roger Goertz of Big Spring, who has written extensively about Texon. He grew up there, then later had a career in education.

He says among the amenities the town offered were a swimming pool, golf course, movie theater, lighted tennis and croquet courts, a baseball field, skeet-shooting range, library, park and picnic grounds. All the facilities were offered free of charge except for the theater’ which charged a nominal admission. The town even had an airstrip with a hangar for visiting investors.

Texon

During the baseball team’s peak years, players were hired to both work and play baseball. The Texon Oilers played several major league teams and won the national semi-pro baseball championship in 1928. For a time, the town also sponsored a polo team, which competed with area teams from Midland, Ozona and San Angelo.

Texon’s nine-hole golf course had sand greens. Earlier greens were made of cottonseeds. Water was unavailable on the course, so the fairways had little grass. Some holes required players hit a ball across a canyon or up a small hill. Rattlesnakes were plentiful, so players carried a 410 shotgun  in their golf bag. One interesting note concerns the dismantling of the oil camps.  In many cases, the housing was sold to the workers that had been the occupants.  I found one reference that stated the houses were sold for $50 per room and the new owner was responsible for moving the house to a new location.  Just as quick as the oil camps sprang up, they vanished in all but memory.

As the boom situation waxed and waned over time, technological change in housing began to appear. One of the most influential aspects was the introduction of trailer houses, or house trailers as they were called in those days. The first mention of trailer houses in the oil patch came in 1936 when advertisements placed in Oil Weekly by the Stephens Hiway Home Company of Kansas City offered 8-foot-wide models in 14-, 16-, and 18-foot lengths that provided “real comfort at little cost for field workers.”

Oil Camp RVs

During the 1930s those trailer houses began to make inroads in the oilfield housing situation. At first they appeared at drill sites where they provided living quarters for geologists and petroleum engineers who were finally being accepted by the industry as a necessity of the modern oilfield. By 1939 when the Denver City boom developed on the northern edge of the Permian Basin it was described as containing large numbers of trailer houses.

So I guess we are not the pioneer adventurers we thought we were.  Oil field gate guarding is a recent addition to the oil fields of Texas.  I can find little reference to it prior to 2006.   I prefer to think we are just an additional element of everything the Texas oil business is about.  If you think about it in that fashion, we are a part of Texas oil field lore that goes back almost 90 years.  All’s I got to say about it is that Miss K and I dig it and we cannot imagine doing anything else.  It takes a special type person to put up with what ya gotta put up with in this business.  I don’t care if you are in Downtown Arlington or 10 miles from the Rio Grande in El Indio, TX,  this job is not for everybody.  Just so happens it fits me and Miss Kathy like a worn pair of Lucchese Ropers.

Post. Script.  Please read the comments on this blog post.  They add MORE to it than the original post! 

 

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23 comments to Nothing New Under the Sun

  • Richard Boyd

    Andy, Entertaining and informative as always.

    Seems you might be a bit interested in geology also. Here’s one of the better reads by an excellant author.

    “Basin and Range” ~ John McPhee If you haven’t read it and would like to give it a look, I’ll send it to you. It might be here in the rig, if not it’s at my stick, frame and log home in Iron River. If that be the case you’ll have to wait till May. Peace, be well and you and Miss K have a Merry Christmas.

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    • Andrew

      Thanks for the tip Richard.

      They have the McPhee book available on Kindle. Miss K is the rockhound so I will get it for her Kindle Fire.

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  • Ken Harris

    Andy, So glad you mentioned Big Lake and Roger Goertz in this. I went to high school in Big Lake with Roger, living in one of them house trailers.
    Mom and Dad got tired of living in rent houses and bought the first mansion on wheels in 1946, a 24 ft Columbia. We pulled it with a 1942 Mercury. We followed the rigs all the time I was growing up. Dad quit a rig in Worland Wyoming when he asked the driller where the tarps for the derrick were. Having no tarps meant Dad was going to freeze in the derrick. We went to get his fur hat in Odessa that afternoon.
    I ran around with a lot of the guys from Texon, Santa Rita and Best. Best had around 10,000 residents in 1939, then dwindled rapidly. Near Best was Santa Rita Camp, another large residential area. We hunted rabbits all over that country. Only got in trouble when we “mistook” blue quail for rabbits.
    Big Lake used to have the largest school bus in the world to carry students from Texon, Best and Santa Rita to Reagan County ISD. I think it carried over 120 students.

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    • Andrew

      Thanks for the additional Info Ken.

      I really like the history of an area I am familiar with. Coming out of North Texas to Terlingua, we routinely run US 67 out of San Angelo through Rankin and Big Lake.

      If you have any pictures to share, I would love to post them on the blog along with your description.

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  • Ken Harris

    Andy, sorry, but right now all my photos from then are not digital and I am away from my scanner. If you are that much into history and local information, you might enjoy books written by Elmer Kelton. He has one called “Honor at Daybreak” about the oil boom in Crane. It is not one of my favorites, because the crook mostly wins. He also has one called “The Time it Never Rained” about the 50′s drought in the area. It is his seminal work. Realistic in the extreme. I swear I knew some of the men in the novel. Sadly, Elmer died last year. He was born in Crane, but was an ag writer and reporter based in San Angelo.

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    • Andrew

      I enjoyed the Time It Never Rained. I will check out the other one as well.

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  • Don

    Great post! The Humble Oil camp of Winkler County
    was long dismantled before I ever sprouted, but I remember many a day exploring and rummaging through it’s remains in my youth.

    I’ll never forget falling asleep listening to the coyotes yelp and gas powered pumping units in the distance. I always wondered how those things kept running, just when you thought for sure it had died, it would spit, sputter and fire several more times. Those things had absolutely no rhythm.

    I too think Oilfield Gate Guarding is a recent addition as I don’t recall any while growing up. I suspect it is in favor to minimize theft and vandalism to both the rancher’s and oil company’s property.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Don

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  • Andrew

    I am surprised by all the feedback on this post Don. I had no idea so many of my readers had direct experience with the camps. How cool is that?

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  • Joel

    Typically thoughtful post, Andy.

    I love that there’s a place called “Iraan, Texas.”

    Did you ever read “Young men and fire?”

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    • Andrew

      Thanks Joel

      Yep, I read that book shortly after you recommended it and I thank you!

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  • Miss V

    Good blog today! I really enjoyed it! In the picture of downtown Crane, do you see the building that says “Crane Club”? That is an old downtown drinking establishment that my Daddy used to take me to when he was supposed to be baby sitting me while my Mother and Sister went shopping in Odessa. It was strickly forbidden by my Mother for him to take me there, but I kept my mouth shut about it because I love going there with him so much. I would strap on my six shooters grab my cowboy hat and stick horse and away we would go. He would buy me a big cherry coke and have the bartender put extra cherries in it. He would lift me up on the bar stool next to him and I would let my legs dangle down and spin round and round until I was so dizzy I was scared I might fall off! It was dark as pitch in there and the only source of light was a couple of neon beer signs except for when the weather was good the front screen door woould be open. The floor was wooden and littered with peanut shells or “goobers” as my Dad used to call them. I would ride my stick horse around through the tables of men who were playing moon or 42 dominoes. They were wearing the uniform of the day which was, khaki shirts, pants, small brim Stetsons and brown Roper boots. My Daddy had red hair and everyone there called him Red Reid. My nickname was little red. I never saw another female in there besides myself!

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  • Miss V

    Part 2: There were no interwebs, or Facebook or Twitter back then and few people had telephones. So this was there social network. Men came there when they were looking for work or wanted to change jobs or were looking to buy a good use pickup truck or to barter or trade for the things that they needed. Or just to slake their thirst on a hot, dusty west Texas day. They bragged and lied to each other and told tales of wild adventure in the oilfields. Their laughter would spill out onto the downtown sidewalk. No cussing, no off color jokes, no talk about women, at least not when little red was in the joint. Not everyone would regard my memories as hanging out in a beer joint with their old man, as fond, but I do! That was just how it was when you grew up west Texas!

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  • Miss V

    My sister and her first husband bought a camp house in Crane after Gulf decided they did’nt want them anymore. It was a two bedroom one bath frame house with pink shingles on the exterior. It had no air conditioning and a floor furnace grate in the hallway that was supposed to heat the entire house. And wonder of wonders it had an ironing board that dropped down out of a cabinet in the kitchen! I remember opening that and climbing upon it and laying down when I was a kid.
    Anyway the Old Gulf camp had a park with tennis courts and volley ball courts and an old company store that was later sold to private owners. It also had it’s own water tower seperate from the main water tower in town about 1/8th of a mile away. Well, sometime after the camp was sold some local high school boys got hold of a few sticks of dynamite and strapped it to the tower’s legs and blew it down! It still lays out there as far as I know. We used to ride out there on our bikes as kids. It was spooky to see that huge monster layiing dead on it’s back in the empty field.

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  • Miss V

    Once upon a time there was a sandstone wall that seperated white Crane from black Crane. You were not supposed to be on the wrong side of that wall after dark. As a children we would ride our bikes over to the “wrong” side of that wall to an old bar/cafe/gathering place to the “Dew Drop Inn”. If we hung around outside on the porch long enough someone would always buy us RC Colas. That is where I was taught to put peanuts in the cola, a west Texas treat! Sometimes we might even get a Moon Pie to boot! We would watch the old black men “throw dice” out behind the place and something was always cooking on the pit out there. I am not sure of what kind of meat it was, but it was always wonderful. When our parents found out we were going over there we got our legs stripped with green twigs we had to go pick off the trees ourselves. Also got our mouths washed out with soap for eating “their” food! Crazy!

    The wall was torn down at some point but part of it still remains and there is a Texas historical marker there.

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    • Andrew

      Thank you Vickie for your great comments. I was really hoping you would add to the discussion!

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  • Well Andy, unlike everyone else, I haven’t ever heard of most of what you wrote about here, but it was fascinating! Great post!
    I don’t feel much like a pioneer… I agree with you, this job appeals to just certain people – I suppose for a variety of reasons, particularly if you’re a year rounder. We’re just 5 days short of one year… funny… seems longer! ;)
    Debbie

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    • Andrew

      I think all of us are going to be thankful for steady employment in 2012

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  • Joel

    Happy Festivus, Andy!

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    • Andrew

      Festivus for the rest of us! On to the feats of strength!

      Thanks Joel

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  • Miss V

    My parents bought a trailer house pretty early on in their oilfield career. Housing was scarce, rents were high and conditons were poor. After having lived in a “shotgun” house with a floor that was just floor planks laid out on the bare dirt, and having lived in another that was infested with fleas and another where they had to push newspaper into the cracks in the walls and hang wet sheets on the windows to keep out the blowing dust, my Mom said she was done. She would not be following him through the oilfields anymore. So my Dad bought a 24 ft. trailer. It had a bathroom and they cooked and heated it with butane. No A/C though. My parents were pictured in that trailer company’s adds for several years. The maker’s name escapes me, maybe it was Spartan? Trailer parks sprang up all over the oilfieds. However some did not have full hook ups. There was electricity, but no water or sewer. They had what was referred to as bath houses. Much like a state park now. You had to Sh*#, shower and shave in the bath house and haul water to your trailer for drinking and cooking. Some parks had their own store and P/O. Still much better than living in a flea infested “shot gun” house with cracks in the walls and an outhouse. My Mom adapted to this way of life and my parents were married 32 years before my Dad’s death.

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  • Clay

    Having lived in Iraan for the last 12 years I am familiar with some of its history. Part of it’s history is within my family tree. Didn’t even know that till we moved out there and my grandmother shared with me the story of how my great-grandfather was the pusher on the discovery well, the Yates #1. Prior to that well being drilled it was said there was no oil west of the pecos. Funny that was said because many of the area ranchers back then knew that oil seeped from the ground all along the pecos and some of the dry arroyos that feed it during wet times.
    But I digress. Seems my Great-grandfather was an oil man back in West Virginia at the turn of the century and owned 6 strings of tools (read that rigs in today’s terminology) and was an accomplished wildcatter. Hearing there might be oil in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma and knowing that the little burg they lived in West Virginia was so full of his relatives that there might be a chance of intermingling that he wasn’t willing to abide by, he packed up his family and his company and moved to Tulsa. There he built my Grandmother a huge mansion which is now a state protected historical building close to downtown. Anyway, he began to wildcat in the area and lost all 6 rigs in the salt domes that are so prevalent in that area. So he went “bust” as they say and had to find gainful employment. Oil work and drilling was what he knew so he joined a crew that was headed out to the desolation of West Texas, to drill a well West of the Pecos where there was said to be no oil. Except one geologist (can’t remember his name) who was convinced and had also convinced land owner Ira Yates that there was oil West of the Pecos. So “Happy” Mason and the crew went out there with the Ohio Oil Company and they drilled that well. And it was one of the “gushers” typical of the day, although if memory serves me right it took a little work with the well bore before it actually “blew”.
    According to Grandma, Happy and crew drilled several more wells in the area and most all proved to be fine producers of quality crude and he took the money he had saved and bought another string of tools and went back to wildcatting for himself in the area north of Wichita Falls, TX around Burkburnett and was very successful in that bit of business as well. So successful that he sold he holdings and and got out of the “fickle” oil business because he had been a millionaire twice and busted once and didn’t want to be busted ever again. Out of that first well the Yates field became the largest field in the world. That discovery well was still flowing over a hundred barrels of oil everyday when they shut it down several years back (sometime around 1988 or so I think) to “improve circulation” in the surrounding newer wells. Marathon re-entered the #1 not too long ago and reworked it and to my understanding it is producing again. And it amazes me that a well that was drilled in the 1920′s is still flowing today. Read that “no pump jack” flowing. I could go on here but I’ll save the rest of his story for later. Maybe for the Readers Write.

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    • Andrew

      Clay,

      I would welcome a Readers Write piece from you.

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      • Clay

        Thank you Andy, I’ll see what I can do.

        Clay

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