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?
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.
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.
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.”
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!