A STAKE IN
WEST TEXAS PULLING A CHAIN AND RAISING A FAMILY ACROSS BIG OIL COUNTRY rebecca d. henderson
Published by The History Press Charleston, SC 29403 www.historypress.net Copyright ÂŠ 2014 by Rebecca D. Henderson All rights reserved First published 2014 Manufactured in the United States ISBN 978.1.62619.380.2 Library of Congress CIP data applied for.
Notice: The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. It is offered without guarantee on the part of the author or The History Press. The author and The History Press disclaim all liability in connection with the use of this book.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form whatsoever without prior written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For Bob D and Ann. Iâ€™m proud to belong to you. And for Pete, Jim, Pat, Kathi, and Kay.
Acknowledgements 7 Introduction 9 1. Oil Booms, Railroads, and Army Outposts 2. Bob D and Ann 3. Land Surveying in Texas 4. Surveying for Conoco in West Texas 5. Texline, Stamford, and Big Lake 6. Paint Rock 7. Monahans, Sanderson, and Big Bend 8. Pecos 9. Ranching and Farming 10. Balmorhea and Fort Davis 11. Sweetwater 12. The Road Home
17 27 45 55 67 77 87 99 111 121 133 143
Bibliography 153 Index 155 About the Author 159
n so many ways, this book was a group effort. Though I took on this project as a labor of love for my grandparents, many people helped make each step of the process possible. Great thanks go to my Kickstarter backers—family, friends, friends of friends, and complete strangers. You contributed the money to make the travel and writing happen, and I am grateful that you saw promise in my idea. For your enthusiasm for stories of old-time Texas surveyors, special thanks to the men at Goodwin & Marshall, Inc.: Matt Goodwin, Matt Baacke, Edward Eckart, and Warren Russell. More thanks go out to upper-level backers Jason and Suzie Goodell, Donnie and Sandy Tucker, Valerie Wicks, Lydia Alles, Andy and Jane Cassinelli, Darius and Karen Coakley, Jim and Sherry Henderson, Geary Lindberg, Pete and Roxie McCutcheon, Debbi Neal, Christy Newton, James and Christy Ng, Danny and Beth Rumple, Tiffany Sanders, Carol Schultz, Barbara and Tom Sullivan, Jim Sullivan, Pat Wong, and Doris Yun. There were others who gave top-level amounts but asked not to be recognized—you know who you are, and I thank you. For many acts of kindness during the research and writing, I thank Karen Coakley, Barbara Sullivan, Marilyn Smith, Andy and Jane Cassinelli, Abner and Laura Solano, and Jennifer Anderson. For tremendous insight, direction, and encouragement to write the best book I possibly could, thank you to my editor, Christen Thompson. For all the help with travel arrangements, American Express gift cards, cheerleading, and replies to random e-mails with questions like, “What was
Acknowledgements the name of that kid who was your boyfriend when you were three?”, thank you to Pat Henderson. And for the seemingly endless help with photos and valuable artistic advice, thank you to Randy Hatcher. The two of you helped me form this book idea from the start, and you did what was necessary to help me finish. For asking me every day for months how the writing was going, thank you to Stephen Smotherman. Talking to you makes the long days light. For pretty much everything you’ve ever given me in life, thank you to my parents, Pete and Linda Henderson. I could write an entire book of thanks to you. And of course, thank you to Bob D and Ann Henderson for living a dream and sharing your adventure with me. I love you very much and am grateful for how you’ve helped me become who I am.
est Texas is the best Texas, as anyone who has been there will tell you. Texas isn’t known for mountains, but that’s a shame, for Texas’s mountains are a wilderness treasure. The desert of West Texas surpasses its mountains in fame, but in truth, the two landscapes are hard to separate. One complements the other in temperament and countenance. The voice of West Texas called to me throughout my life, but I was well into adulthood before I responded and made my first trip out there. For as long as I could remember, my father had told me about growing up in small towns far west of our home near Fort Worth, obscure towns like Monahans and Sanderson and Big Lake, where he had played with his siblings in the dust and dirt of the desert streets. He mentioned moving a lot when he was a kid, going to three different schools in three different towns during his first grade year. After returning from my first West Texas camping trip with friends, I was eager to share my travels with my dad, to hear his impressions of the places in my photos. As my father looked through my digital slideshow, he came to a shot of a striking mountain with a flat face as viewed from the highway approaching the Guadalupe Mountains. “That’s El Capitan,” he said. “Daddy used that mountain as a sight for his measurements all throughout that area—you can see it from a long ways away.” My grandfather’s job in the 1950s remained mysterious to me. He once told me he worked for “Continental”—I scribbled the name down, not sure what kind of company it might be. Later I realized he was talking about the
Introduction oil giant Conoco, or Continental Oil Company, where he worked as a land surveyor on its West Texas crew, surveying every piece of land it leased and staking the wells to be drilled throughout the region in the 1950s. Each new lease and each new well meant a new work location for the crew and, as a result, a new home for the crew’s families. For the first thirteen years of my grandparents’ marriage, their lives were lived out of suitcases, motels, and station wagons. Many young wives would consider this lifestyle a nightmare, but my grandmother talked about it like they were on a grand adventure. When you’re eighteen and in love with the high school football captain, I suppose just about anything can be an adventure. A few weeks before I had taken off with my friends to camp, I had dinner with my Aunt Pat and her husband, Randy, at their house in North Texas and questioned them about places I needed to see on my road trip. While waiting for dinner to finish cooking, drink in hand, I made my way along the walls of their living area, admiring photo after photo that Randy had taken on their trips to West Texas and other places in the western United States. In one section of the room, photos of quirky-colored shop doorways stood next to a print of cow skulls arranged on an adobe wall at the Gage Hotel in Marathon. But the image most captivating to my eye was of a looming red cliff, jagged rocks covering its immense face, the late afternoon sunshine lighting the surface in a way that made the rock seem to glow from within. A canyon wall, an emblem of the Desert Southwest. “You should talk to Mother and Dad about your trip,” Pat said from the island in her kitchen, referring to my paternal grandparents. “Dad will be thrilled to tell you places you should go. And you can go through some of the slides with them, find out more about the places we lived.” The slides—a set of several hundred photos from the 1950s, much discussed and frequently viewed by our family in recent days. My grandparents had kept them in a couple of boxes in the closet for decades, some filed in their original magazines and labeled with short notations of their contents: “Pat’s 2nd birthday,” “kids in Levis,” “boys in suits.” Others of the slides were loose in the boxes, unorganized by date and unlabeled by content. Holding them up to the light, they might show scenes of family life, or they might reveal a surveying tripod set up against the barren landscape where my grandfather and his crew worked, or an intriguing configuration of clouds over a field of corn, or a herd of cattle facing the camera, mouths stopped in mid-chew. For over a decade, my grandfather documented our family’s life and surroundings in images that captured the essence of that time and place: 1950s West Texas. Pat and Randy had recently taken on the 10
Introduction project of bringing order to the photos, scanning them into digital format to make them easier to share among the rest of the family. Randy spent hours tediously arranging the slides on a tray, loading them into the scanner, and uploading them to a website that we could each access. During the following months, I pored over the individual images dozens of times in an attempt to piece together a timeline and map in my mind, a cobbled history of my family’s life in West Texas—a time of their lives that ended when my father was still a boy. But in the beginning, the slides consisted of an overwhelming mess of family photos with no meaning to me, no context beyond the fact that I knew at one point my grandparents and their five children didn’t live on their ranch in North Texas, but in West Texas, a place they talked about with nostalgia and mystery and conviction. Like the self-absorbed person I was in my teens and twenties, though, I had brushed off so many of their stories, not asking any questions about that time in their lives, not really caring about their experiences beyond the novelty that they had spent a few years somewhere other than Jack and Wise Counties near Fort Worth. I had little idea of what they had done or why they had been in the remote towns I heard them mention from time to time through the years, towns like Fort Davis, Aspermont, Stamford, and Texline. And Pecos. Always Pecos. I knew Pecos as the place my dad was born and the town my grandparents mentioned the most when talking about their years in West Texas. Pecos is the origin of my dad’s nickname, Pete, after the Pecos Pete character of Old West tall tales—the name my dad, Bob Jr., has gone by for decades to differentiate him from his own father, Bob Sr. Pecos made an impression on my mind, if for nothing other than the fact that I was proud I could pronounce it correctly: PAY-cuss. “And be sure to ask Mother about your dad’s squirrel,” Aunt Pat said. She had finished setting the table for dinner and was putting the last touches on the meal. “Squirrel?” I asked. “Dad’s never mentioned a squirrel.” “Just ask her.” And so I began visiting my grandparents, Ann and Bob D, to ask them about their life in West Texas, taking along a DVD or an iPad containing hundreds of the images scanned from the slides. We sat in the living room of their ranch house and flipped through the images on the screen while I asked questions. I also brought along a yellow legal pad and my large 2010 version of Rand McNally The Road Atlas for the United States, often opened to “Texas/Western” beside me on the couch. My goal for our times together 11
Introduction was to jot down additional captions for the slides as well as to get ideas for my own travels to West Texas. I scribbled notes on the legal pad as Bob D and Ann shared names of places they had lived in or visited, but I soon found it hard to keep up. The towns they listed were too unusual to me, too unfamiliar—my mental map of Texas ended somewhere east of Abilene and north of San Angelo. “We lived at Monahans. Colorado City. Sweetwater,” Ann said. She paused to think. “Between Abilene and Pecos along Highway 80, we lived everywhere but Midland, Odessa, and Stanton.” I squinted at the small print of the towns in the atlas, now along Interstate 20 instead of Highway 80, noting other towns that she hadn’t mentioned. “So you lived at Big Spring?” “Twice,” Ann said. “And twice at Big Lake. Eden. Coleman. Texline. Most places we didn’t live more than six months, sometimes just a couple of weeks. We stayed at Pecos almost three years, and three years at Sweetwater.” I knew that they had moved around a lot, but my list seemed almost absurd. The number of place names on my legal pad topped out at twenty-one towns between 1950 and 1963. I had determined to come up with a definitive list of towns, in order, with the dates the family had lived in each place, but the longer I talked to Ann, the clearer it became that this was not a small task. At one point I went back to the top of the page to clarify. “So you moved from Monahans to Colorado City? What year was that?” “No,” Ann said. “We went from Monahans to Sanderson. Pete was in first grade.” “So when did you live in Colorado City?” “Well, we moved there from Pecos. Pat was an itty bitty thing, I remember that, itty bitty when we got to Colorado City.” I knew Pat was born in 1954. And my dad would have been in first grade around 1957. The list on my legal pad was not in order. A couple more clarifying questions, and I knew that the list wasn’t exactly in order in Ann’s head either. She could tell me which town each kid had which birthday in, where they lived when the babies had their six-week check-ups, where each one of them learned to walk—but she couldn’t, as I had assumed she could, recite the towns in order with their dates like a fifth grader listing out the presidents of the United States. I tucked away in the back of my mind the idea that I would one day help her piece that information into a timeline, but for now I had a trip to plan. I changed tactics. “Bob D, where do you recommend I go while I’m out there?” I called him by the name I’ve used since I could call him anything. When I was born, the 12
Introduction first grandchild, the family asked my grandfather what he wished me to call him. His answer: “If she wants to talk to me, I reckon she’ll call me by my name like everyone else.” And so he became Bob D, short for Robert Dewey. Ann had already regaled me with stories of Big Bend and how they had driven eighty-nine miles from the sign that said “Entering Big Bend National Park” before they saw a campground, before they saw “anything but cactus and that kind of stuff.” She said that driving up to Santa Elena Canyon, watching it get closer and closer, bigger and bigger, for the last ten miles, and then standing at the Rio Grande beneath the one-thousand-foot-tall cliffs, was the smallest she had ever felt in her life. Bob D leaned back in his recliner, his feet propped up in front of him. The light from the window directly behind him made it difficult for me to see his face, mostly a silhouette. He cleared his throat. “Beck, I’d say you’ve gotta go to Paint Rock.” I turned back to Rand McNally and peered at the Big Bend area, the wide-open spaces around Marathon, Alpine, Fort Davis, and Marfa. My finger traced the highways, pausing at tiny dots of towns in the far-flung counties of Brewster, Terrell, Presidio, Jeff Davis, the border area where the Rio Grande makes a crook in its elbow as it bends down toward the Mexican state of Chihuahua before flexing its arm back up to El Paso. “Paint Rock…” I trailed off. My pointer finger slid over the counties in the curve of the river’s elbow again, my eyes scanning the highways for Paint Rock. At last I found it, not in the border area, but closer to the middle of the state, not far from San Angelo. The dot for Paint Rock, at the junction of U.S. Highway 83 and County Road 380, isn’t filled in but open in the middle, indicating that it’s the county seat for Concho County. The map legend shows that the “size of type on map indicates relative population”—and despite that open dot of county seat status, the relative population indicated by the font size for Paint Rock is small, 273 people in the 2010 census. Bob D shifted in his recliner. “You oughtta go to Paint Rock while you’re out there. You oughtta go there at least once,” he said. I jotted a couple of notes at the top of my legal pad as he explained the merits of Paint Rock, a quarter mile of cliffs with Indian paintings that he wished he could return to visit again. So many spots to visit in just that one corner of the vast state. The pictographs at Paint Rock, the ruins at Fort Davis, the Davis Mountains, the Pecos River, the Monahans Sandhills, the town squares in so many little places where my family had lived in the ’50s. My list of places to see grew and grew. 13
Introduction As did my list of books I wanted to read about the area and its history. I devoured the stories of Big Bend homesteader J.O. Langford and Alpine rancher Ted Gray, who also happened to be Ann’s family friend from her hometown of Wizard Wells. I scoured bookstores and libraries for works on the towns where my grandparents had lived, as well as books about the oil boom. I longed to know more about the era of my grandparents’ younger years and the job my grandfather had done for Conoco. I eagerly perused a copy of Conoco: The First One Hundred Years, published by Continental Oil Company in 1975. The book teems with vintage photos and high-flown stories of the grand old days of the early oil industry in America. A turn of the pages shows the same thing found in other books on oil booms, in Texas or elsewhere—much attention is given to the executives, the wildcatters, the drillers and roughnecks and roustabouts, but no mention is made of the surveyors. Brief tribute is paid to those who did the preparatory work for pipelines, and slightly longer descriptions are given to the seismograph crews (or “doodlebuggers,” as Bob D taught me to call them, after the shape of their vehicles that went out into the fields to dig, blast dynamite, and listen to the sound waves underground in search of new drilling sites). But where are the passages in the oral histories and boomtown anecdotes telling about the surveyors who walked for miles across open land to measure the company’s leases? In fact, The First One Hundred Years makes no mention at all of Conoco’s presence in the 1950s West Texas oil fields, much less of the survey crew that Bob D worked on during that time. I had expected to go to the library and find these old books, flip to the index, and quickly locate passages dedicated to the job my grandfather had done. My expectations turned out to be misguided, though, and instead of reading up on his role as a surveyor in the expansion of the oil business, I realized I would need to piece the information together for myself. Great changes have taken place in West Texas over the previous 150 years. The area has gone from frontier country with U.S. Army outposts among Native American lands before and after the Civil War; to the boomtowns, railroad depots, and agricultural oasis in the desert during the mid-twentieth century; to the shrunken population centers and remote tourist spots and parklands of today. Pecos, a town that once served as a center for oil drillers in the area and a hub for cotton farming, as well as home of Billie Sol Estes and a fertilizer scandal in the early 1960s that touched Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saw its population nearly double in the 1950s from eight thousand to fourteen thousand people, then drop back down to fewer than thirteen thousand by 1960, and fall still lower to 14
Introduction fewer than nine thousand by 2010. Those fluxes are evident in boarded-up windows and deserted lots along Pecos streets today, though a resurgence in oil drilling in the area means hotel rooms are at a premium as energy companies buy out entire blocks of rooms for their workers for extended periods of time. â€‚â€‚With this background in mind, I determined to visit the towns my grandparents had known during the 1950s, to see for myself the area they loved, and to know more of their story and the story of the land. I set off on my West Texas travels with a sense that I was touring my familyâ€™s past. By the time my friends and I came back from that first camping trip, I was just as enchanted with the charms of West Texas as my grandparents had been for decades. We spent our ten days in West Texas soaking in the laid-back atmosphere, kicking up dust on the trails through the desert, in the mountains, and along the Rio Grande, and eating as many tacos and drinking as many limonadas as we could. For all the miles we put on the odometer, though, we barely made a beginning of all there was to see in those far reaches of the state. Ten days is but a moment compared to the thirteen years Bob D and Ann spent traversing those desert highways with their children in the back seat and a one-wheel trailer hitched to the rear. My curiosity had been piqued more than satisfied.
Bob D. Henderson’s Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon on a trip to North Texas to ship cattle with his father. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Bob D’s father, Robert Henderson, feeding cattle from his Ford pickup in North Texas. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Pete and Jim roll down a dune at Monahans Sandhills. Pat (left) is seated at the top. Ann (right), holding Kathi, stands next to Slim and Rose Shipman. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
View of the newly constructed Pecos River Bridge, 1957. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Opposite, top: Conoco surveyor Will Rounds on a visit from the Fort Worth headquarters to a survey site in West Texas. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, middle: Bob D and the Wild T2 optical theodolite at a monument near Texline. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, bottom: Windmill near Big Lake. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
View of the Pecos River near its confluence with the Rio Grande. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, Thanksgiving 1957. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, top: The Hendersons drove from Sanderson to Big Bend National Park at Thanksgiving time, 1957. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, middle: Cowboys riding along Highway 80 in the parade for the Pecos Rodeo, the world’s first rodeo, started in 1883. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, bottom: In Tombstone, Arizona, on the way home from Tastiota, Mexico. Right to left: Pete, Bart Cramer, Little Bart, Jim, and Don, the neighbor’s kid. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Bob D’s friend Roy Joiner, near Big Lake. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Bob D’s friend Roy Joiner and the Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon, near Big Lake. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Opposite, top: Pete and Jim behind the Texas Highway Department sign for Kit Carson’s name carving, along Highway 166 on the Scenic Loop outside Fort Davis. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, middle: Jeff Davis County Courthouse in Fort Davis. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, bottom: Ruins at Fort Davis at the foot of Sleeping Lion Mountain. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Ruel Walkup and Bob D pose to show how tall the corn is in a field outside Texline. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Bob D traveled to Austin for a surveyors’ conference and visited the Texas State Capitol. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Bob D riding his horse on his ranch in North Texas. Bob D. Hendersonâ€™s collection.
Surveying tripod set up in the snow near Toyah. Bob D. Hendersonâ€™s collection.
Pete and Jim at Cimarron Canyon State Park in New Mexico, on a day trip from Texline in 1955. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Pat, Jim, and Pete, with Bob D’s new Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon, 1956. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Rabbit Ears Mountain near Clayton, New Mexico, and Texline, Texas. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
View of the iconic Sawtooth Mountain on the Scenic Loop outside Fort Davis. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
An ice storm on the road outside Snyder. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Sunset at Texline. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, top: Pete and Jim ride stick horses to help Bob D’s father, Robert, round up goats on his land in Jack County. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, middle: A rancher drives a horse-drawn wagon to feed cattle at Round Mountain Ranch near Stamford. Bob D. Henderson’s collection. Opposite, bottom: The Chisos Mountains and the famous “Window View” into the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Flooded road north of Big Lake. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Pete and Bob D’s 1952 Pontiac Catalina at Cimarron Canyon, New Mexico, on a day trip from Texline. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
When sand and tumbleweeds drift over wire fences, West Texas ranchers must extend the posts and wires higher than the dunes. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Survey crew member Paul Lucas needed Bob D’s help pulling his car out of the sand covering the road at Monahans Sandhills State Park. Bob D. Henderson’s collection.
Pete and Jim climbing the dunes at Monahans Sandhills State Park. Bob D. Hendersonâ€™s collection.
Pete, Jim, and Pat at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on a visit home to North Texas. Bob D. Hendersonâ€™s collection.