Materialized Dreams: Boom and Bust in the Cultural Landscape of West Texas
News coming out of the Permian Basin of West Texas during the past few months is marked by fear and anxiety. Optimistic headlines from the early 2010s have been replaced with more ominous ones, including an LA Times’s headline forecasting “The End is Near” and the New York Times’s suggesting that it was time to move “On to Plan B.” After several years of “ boom,” which saw oil and gas production reach record highs due to hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), the West Texas economy now appears headed toward “bust.” Drillers in the Permian have begun to drastically scale back operations. Oil companies are shutting down rigs and laying off workers; the January article in the New York Times estimates that the number of operational rigs to be halved from last summer.
The consequences of the latest West Texas bust reach far beyond the oil industry. The growth of shale fracking has led to unprecedented population growth in the Permian concomitant with a building boom. Pecos, Texas, in Reeves County, was named one of America’s fastest growing towns by Forbes magazine in 2012. Pecos’s hotels also have been experiencing 100% occupancy rates, as workers on Reeves County’s 39 rigs sought the only form of lodging available. According to the New York Times, Midland, the economic center of the Permian’s oil industry, has seen its population swell from 108,000 in 2010 to nearly 140,000 today. Yet as goes the oil industry, so goes the rest of the economy; the boom in the region now appears as fragile as the dreams of striking it rich—something west Texans have sought continuously for over 100 years.
Looking to the cultural landscape—the built evidence of human interaction with the land—helps us understand the latest crisis as part of a longer cycle of “boom and bust” in this mineral rich, if sparsely populated, region. Layers of materialized dreams survive throughout the region as evidence of west Texans’ aspirations in this relatively inhospitable place where temperatures regularly top 100 degrees and water is scarce. Sizable reminders of these dreams—in the form of pump jacks and oil storage facilities, sometimes of different generations—materially narrate the story of frontier ambitions in the Permian (Fig. 1). Beyond helping us place the latest forecasted crisis within the region’s longer history, reading the cultural landscape also helps us understand the intimate relationship between human-made and natural landscapes. In the Permian, considering one without the other makes little sense.
The Permian has been the site of dreams for centuries, even if it seems an unlikely place to settle given its arid climate and relatively flat terrain. When John Russell Bartlett, head of the American section of the U.S.-Mexican Border Commission, explored west Texas in 1850, he characterized the “great table-land” in harsh terms:
[Here] there is little rain and poor soil. Several small streams emptying into the Colorado or the Concho here intersect the road, on the immediate banks of which there area few trees. But the intermediate country is destitute of timber, save a very few small oaks or mezquit (sic.). The grass too is poor, except near the water courses. . . . It is a desolate barren waste, which can never be rendered useful for man or beast, save for a public highway.1
Despite Bartlett’s and others’ scathing assessments of the inhospitality of the landscape, pioneers have seen the Permian as the land of opportunity—a history that cuts across centuries. Comanche Indians and waves of settlers from Mexico practiced agriculture on the barren grasslands until the U.S. Army took hold of the region and opened it to U.S. settlers during the 1870s.
Since the 1880s, ranchers and farmers have optimistically seen the barren terrain and potassium rich soils as having potential for agriculture. Everything from corn to cotton to cantaloupes has been tried, all of which necessitated massive irrigation projects ranging from deep wells to dammed (if often seasonal) creeks and rivers. There is also the long history of petroleum extraction here, which dates back to early extractive attempts—steam-powered wells—including one at Tomah, Texas (Reeves County), where J.D. Leatherman discovered oil while digging for water.2 Other oil “booms” occurred in the Permian during the late 1920s and 1930s as well as the during the 1970s energy crisis.
Yet each of these frontier dreams was short-lived. The drought of 1916-17 brought ranching and farming to a near standstill. Repeated attempts to irrigate the Permian’s farms were fraught with conflict and compromise. The story of oil has been consistently written and rewritten over the last century. “Booms” occurred when demand necessitated it and “busts” when this demand waned—most recently during the 1980s, when a worldwide oil glut brought the petroleum-based economy of the Permian to a near standstill.
Materialized Dreams in the West Texas Landscape
Traveling through West Texas offers a rich palimpsest of the dreams of Permian residents over the past 150 years. Material Culture reminds us that the natural resource history here on which the frontier dreams were based had social and cultural consequences. Economic booms and busts had effects that reached far beyond the dreams of a few ambitious men seeking their fortune in agriculture or extractive industry. Whole towns grew up around economic possibilities, and most survive today, in altered form, as tangible evidence of the boom and bust cycle.
Monahans, Texas, in Ward County, is located at the heart of the Permian basin. It was settled originally as the site of a deep well on the edge of the Monahans Sandhills (now a State Park). Named after surveyor John Thomas Monahans, the well was located strategically between the Pecos River and Big Spring (approximately 140 miles to the east). As such, it proved critical for the success of late nineteenth-century ranching in the region. The well also supplied water for workers building Texas and Pacific Railroad in the region during the 1880s. Yet despite its fortuitous beginnings, Monahans grew modestly until the second quarter of the twentieth century, when an oil boom led to a population explosion; the town grew by 383% between 1930 (816) and 1940 (3,944).
Monahan’s cultural landscape visually narrates its complicated history. Monahans Sandhills State Park remains the “oasis” in the region despite no longer having much water. The park also conveys the region’s long dependence on oil and tourism to sustain its economy. The park is privately owned and leased to the State Park System on a 99-year lease. Private industry flourishes in the park as a result. Pump jacks—both historic and recent—serve as reminders of the long history of oil extraction in the Permian (Fig. 2). Meanwhile, tourists have flocked to the Park since it opened in 1957. They come to experience the mineral history of the area and enjoy the sand dunes—some of which rise up seventy feet in height, offering commanding views of the petroleum landscape. But like everything else in the Permian, when the lease expires, the park will convert to yet another use, and thus once again be open to opportunity and subject to materialized changes.
Near Monahans Sandhills stands another remnant of “boom and bust:” the Million Barrel Tank. The tank survives as perhaps the largest materialized dream in the region, or, more accurately, materialized dreams, for the tank has had many lives. Constructed by the Shell Corporation in 1928, it was intended to hold crude oil before shipment. The tank is actually an eight-acre hole—a huge, earthen-walled storage vat lined with concrete—and was built in 90 days largely with horses and hand tools. Originally it had wooden poles supporting a wooden roof, designed to keep the oil from evaporating in the hot Texas sun. Only filled to capacity once, the tank was abandoned by the early 1950s, at which point its afterlives began. It was initially redesigned as a recreational lake, stocked with fish and intended also for swimming—another dream that failed to materialize (just as the tank leaked oil it also turned out to leak water). In 1986, after decades of use for impromptu and clandestine tailgating and festivals, it became the Million Barrel Museum. Visitors can now view collections of local memorabilia and also learn about the oil history of the Permian.
About 30 miles west of Monahans is the small town of Pecos, with its own history of boom and bust, narrated materially on the landscape. As with Monahans, Pecos’s “main street” reflects its boom and bust phases. Even while some buildings have been abandoned and others have been redesigned around new uses, they remain standing to reflect a town that was thriving during the early 1900s. Like Monahans, the town of Pecos depended on water for success; the Pecos River proved vital for ranching in the region and led Pecos to also be a crossroads for agriculture more generally. Yet ranching fell off in the region during the drought of the mid 1910s, which killed nearly all of the cattle.
This led Pecos residents to other pursuits, both in agriculture and oil. Agriculture remained perpetually dependent on water, which led to a decades-long pursuit of building a dam on the Pecos River. The Red Bluff Dam, completed in 1936, created a pool of water in an otherwise arid region. It proved vital to the success, albeit on a small scale, of the “Pecos cantaloupe.” An unlikely product to grow in a region receiving less than ten inches of water annually, the potassium and sodium rich soils created a very desirable melon, which grew to great acclaim for a few decades.3 Oil, meanwhile, boomed initially during the late 1920s with a discovery at the Yates well north of Pecos. Oil went in fits and starts along with market demand, and has recently experienced a resurgence with the fracking of oil and natural gas and renewed potash mining.
The West of the Pecos Museum in downtown Pecos offers a powerful representation of Pecos’s history (Fig. 3). Opened in 1963 when the economy had ground to a halt, the museum itself represents a “frontier dream,” hoping to capitalize on its location at the intersection of Interstate 20 and Highway 285, which connects I-20 with Carlsbad, New Mexico, about an hour north. The Museum’s exhibits fascinatingly attest to the long and complicated frontier dreams of the region—from oil to agriculture to ranching. Yet the placement of the museum within a former hotel is a key aspect of the story. The “Orient” Hotel and Saloon opened in 1896—the beginning of one of Pecos’s booms—and the main floor of the museum visually recreates this era, with exhibits on barfights, rodeos, and gun battles. This one building, then, brings together in a palimpsest the boom and bust cycles of the landscape, of which its own creation was a key part.
Reading the cultural landscape shows us the close and interdependent relationship of natural and material histories in West Texas. The boom and bust cycle has left material traces, often layered on top of one another, as the cases of the Million Barrel Tank and the West of the Pecos Museum suggest. West Texas is a place where dreams are endlessly written and rewritten on the landscape, often in short spans of time, just as failures, typically a result of economic downturns or natural disasters, also leave telling material traces. And while such layering is present in all cultural landscapes, the sparseness of the West Texas natural landscape juxtaposed with the massive scale of these materialized dreams—whether skyscrapers in Midland, storage reservoirs like the million barrel tank, or parks like that at Monahans Sandhills—makes the Permian basin a laboratory of sorts for considering the relationship between natural and cultural landscapes.
The latest cycle of boom and bust has already left its marks on the cultural landscape. As the oil has been fracked from the oil rich basin underlying the region, the appearance of West Texas has been profoundly transformed again: by human-made lakes of fracked waste water, by new roads built to haul water in and crude out, and by new motels, RV parks, and fast food restaurants erected to support the massive influx of labor in the region. And just as quickly as these buildings and landscape elements were realized, they are becoming obsolete, leaving a remnant landscape of materialized dreams that will itself become part of the fascinating material culture of boom and bust in the arid landscape of the Permian.
Anna Vemer Andrzejewski is Professor of American Art, Architecture, and Material Culture in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also co-directs the Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures Ph.D. Companion Program and serves on CHE’s steering committee. Anna currently serves as co-editor of Buildings and Landscapes, the journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Email.
John Russell Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, 1850-1853  (Chicago: The Rio Grande Press, 1965), 138. ↩
Alton Hughes, Pecos: A History of the Pioneer West (Seagraves, TX: Pioneer Book Publishers, 1978), 156. ↩
“Pecos Cantaloupes Contribute to Fame of Texas,” Midwest Crop and Stock (June 1951): 11, 56. ↩