Who’s Number One in the Permian Basin?

For generations Midland and Odessa have been going at it out in West Texas. Now, at last, someone has noticed.

From any decent distance these lonely sisters of the barren flat plain, these isolated twin mini-cities of the vast Permian Basin—Midland and Odessa—appear more alike than not. Their differences may seem paltry or superficial or not to exist at all to the visitor blasting across Interstate 10 toward Fort Worth or El Paso, for there is a peapod sameness—a tuneless monotony of brown land and anemic blue sky—in these baked badlands where often the wind grows angry and spits hot sand.

It is not country to invite most eyes or green most spirits, this outback land where I spent my formative years, this ancient seabed that now is a moonscape without the moon’s mysteries to recommend it. After about an hour of it—after miles of oil derricks, runty little stands of sagebrush or greasewood, and billboards plugging steak houses, country music radio, automobile or insurance bargains—one may begin to wonder where Texas keeps its bluebonnets or America stores its purple mountain majesties. One also may wonder where Odessa ends and Midland begins, or vice-versa: couldn’t you lump the sister cities in a single heap and call them “Midessa,” possibly without even their Chambers of Commerce noticing?

No, you could not. Proud denizens of each community, from bankers to barbers to roughnecks, would feel deprived and robbed to the point of war; there is an almost comic edge to their rivalry, in each community’s assumption that it has the drop and the goods over the other. There are differences in the towns—though not so powerful or so varied, probably, as the natives like to think—and certainly there is a mutual dedication toward maintaining them. It is more, somehow, than neighbors fighting for their respective shares of a common economic pie, and more than communities routinely tussling to see who lands the four-year college or gets to brand its name on a shared airport—though these, certainly, are part of the traditional squabbling.

“The two towns are much the products of their histories,” says Odessa trial lawyer Warren Burnett. “A long time ago, Midland decided to take the high road. That’s why the law offices over there have drapes and deep rugs and everybody talks in hushed tones. Odessa, on the other hand, has little demand for corporate lawyers. We are a bunch of sweat-hog lawyers over here, getting it on in the courtrooms. We tend to drink in bars. Midland lawyers drink at home.” He is not merely generalizing his own example: my Midland friends, lawyers or otherwise, invite me to their homes; Odessa chums transport me to, or meet me in, public places. My Odessa comrades—whatever their vocations—more willingly abandon their duties to accommodate my random, unannounced midday recreations; Midland pals generally put me off until the post-work hours. Odessa, in this particular, shares instincts with Fort Worth; Midland is more of Dallas, serious minded and buttoned down.

One can trace back this legitimate difference in styles—if not to root beginnings—at least to the late 1930s or early 1940s when geologists began to suspect that the two desert towns—only eighteen miles apart and then of fewer than 10,000 people each—sat smack in the middle of a rich oil pool.

Midland opted to become the financial center. With fortunes earlier established in cattle and cotton, the old First Families—the Scharbauers, Cowdens, Lancasters, Brunsons, Pecks, Barrons, Jowells, Proctors, Holts, Ulmers, et al.—decided their banks would lend money for oil speculation. In retrospect it seems a rather remarkable decision, something like Baptist deacons voting to sponsor a dice tournament or girlie show. For these were conservative hulks in their politics and in their personal habits, the descendants of hard-scrabblers who had dribbled and drifted into the lonesome territory in the 1870s or 1880s to slowly build a windmill town called Midway (because of its location smack between Dallas and El Paso). Their cattle empires had not been forged without pain, sweat, and loss. Many for years were “land poor”—their acreages alternately baked or flooded; grasses often were sparse; herds seeking forage or fleeing sudden violent storms wandered away across the open range; sometimes a few remaining marauding Indians stole horses or butchered precious beef. The fittest survived and, as Darrell Royal says, “The big ‘uns ate the little ‘uns plumb up.”

When Midland’s big ‘uns decided to loan money in a big way for oil speculation—as World War II ended and manpower and materials were in goodly supply—they were not exactly running foolish, riverboat gambler risks. No, for by then geologists had confirmed earlier suspicions: the bald desert literally reeked of oil, the subterranean Permian Basin Pool covered a grand expanse of the old prehistoric Permian Sea and tested out richer than fresh cowplop; it was, simply, one of the richest strikes to be found anywhere, and even some few fools and dreamers became wealthy.

Midland’s old First Families themselves owned much of the underground wealth; their ancestors, tenaciously accumulative, sometimes had left spreads reaching into other Permian Basin counties and even far up into New Mexico. Their descendants had the then-sacrosanct 27 1/2 per cent oil depletion allowance going for them, which made Tax Time almost as merry a season as Christmas. They did not urge money on you just because you wanted to hunt oil or thought you knew where to find it. But if you could show decent prospects—a hopeful geological survey, proximity to earlier drilling successes, an option to explore where the signs looked good—then Midland’s banks would finance you to their long-term profit.

Independent oilmen swarmed in from all over, as did draftsmen and landmen and scouts and geologists and technicians and Ivy League lawyers. All these energetic movers and shakers needed facilities, so Midland’s banks plowed their capital into mini-skyscrapers—nineteen stories, twenty-four, twenty-nine; it was astonishing to see a budding Dallas springing from the flat desert floor—and soon the major oil companies, as well as the independents, became tenants. Midland bragged on itself as “Headquarters City of the Vast Permian Basin Empire.” New hotels, restaurants, country clubs, and

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