Sunday, February 25, 2018

Big Spring, Texas

Yes my friends, it has been awhile since my last entry but many things have happened that have kept me from the keyboard. That would be my Grandson.

Little Robert has been a handful. Let me explain. Since September, we have been hosting the Orbe family in our home. They are building a home in Aubrey, Texas. To do so, they had to sell their existing home and needed a place to stay for the six-month building schedule of their new home.

We, of course, now had a full house again with every room being occupied by people, their stuff, our stuff and lots of toys provided by Granma Dianna. Not to mention my new role as Grand Child supervisor and mentor. After all, there are so many parks and indoor playgrounds to conquer. Hey….somebody had to do it. So, we (I) have not had a lot of free time to contemplate significant places to wander to nor places to eat bad food and gather enough trivia to drive Dianna (and most of my friends) crazy.

As the new house building winds down, we (I) realized Dianna and I have not had a weekend road trip in quite some time.

So as a President’s Day weekend approached, I entertained the idea of a combination pre-Dianna birthday getaway and an awesome history slash history gathering holiday.

I happened across an article highlighting a cool old hotel called the Hotel Settles in a place called Big Spring, Texas in far West Texas. Situated right on Interstate 20 about 278 miles from Frisco, it is a world away from North Texas.

It derives its name from the nearby "big spring" in Sulphur Draw, which was a watering place for coyotes, wolves, and herds of buffalo, antelope, and mustangs; the spring was a source of conflict between Comanche and Shawnee Indians and a campsite used by early expeditions across West Texas.

Early history goes back to 1849 when early settlers used the spring as a central camping site along both the Santa Fe and Overland Trails. By 1870, cattle ranchers were moving in and, like most communities in Texas, the Texas and Pacific railroad built through by the 1880s (they needed the water for the steam engines) and really established the town as the center of Howard County. Big Springs incorporated in 1907. In 1920 Big Spring was a small city of 4,273 that served as a shipping point for livestock, cotton and small grains. Oil was discovered in the vicinity in 1926, and the city experienced a boom over the next ten years.

This is where the  Hotel Settles comes in. Opened on October 1, 1930, Hotel Settles was built by Will R. and Lillian Settles, following the discovery of oil on their ranch. Designed by architect David Castle, the building was constructed as a solid concrete, 15-story, 150-room hotel with a restaurant and a pharmacy. Yes Nicole, there are still places with a thirteenth floor. The pharmacy was a real apothecary and soda shop. The Pharmacy is now the Pharmacy Bar.

It has traded hands several times and was vacant for many years until a man named G. Brint Ryan bought it. Ryan was a long-time resident of Big Spring and invested about 32 million on the restoration which brought it back to its original glory days. He credited much of his success to his mother, Virginia Ann Wilson Ryan, who is enshrined in a beautiful portrait painting above the lobby. It is the tallest building in Big Spring and was the tallest structure in West Texas until the 1950s.

Unfortunately, the boom was blown by that pesky Depression that also knocked the bottom out of the oil industry. This also took out the Settles’ fortunes and forced them to sell the hotel. The hotel saw oil come back big during World War Two and the economy was also energized by the influx of military aviation and manufacturing that hit Texas during those years. Much of Central Texas enjoyed pretty good weather year-round and wide-open spaces to fly and drop bombs. There was a total of 142 military installations in Texas and about 57 were aviation training or operational Army Air Corp bases. One of those bases was the Big Spring Army Air Field and, who knew…they have an aviation museum. What a coincidence.

The museum,  Hangar 25, is right on what was the former flight line of this massive air base. Big Spring Army Air Field was established right after Pearl Harbor as a Bombardier School to teach the intricacies of the Norden Bombsight. The primary trainer was a highly modified Beech AT-11 twin engine airplane. An inexpensive stable platform to train B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombardiers to attack German and Japanese targets to end the war training about 5,000 by the end of the war. After VJ Day, the base was demobilized but returned in the late 50s as Webb Air Force Base, to teach about 14,000 pilots on the new jets, F-86s, F-100s and the fast movers like F-4s and F-105s for Korea and Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the end of the Vietnam War made the base surplus and it was deactivated in 1977. Coincidentally, it was also the start of the Oil Crisis the country was experiencing (sound familiar?). The combination of the two caused a huge economic depression for the region and an exodus of residents to places that had better conditions.

The museum was the effort of several local residents who felt there was a need to honor the men and women who passed through Big Spring to serve their country and the residents who supported those efforts by working on the base.

Between donations, Federal, State grants and the cities matching funds, one of the two original hangars were selected and renovated. The result is a pristine example of a WWII military aircraft hangar as it looked in 1940. A giant span of wooden slat roofing held in place by concrete and brick siding. After 75 years, the original wood accordion hangar doors still work and protect the interior from the sometimes-harsh Texas weather.

The museum has a sampling of aircraft that would have been in the inventory during the bases history. A flyable Beech AT-11 bomber trainer, T-28 Trojan, T-33 Shooting Star, Cessna T-37 and a T-38/F-5 Talon. The coolest thing was the forward crew/cockpit section of a B-52 bomber. I got a chance to climb through and sit in the pilot seat of what had to be a mass of metal to fly.

Just looking at that instrument panel with the eight throttles and associated gauges was daunting in this era of glass computerized cockpits. The hangar also contains the beautiful stained-glass window from the former base Chapel which had been preserved by workers who tore down the Chapel when it was cleared for a Federal prison on a corner of the former base.

As we drove around Big Spring, one thing always jumps out at me whenever I take in a small Texas town. The architecture of most Texas towns that had experienced a significant period of growth, tend to stop at the time of their decline. It’s like the clock stopped for them. Here it was the 1970s. There is a smattering of newer construction but most of the significant government and downtown buildings range from the 1930s to the 70s. The town still emits a powerful sense of its history but buried deep behind vacant store fronts where vibrant businesses once stood.

Much of that part of the world has a relentless wind and most things have a sand-blasted look to their exteriors. The rest of the town has a sad feel to it with most of the residential areas in need of repair and paint brushes.

Oil, in the form of fracking in what’s the center of the Permian Basin (All the oil came from animals, flora and fauna during the Permian Era which is a geologic period and system which spans 46.7 million years from the end of the Carboniferous Period 298.9 million years ago, to the beginning of the Triassic period 251.902 million years ago....remember to count backward, got it?) has somewhat revitalized the economy but it has a long way to go and the area is trying to diversify so a sudden decline in oil revenues (which will happen someday) won’t have such devastating effects.

An example of the more modern buildings in Big Spring is the 1953 Howard County Courthouse. Big Spring is the County Seat and named for Volney Erskine Howard  a U.S. Senator from Texas.  This Courthouse is the third for Big Spring. The 1884 Courthouse was torn down for the 1908 Courthouse which was torn down for this one. Very classic government 50s looking building with a pretty cool war memorial on the east side.

It has a very low-key Confederate memorial with the names of soldiers buried in Howard County. It also honors residents of Howard County that serve in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and still flies a POW flag next to the US and Texas flags. It also contains the County time capsule buried in 1981 not to be opened until 2031.

The following day we made our way to Midland, Texas another 40 miles west of Big Spring. There we discovered one of the boyhood homes of former President George W. Bush (Bush 43).

Just west of downtown, at 1412 West Ohio Avenue Midland, Texas, is a rather unassuming olive green with a red shingle roof, single story home, at the corner or West Ohio and North H Street. It was Sunday and we were the only two on the tour so we could ask all the questions we wanted. The home is one of a handful of privately owned Presidential museums. They're tag line is the home of two Presidents and two Governors and a First Lady. Laura Welch, the future First Lady grows up in Midland and meets George W. back in Midland in 1977 then marry November 5th, 1977.

Inside was a well-appointed wood paneled living room, a portion with a small fireplace, which Barbara designated as the dining room. H.W.(Bush 41)and Barbara Bush married when he came back from the war in 1945 in Rye, New York right before entering Yale. After graduating, in 1948, H.W.s dad Prescott, led him to a business associate starting an oil business in Texas. H.W. started at the bottom and soon learned the business entering into a partnership which began developing oil wells. H.W. and Barbara lived in several places (even a short stint in California) but ended up in Midland in 1951. G.W. attended public school while in Midland. He lived there with his baby sister Robin and brother Jeb. Unfortunately, Robin died of Leukemia in 1953 (let’s not forget later sibs Neil Bush (b. 1955), Marvin Bush (b. 1956), and Dorothy Bush (b. 1959)). The Bushes were very involved in their community, joined and financially supported several groups while there including starting up the Midland Symphony and  Midland YMCA in town.

This might explain some things
The home is a typical 50s style home. Though built around 1940 and around 1,400 square feet, the interior appointments bring back memories of my childhood. A pier and beam platform home above ground with real dark wood panels and lath and plaster made for a cozy (and small) home to raise four kids. G.W.s room also had the dark paneling of the living room. It had a large book case made of the same material with old toys and children’s book of the era. G.W. and his friends were apparently avid followers of the Roy Rogers Riders. The tour guide said the first time G.W. saw it, he got very emotional over the memories the house and the room brought back.

Our guide explained the home had gone through several owners and became available in 2004. It had been renovated several times including a room addition and front patio cover which had to be removed. The drywall had to be removed to reveal the wood paneling still beneath the Sheetrock. There was a period B/W television, furniture and most of the kitchen contained original appliances including a working Westinghouse refrigerator that belonged to Laura (First Lady 43) Bush’s mom.

The master bedroom had a history of the Bush family accomplishments in Midland with some cool photos of Midland in that time period. The second bedroom had the family’s baseball history. We all think of G.W.s involvement with the Texas Rangers but we learned that his dad H.W. was actually an accomplished baseball player from his early school days. Everyone thinks G.W. was the owner of the Rangers but came in as only a minority investor with two percent of the team. He was very passionate about the team and became its managing partner and was responsible for the team’s early growth and success. G.W. was instrumental in getting better players signed up making the team a success.

The back yard had the original garage,a dog house and sand box like the one in the extensive number of photos the family took in and around the home while they were there. The future First Lady was apparently an avid photographer who pretty much documented their whole lives and was a primary source for all the photos needed to renovate the home to its previous state. Pretty cool hidden treasure in Midland, Texas.

Returning to the Hotel Settles, after all that driving, we spent the evening taking in a movie. Not wanting to go out, we decided to try the in-house video system and got to see "The Shape of Water". Great flick, I can understand why its been nominated.

West Texas is a slow-paced environ with much history but little else to offer. It is a window into the rough and tumble early oil industry and ironically the energy future of America with the largest wind farms in Texas (Champion, Texas). Hopefully time catches up to West Texas and returns it to its new found glory. There's more aviation museums and historiuc hotels to try. So we'll be back.