Wealth and Infrastructure

The Permian Basin experienced several exploratory booms, first in the late 1920s, again in the late 1930s, and the largest in the mid 1950s. The earliest oil migrants lived in hotels, boarding houses, and temporary shelters. Sometimes oil companies built bunkhouses for workers. At other times workers built their own shelters out of whatever materials available.

Below are two photos taken in the 1930s by the US Office of War Information. On the left is a temporary settlement for oil extraction workers. On the right is the more permanant worker housing built for refinery employees in Borger, Texas.



By the 1950’s conditions were less rudimentary. Most temporary oil workers lived in trailer parks or motels. However, jobs remained contract-based and workers moved constantly from town to town and from job site to job site. Below are colorful postcards advertising Midland and Odessa motels.



Despite most workers’ itinerate lifestyle, sustained oil extraction brought high wages and with it rising standards of living. County governments received an influx of disposable income from oil taxes. In 1942 the Mid Continent Oil and Gas Association documented the 75 Texas counties who produced the highest percent of state tax revenue from the oil industry. Many of these counties were in the Permian Basin. Ector County, home to the city of Odessa, received over 92 percent of its revenue from oil. Crane received over 95 percent.


While increased tax revenue meant infrastructural improvements such as the new Ector County Courthouse, pictured below, this map starkly demonstrates the Permian Basin’s dependence on the oil industry. In comparison with even the Gulf, the Permian Basin had a single industry economy, completely dependent upon the sale of oil and natural gas for regional jobs and regional wealth.


While a lack of economic diversity would cause future problems, it spelled immediate gains for residents. One way to track this is electrification. The map below uses data from the the 1940 census to track county-level electrification in Texas. The sparsely populated Permian Basin demonstrated some of the highest rates of electrification in the state.



Similarly, oil revenue translated into individual wealth. The below map tracks refrigerator ownership in Texas. Refrigerators were expensive luxury items. A high rate of refrigerator ownership signaled a high level of personal affluence. Again, despite the region’s low population, the Permian Basin had a disproportionately high percent of refrigerator ownership.





[Photo credit: Author collection, Ebay acquisition.]






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