Midland in the 1950s
The Emergence of a Modern City
Midland: The West Texas Cowtown Becomes a Modern City by the End of the Decade
By the onset of the 1950s, Midland, Texas was transforming itself into the economic center of the Permian Basin, a diverse region comprising 62 counties in Texas and New Mexico that is defined by the its leading industry—oil. The region receives its name from a subterranean geologic structure, the remnants of a vast sea floor which existed during the Permian period, some 285-300 million years ago.
By 1950, two hundred and fifteen oil companies had offices in Midland.1 This left the city with one major problem—office space. The growing economy left the city in need of commercial buildings to house the booming white-collar population. It would be during this decade that Midland would transform from essentially a small country town into a city with a skyline that could be seen 30 miles away. This is the period when Midland became known as the “Tall City of the Plains.”2
Downtown Midland at Christmas, 1956
A rancher turned developer, Jack B. Wilkinson, would eventually become known as the “Tall Man in the Tall City.” His commercial construction ventures in the decade included the six-story Wilkinson-Foster and Permian buildings, the 14-story V and J Tower, and the Wilco Building, which towered 22 stories.3 By the end of the 1950s, his projects accounted for over one-third of the office buildings in Midland. Nearly every major oil company in the nation contributed to the building frenzy, as did the major banks, including the Midland National Bank and First National Bank. Wilkinson reflected that, “Pretty soon Midland was the headquarters of the independent oil man in Texas. During the 50s almost every square foot of space was rented, so we built more offices. People said we were over-building, but that wasn’t the case. Almost every building made money for its investors. It was hard to go wrong in Midland.”1
As the strong economy of Midland led to a population boom, the city’s public school system was forced to keep pace with a population that expanded from under 25,000 to almost 60,000 by the end of the decade.4 Young couples accounted for the majority of people moving to Midland in the 1950s, resulting in over 14,000 births during the decade.2 These children forced school enrollment to rise from 3,686 pupils in January 1949, to 14, 647 by the fall of 1959. To accommodate this increase, the school district built 12 new elementary schools, three junior high schools, a junior/senior high school, and additions to 14 other school buildings.2 The ambitious expansion of the 50s more than doubled the capacity of the Midland County Independent School District.5
Downtown Midland in 1956
The decade was also a period of lasting achievements for Midland. Midland Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1950, an institution that has expanded and still serves the residents of Midland.3 In 1950, Midland began to develop Hogan Park, which serves as a recreational destination today. By 1953, Midland was a community affluent enough to create the Midland Symphony Orchestra.1 In 1959, the Central YMCA began operating as the city’s family recreation center. That same year, Midland County built a new two-story library with a largeGeorge W. Bush Childhood Home, Downtown Midland at Christmas, 1956 petroleum department, a children’s section, and a museum.1 This facility served as the footprint for the current Midland County Library and Midland County Historical Museum located on Missouri Street, as well as the world-renowned Petroleum Museum. The Midland Community Theatre moved into its home in 1958. This organization still operates today at The Cole Theatre and the recently renovated Yucca Theatre in Downtown Midland. The historically significant Yucca Theater became home to the Midland Community Theatre’s popular Summer Mummers in the early 1950s. The Summer Mummers is the longest ongoing volunteer theatre production of its kind in the nation.
The “Tall City” of Midland in the 1950s
As the 1950s drew to a close, residents of the Permian Basin had benefited from a quarter century of prosperity, the largest sustained growth period in the history of the region. As the areas economic epicenter, Midland, Texas, would be first among the beneficiaries of this prosperity. Midland led the nation in the number of oil offices as more than six hundred oil and oil-servicing firms maintained offices in the City.5 Midland had successfully completed its transition from a sleepy farming and ranching community to a prosperous modern city, without losing its small-town charm or West Texas values. As John Howard Griffin noted in his 1959 book entitled Land of the High Sky, “A cosmopolitan city of contrasts, one still sees ranchers and cowboys seated in the lobby of the Scharbauer Hotel alongside oil executives. One can still George W. Bush Childhood Home, Cowntown Becomes a Modern City by End of the Decadehear the coyotes at night and see the jackrabbits and antelopes. It is the same as it has always been. One feels the solitary serenity of the plains and an almost tangible kinship with the past. While it has lost its former cowtown appearance, it has retained something of that atmosphere.”5
- Tyler, Ron, ed., The New Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Society, Houston, Texas; Vol. 4, pp. 706-710.
- Clemens, Gus, Legacy, published by Mulberry Avenue Books for the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library, San Antonio, Texas, 1983, pp.9, 137-153.
- Modisett, Bill, ed., Historic Midland, published by the Historical-Publishing Network—Lammert Publications for the Midland County Historical Society, San Antonio, Texas, 1998, pp. 43-73.
- 1952 Texas State Almanac.
- Griffin, John Howard, Land of the High Sky, published by the First National Bank of Midland, Midland, Texas, 1959, pp. 163-180.
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