Sunday, June 19, 2016

2016-05-29: Geocaching Through Texas History, Cemeteries, and Ghost Towns

Hello again and welcome back to our Geocaching Adventures Blog. My work has started to slow down and we are able to venture out on the weekends to go exploring and geocaching around West Texas again. Although it is getting hotter, plus being exhausted, and finding the time to sit and write this blog too! Today's edition actually took place a few weeks ago and I'm just now getting around to tell you about it. So let me get to it...

On this Sunday morning, we picked up Candy's co-worker you might remember from hiking a few weeks ago. A few blocks away from her place was our first cache at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. In reality, I was here a few days earlier to grab this Geocache as a "First to Find" since it had gone a couple of days since it was hidden without a find. Because of its location, I brought them here again to view the reason for the cache. Called "Unhenged" (GC6J85H), this cache was placed to bring you to a replica of the Stonehenge monument over in England. Saved us a flight overseas!

Out on the corner of the campus in Odessa near the street was this statue of a cattle rancher and a few of his herd. While waiting for the traffic light to turn green I snapped a photo. Then off to Starbucks for some coffee before the 84 miles to our next Geocache.

Our next few caches were in the Ghost Town area of Texon, Texas. (GC1Z34W GC113H9 GC1Z34Q) Early travelers along many historic trails in this area found the region arid and inhospitable. Given (1876) to the University of Texas, the lands around this area were leased to cattlemen. The Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad built its line here in 1911, but did little local hauling.

Development came after Frank Pickrell and Haymon Krupp of Texon Oil and Land Company drilled for oil. Their driller, Carl Cromwell, brought in Santa Rita No. 1 named after the Saint of the Impossible and became the first gusher in the Permian Basin on May 28, 1923. The original tower was taken down and erected at the University of Texas and this replica was later erected in place.
Shortly thereafter Pittsburgh wildcatters M. L. Benedum and Joe Trees purchased some of the Texon Company's leases and formed the Big Lake Oil Company to develop the field. From 1924 to 1926 the BLOC president, Levi Smith, planned and built Texon for employees and their families south of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway tracks. At a time when oil towns denoted wildness, Texon was considered a model oil community. In addition to houses, BLOC provided a grade school, a church, a hospital, a theater, a golf course, tennis courts, and a swimming pool for its residents, who numbered 1,200 in 1933. Smith, an avid baseball fan, sponsored the Texon Oilers, a semiprofessional team composed of company employees. Privately owned businesses housed in company buildings included a drug store, a cafe, a boarding house, a tailor-shop, dry-goods and grocery stores, barber and beauty shops, a service station, a dairy, an ice house, and a bowling alley.

By World War II oil production was declining, and with no new wells, fewer employees were needed. By 1952 the population had fallen to 480. In 1956 Plymouth Oil Company, another Benedum-Trees property, took over BLOC, and in 1962 ownership passed to Ohio Oil, now Marathon Oil, which chose not to maintain the town of less than 100 residents. In 1986 the post office was closed, and in 1996 less than ten people lived in Texon. The population was twelve in 2000.

Our next Geocache (GC113H6) was another Texas Ghost Town. Reagan County, West Texas Highway 67 Between Big Lake and Rankin Named for an Englishman who was a shareholder in the railroad, Best was nothing but a switching point on the Orient Railroad. When oil was discovered in 1923, Best mushroomed as the regional supply center. The population grew to an estimated 3,500 in just two years. Best gained an instant reputation for being a wild town. Perhaps added by the irony of its name and a novel (The Big Fist) written in 1946 - set its bad reputation in stone. The town's unofficial slogan was "the town with the Best name in the world and the Worst reputation." After the boom fizzled, only 300 people were left in the 1940s. A service station / post office was still in operation in the 80s and by the 1990 Census - only 25 people were left. It is now listed as 0001. Best was located at Hwy 67 and Best Lane, between the highway and the train tracks located about a block south. Best Lane turns north off of 67, and is called Lone Wolf Lane south of the highway. Santa Rita Road runs parallel with and between the highway and tracks, and goes to the Santa Rita No. 1 well. Nothing left but a few foundations along the Santa Rita Road.

Further down the road was the Ghost Town of Stiles, TX and our next five Geocaches, including two virtual caches. The first three were located near the historical marker and the old courthouse. (GCXBWPGC9891GC113HD) Stiles is near the intersection of Farm Road 1800 and Centralia Draw, eighteen miles north of Big Lake in north central Reagan County. Areas of massive limestone are found in and near Stiles. The area was on the Butterfield Overland Mail route in 1859-61 and was settled by sheep and goat ranchers in the 1890's. The town was named for Gordon Stiles, who donated land for the townsite. William G. Stiles applied for a post office, which was established in 1894, and a store was operated nearby. Because it was the only town in the county Stiles was chosen county seat of Reagan County when the county was organized in 1903. In 1907 John Marvin Hunter began publication of the Stiles Journal, the first newspaper in Reagan County. By 1910 Stiles had a population of 191 and a frame courthouse.
The following year William Martin, of Comanche, built a new courthouse with stone quarried from a hillside near the town. In 1911 the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad bypassed Stiles in favor of a route through Big Lake. The original survey for the railroad included Stiles, but the right-of-way was changed to the southern part of the county when a rancher refused to grant permission for the road to cross his land. After the discovery of oil at the Santa Rita oil well near Big Lake in 1923, Stiles began to decline. Following an election on May 28, 1925, Big Lake became the county seat. By 1925 the population of Stiles had fallen to seventy-five, and by 1939 the post office had been discontinued. From 1966 to 1990 the population was estimated at sixteen.

The first floor interior plan of the courthouse was a Greek cross with intersecting center hallways and four corner rooms measuring 16' square. The stairway is located in the west hallway. The courtroom and two other offices are located on the second floor. Interior detailing includes plaster walls, simple door/window trim and baseboard, transoms over doorways and a wooden chair rail in the courtroom. The ceiling on both floors is pressed tin and the floors are wooden. A small raised platform is the only distinguishing feature in the courtroom. A limestone records vault is located to the east of the main structure. It was originally built to provide fireproof storage for the earlier frame courthouse that occupied the site. It has a stone barrel vault, but was originally roofed over with a shingle roof. The steel vault doors are still in possession of the owner. Christmas of 1999 an arsonist set fire to the structure and gutted the place.

Outside the courthouse and sitting on top of the cache container, we spotted our first scorpion since arriving in West Texas. While this one was just a baby at maybe an inch long, you gotta be careful and watch for the poisonous critters while caching out here. Between those and the deadly rattlesnakes, you can't just reach for the cache as soon as you spot it!

South of the courthouse was the Stiles Cemetery which is still used to this day and the other two caches. (GC113HJ GC9EFB) The cemetery opened in 1903. Three of the earliest graves are three siblings who died within 10 days of each other. The historical marker says that the people buried here in the early days were cowboys who were accidentally killed, victims of shootings and rattlesnake bites, and citizens who fell to dysentery epidemics. There is also a grave of a Spanish-American soldier.

Continuing east on US67 in Reagan County, we arrived in the county seat of Big Lake, TX. The town of Big Lake took it's name from the lake created by rain which gathers in a natural land depression near this cache (GCZF09). Once filled by spring-fed water, it is now the largest dry lake in Texas. In pioneer days it was the only fresh water between the Concho river and springs at Ft. Stockton and was a campsite for Indians, Mexican traders and cattle drivers. When there is enough rain in the area this lake still fills with water and when it does, there are live fish in it. In the photos below, you can see where the spring was in the first and the dry lake in the distance of the second photo.

The other two caches in Big Lake were at the Glenrest Cemetery (GC1Z348) with graves dating back to 1913, and at the Reagan County Airport for the Florene Miller Watson Memorial (GC17W89). During World War II, a hand-picked group of young women pilots became pioneers, national heroes, role models.. called Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. These ladies flew their way into the annals of women’s history as the first women in U.S. history trained to fly American military aircraft.

Florene Watson was born on December 7, 1920 in San Angelo, Texas. She grew up in Big Lake, Texas, where her father, T.L. Miller owned a jewelry store. In 1937, Florene graduated from Reagan County High School. Her first flight at 8 years old was in Big Lake in a World War I barnstormer plane. By age 19 she had finished two years of college and had also obtained a pilot’s license. Mrs. Watson earned her flight and ground school instructors’ ratings and was teaching men to fly in the War Training Program in Odessa and Lubbock, Texas, when World War II began.

Florene Watson was one of the elite group of only 25 experienced women civilian pilots who met the military requirements in 1942 and volunteered to fly for the Ferrying Command. They were called the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Almost a year later in 1943, their name was changed to Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) to include women pilots as they graduated from their military training schools in 1943 and 1944. Some of the 1078 graduates flew for the Ferrying Command, but most were assigned varied flying duties in the Training Command. Thirty-eight WASPS lost their lives during their service to the war. Mrs. Watson was the first commanding officer of the WAFS-WASP stationed at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. She flew all the basic Arny Air Corps trainers, fighters, and cargo planes, including twin and four-engine bombers, transporting them all over the United States for the Ferrying Command. In addition to her ferrying duties, Mrs. Watson tested radar equipment and served as a military airline pilot in 1944. Her favorite airplane was the North American Mustang p-51.

The next cache was located at the remains an old building in Barnhart, TX (GC17W1M). Barnhart, located off U.S. Highway 67 and State Highway 163 in southwestern Irion County, was established in 1910 at the building of the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway and was named for William F. Barnhart, agent for the railroad. In 1912 a post office was acquired with C. C. Luther as postmaster, and the first school was established with Mrs. Maude Branch as the teacher. The Barnhart Independent School District was established on February 27, 1917; the school operated until 1969. By 1920 the town also had the Barnhart State Bank, which was moved to Rankin in 1927, and a newspaper, the Barnhart Range, published by Ed Downing. In the 1920s and 1930s Barnhart became a large-volume shipping point, due to its location between major railroad lines. The population was reported as fifty in 1915. In 1947 Barnhart had 250 residents and six businesses and in 1980 seventy-four residents, a business, and a post office. In 1990 the population was 135. By 2000 the population was 160. There's also the Barnhart Cemetery cache located east of town (GC1Z33B).

One of the favorite things we like about Geocaching are the odd things the caches bring you to see. This next Geocache (GC1Z355) was located along the roadside of this rock painted up like the American flag. If you were not caching and passing by at the posted 75 MPH, you might have missed this. 

Our last cache of the day (GC1Z35E) was located at the Mertzon Cemetery which serves the community of Mertzon and dates back to 1912.

So another great Geocaching day in West Texas and picking up a few more counties to boot! Thanks for following along and we hope to be off on another adventure soon.

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