Ector County, TX
ALL I CAN SAY about the fascinating remains of a post-boom oil town is WOW. When I pulled off of eastbound Interstate 20 and dropped into this class D near-ghost on July 5, 2010, I was thankful for serendipity. I didn’t have this place marked, and it was a completely random stop, as I had been drinking a lot of ice tea all morning and needed to “de-water.” So, as I coasted to a stop at the bottom of the EXIT 101 eastbound ramp, personal discomfort disappeared as the beginning of an hour-long adventure with a nearly dead town was about to begin. We hit the jackpot! Along the south side of the exit ramp a large gas station/restaurant/automotive repair complex sat abandoned, its faded, peeling truck mural semi-hidden from view of the offramp. The five island gas station and Country Kitchen Café with its two gas islands still mounted with gas pumps, restaurant and convenience store with its bright red chillers and a tall, yellow on black TEXAS FUEL STOP sign drew me in like a chocoholic to the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania! (Yes I am, and yes I’ve been there - twice.) I don’t know if the five island canopy was related to the Country Kitchen complex with its two-island gas canopy or not, but all were photogenic and turned their empty faces and fading signs out towards passers-by. My favorite was the innocuous little sign that simply stated, ”waler
.” Looks like someone forgot to cross their “T”! An arrow pointed to a long-dead spigot, and the rusting mounting bolts of a missing water/air machine. Across the street to the east, across the junction with FM 1601 was another, smaller, former gas station/repair garage with a sign announcing to the world that it was Penwell Enterprises. Both complexes were of 1960s-1970s era vintage, the Country Kitchen complex dating to 1962. But, what was even more interesting was the view under the freeway overpass. There were a handful of past-their-peak buildings and what looked like scores of oil tanks of various sizes and colors in the town, all of which appeared abandoned.
Passing under the freeway I felt like I died and went to ghost town heaven. What appeared to be an active welding shop anchored the northeast corner of “Downtown,” while scads of multi-hued, multi-shaped, multi-sized oil tanks and numerous abandoned buildings lie scattered amongst the dry, prickly underbrush. Some of the indentifiable businesses included: a sheet-metal gas station, with the price of “full-service diesel fuel” painted right on the side of the building. The former gas pumps sit forlornly, surrounded by prickly Texas greenery and the odd rusty metal pieces. Next door is a concrete block café (The Joker Coffee Shop) and just up the street, a stucco-sided, wooden automobile repair garage. Other unmarked buildings lie scattered about the townsite. At each street corner, white on stop sign-red street signs stood proud, each marked with the name of the town. Along the service road adjacent to the north side of the Interstate, old truck scales with their faded, rusty signage still wait for someone to stop and check their loads. All this lay sandwiched between the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks and the present Interstate highway. Other than the constant thrumming of tires across expansion strips and joints on the nearby Interstate, the silent streets revealed little activity, no sound and lots of panache. This was not a typical ghost, but a mid-century relic, killed off by big oil and the Superslab.
Penwell only dates to October 7, 1929, when oilman/landowner Robert R. Penn drilled a well that hit oil at 3700 feet. Penwell (Penn’s Well) and the Permian Basin Oil Fields boomed and Penwell quickly sprawled along the Bankhead Highway (old US 80), which paralleled the railroad. It was platted November 08, 1929, and a post office was established in June 1930. In 1930, the population had soared from zero to either 230 or 3000 (depending on source), and Penwell was a full-on oil boom town, mostly consisting of tents and flimsy shacks. Businesses flocked here, including: a barber, boarding houses, three churches, a couple clothing stores, dance hall, doctor’s office, drug store, gas stations, two hotels, lumber yards, newspaper (The Penwell News), pool hall, restaurants, saloons, a school and stores. In typical boomtown style, boom turned to slow-and-steady, and as usually happens when the booms taper off, the boomers disappeared, the town faded and businesses folded. By 1980 the population had fallen to 75, and the post office was still open, as were a gas station, liquor store and the welding shop.
In the 1990s Penwell was nearly abandoned with about 75 people. In 2000 it only had seven occupied homes and an official (Census) population of 41. By 2010 even that number seemed high as only a couple of the homes appeared occupied, and high scrub was quickly filling in where buildings once stood, or lie in wooden heaps. According to the 2012 US Postal Service website the Penwell Post Office (79776) is still in operation, but only Monday-Saturday, 0800-1200. I sure didn’t see it on our visit, but….
What the future holds is unknown, but in late 2012, the Texas Clean Energy Project is scheduled to begin construction of a $350 million, 600-acre coal gasification, 400-megawatt electrical generation facility at Penwell. What this new plant will do or how it will affect this wonderful little relic of the 1930s-1950s is unknown. Until then, it is well worth a stop. Penwell is located off I-20 at EXIT 101, 16 miles southwest of Odessa in the southwestern part of the county. It is also the home of Texas’ only quarter-mile long drag strip, the Caprock Motorplex, which is located south of the freeway and town. It and a neighboring 1/8 mile & later expanded to a ¼ mile oval dirt track have operated off and on since September 1966.