IN A CONTINUOUS SEARCH FOR the sizable, the CLUI zeroed in on West Texas in 2018, and created an exhibit called 50 Big Things in West Texas, which was on display in the West Texas town of Marfa.
50 sites were selected to characterize the place, and were presented through images and text in an interactive “overlook.” Sites were selected because they were big, or because they expressed components of the bigness that exists out there in West Texas like nowhere else. West Texas is where things have room, so big things come here, as well as come from here.
First thing to do, though, is define our boundary — where exactly is West Texas? We know that West Texas funnels westward to a point at El Paso. But where it begins, in the east, is a matter of opinion. We can probably all agree that it begins somewhere further west than just the “west half” of Texas. It is also somewhat determined by a change in moisture level, and topography. It is also different things to different people, depending on where they are. Since we had to draw a line, somewhere, we put it from the eastern edge of the Panhandle, through Abilene, to Del Rio, on the Rio Grande. This, we figure, is about as big as West Texas can be.
Once we had the area of study established, we went to work searching for big things, starting in the CLUI Land Use Database, and then to Center’s library, as well as online sources, to learn everything we could about the region’s major land uses. Then, of course, we headed to GoogleEarth, conducting an exhaustive overview, identifying and flagging features and sites. Then we went to ground, visiting the places, especially those that were new to us, filling in the gaps in our database with more ground-based imagery and site visits.
Some of our findings were obvious, but overwhelming just the same, like: The Panhandle has a heck of a lot of cattle feedyards (dozens, including six owned by Friona Industries), several large meatpacking plants (like the JBS meatplant at Cactus, the Cargill plant at Friona, and the Tyson plant at Amarillo), and some of the biggest dairies and industrial cheese production plants in the land (like the Hilmar Cheese Plant in Dalhart).
It seems we just can’t say enough about the Panhandle capital of Amarillo, with its curious big industries, like the Federal Helium Reserve, Asarco Copper Refinery, Bell Helicopter Plant, and Pantex, the nation’s only nuclear weapons assembly plant; and its big art, mostly commissioned by Stanley Marsh III, like Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo Ramp, Ozymandias, and Floating Mesa.
Lower down the Panhandle, south of Amarillo, is the bigger West Texas city of Lubbock. Lubbock’s sense of play comes more from the music side of the arts, from Buddy Holly, through Joe Ely and Terry Allan, and notable creative landmarks like the Stubbs BBQ joint memorial, and Robert Bruno’s steel house in Ransom Canyon. The formal purity and integrity of Lubbock’s functional modernist architecture dominates the expansive commercial parts of town, and culminates in the cotton sheds and seed refineries, massive sheet metal sheds, veritable cathedrals of cotton.
Surrounding nearly everything, from the Panhandle on down, and westward over the Permian Basin, is oil and gas production, coalescing into likely the largest contiguous gas extraction space in the whole of the USA (covering Denver City, Andrews, Midland, Odessa, and beyond), with gas gathering and processing plants all over, including big ones like Kinder Morgan’s CO2 plant in Snyder, and Occidental’s gas plant in Seminole, and refineries at Sunray, Big Spring, and Borger, towns that also have those oh so dark and dusty carbon black plants, which used to abound in Texas.
And funnily enough, since carbon black is still used to make tires dark, West Texas also has some of the biggest tire company proving grounds in the country, like Bridgestone’s Texas Proving Ground, the former BF Goodrich track at Pecos (now the Pecos Research and Testing Center), and Goodyear’s proving ground at San Angelo.
West Texas’s open space also contains large-scale remnants of previous industries, like the old Celanese acetate plant at Pampa, and the sulfur operations in Culberson County, whose plants and pits are now open and exposed in piles and ruins.
There are the big men, the oil men, the big ranchers, and the big ranches, like the Mesa Vista Ranch, along the Canadian River, east of Borger, where famous Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens has lived since 1971. He has developed it in dramatic ways, with more than a dozen lakes and lodges for his extended family, guests, and staff. The biggest of the homes is 33,000 square feet, and has a golf course. There is also an airport with accommodations for the pilots, a stable, kennels, pub, and chapel. The ranch covers 65,000 acres, and was on the market recently for $250 million.
Or Van Horn Amazonian Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, who owns around 400,000 acres of ranchland in Hudspeth and Culberson Counties, including the Figure 2 Ranch, a famous West Texas ranch established by James Monroe Daugherty, known as the site of one of the last battles between the Texas Rangers and the Apache Indians, and later owned by James Marion West, the flamboyant Texas oil man from the famous West family based in Dallas. Bezos maintains a large domestic compound here, across the highway from his rocket test site.
Up the hill behind his house, the first full-scale version of the Clock of the Long Now is being built inside a hollowed out mountain. The project, to make a clock that can run for at least 10,000 years (as long as civilization has existed) was conceived by the technologist Danny Hillis, who founded the Long Now Foundation with Stewart Brand and others, to promote long term thinking and strategy, as an antidote to the short-sightedness of our times. Thinking big.
Such visionary and utopian ideals are part of what the expansiveness of West Texas engenders, and permits, up to a point, as evident in other places, too, like the Yearning for Zion Ranch, an intentionally built community, south of San Angelo, that was home to a few hundred members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that was raided by law enforcement in 2008, a few years after it was built, and taken over by the State of Texas.
A more successful utopian project can be found in the West Texas town of Marfa, where the post-minimalist dreamer Donald Judd made an empire of art over his lifetime, which lives on through the Chinati Foundation, the Judd Foundation, and the dozens of other entities that have come to enhance and soak in the atmosphere. It was inside one such place, known as Ballroom Marfa, where the Center’s electronic interpretive overlook of West Texas was installed.
50 Big Things in West Texas was part of a group exhibition Hyperobjects, on view April-November 2018, a show based on the writings of Timothy Morton, especially his 2013 book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. It was the first deployment of a new kind of overlook system used by the CLUI, where one screen, mounted on a post, has locational and text information, and interacts with a larger overview screen, mounted on the wall above it. In this way, the small screen acts like a canted descriptive plaque, describing the window-like view on the larger screen, an electronic interpretive overlook. This technology enables a nearly limitless amount of sites to be selected, located, viewed and described, in a manner normally experienced at outdoor sites in the field, but in this case brought indoors, with an infinitely expanded view. ♦
TEN BIG THINGS IN WEST TEXAS from the CLUI Land Use Database
Cactus Meat Plant
Texas is still the capital of cattle country, with nearly half the 100 million beef cattle in the nation, and this plant, near the top of the Panhandle, currently owned by JBS, is massive, and typical. JBS, the world’s largest meat company, is based in Brazil. It bought the Swift Company, one of the original large American beef packers, based in Greeley, Colorado, in 2007. Though totals are dropping, Americans still eat around 60 pounds of beef per person per year, from 30 million cows, and only four companies provide 80% of it: Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef, from a few dozen large packing plants around the country, like this one. The Cactus Feedyard, near the plant, is one of dozens of feedyards in the northern Panhandle that are around a square mile in size.
Hilmar Cheese Plant
The Hilmar Cheese Company operates this massive industrial cheese plant in the Panhandle. The plant opened in 2007, and produces cheese, as well as whey protein concentrates, whey protein hydrolysates, whey protein isolate, refined and ultra-refined lactose, and skim milk powders, which are used in a wide range of processed foods. Hilmar is one of dozens of large cheese and whey companies, but operates out of only two large facilities, this one, and the company’s original plant in Hilmar, California.
50th Street Cottonseed Plant
Lubbock is the capitol of cottonseed oil production in the nation, and there are several large-scale plants and storage sites associated with the industry, like this cottonseed oil mill operated by PYCO Industries. PYCO is likely the largest cottonseed cooperative in the nation, with more than 60 member gins. Cottonseed oil produced here is used for cooking, and the byproducts — cottonseed meal, hulls, and linters — are used for nutritional ingredients by the livestock industry, and also for manufacturing products such as mattresses, upholstery, paper, and plastics.
Borger Carbon Black Plants
Two of the five remaining carbon black plants in Texas are next to each other here — one operated by the Sid Richardson Carbon Company, and the other by Orion Engineered Carbons. Carbon black is a powdery black carbon material resulting from the incomplete combustion of a heavy hydrocarbon (tar, fuel oil, etc.), in a combustion zone fueled by air and natural gas. It is used primarily in synthetic rubber, where it acts as a pigment, as well as a heat dissipator and strengthener. Texas once produced 75% of the nation’s carbon black, with large plants at Big Spring, Borger, Seagraves, Skellytown, Baytown, and Aransas Pass. Plants at Big Spring, Borger, Sunray, and Pampa remain active.
Pecos Research and Testing Center
One of a few large automotive testing facilities in West Texas, this 5,800-acre site opened in the early 1960s, and was the primary testing grounds for BF Goodrich. In 2005 it was taken over by a consortium of private and state organizations, including Texas A&M, and is now called the Pecos Research and Testing Center. Onsite are nine separate test tracks, including a circular track that is nine miles in circumference, making it one of the largest in the country. Activities now seem to be related mostly to security testing and training, and the site’s primary asset seems to be its remoteness. Recent tests have involved large-scale explosive-related testing conducted by the Rocky Mountain Scientific Lab and Applied Research Associates.
Culberson Sulfur Mine Site
This remote mining site was once a major source of sulfur, but has been abandoned since the early 2000s. Sulfur, also known by its more biblical name, brimstone, is used to make sulfuric acid, used in great quantity in chemical industries, oil refining, and to make fertilizer, and gunpowder. It used to be mined, often hydraulically, from surface and underground deposits, and Texas was the primary producer of mined sulfur. Sulfur is now extracted from natural gas and as part of the petrochemical refining process. This is one of three major abandoned sulfur plants and mine sites in West Texas.
Million Barrel Museum
Located in Monahans, Texas, this five-acre concrete bowl, 35 feet deep, used to have a roof, and was built in the late 1920s to store crude oil — around a million barrels worth — during the early boom years of the region. The oil leaked out through cracks, into the ground, and the tank was soon abandoned. In the 1950s it was filled with water and turned into a recreational lake, which also leaked, and was abandoned. In 1987 it was opened as part of a museum site, operated by the local country historical commission.
Andrews County Disposal Site
The Andrews County Disposal Site is a major commercial chemical and radioactive waste site, accepting waste from all over the nation. It has been a chemical waste disposal site since 1989, and is operated by the Waste Control Specialists Company, based in Dallas. It started accepting radioactive waste in 1998, with shipments from the cleanup of the DOE’s Fernald site in Ohio, and later expanded to accept all three types of low-level radioactive waste: class A, B, and C. It was selected to be the disposal site for the PCBs dredged from the Hudson River, as part of General Electric’s cleanup of the upper Hudson, after decades of dumping. The 14,000-acre facility is next to the New Mexico state line, and URENCO, the only uranium enrichment plant currently operating in the nation, which supplies fuel to most of the nuclear power plants in the USA.
Village Farms Marfa Greenhouse
Village Farms operates some of the largest hydroponic greenhouse operations in the country at two nearby sites: at the Marfa Airport, and a few miles further up the road towards Fort Davis. These structures allow growers to grow tomatoes (and some cucumbers and peppers) in carefully managed conditions, without soil, by controlling temperature, irrigation, fertilizer, carbon dioxide levels, humidity, and light. Village Farms, the Canadian company that owns the operations here, has another set of hydroponic greenhouses near Vancouver. These structures are not immune to external conditions. A hail storm in 2012 severely damaged the structures, and closed operations for some time.
Yearning for Zion Ranch
This intentionally built community, south of San Angelo, was constructed over just a few years, starting in 2003, and became home to a few hundred members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who moved there from their state line community at Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. The 1,700-acre site is a self-contained village, with an amphitheater, meeting houses, school, power plant, sewage lagoons, houses, farm, and a temple. The polygamous sect soon attracted attention of child welfare agencies, and the site was first raided by law enforcement in 2008. After legal battles, the State of Texas took possession of the property in 2014, and its remaining residents were evicted. The site remains empty, awaiting its future.