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From Family Camps to Man Camps: A Brief History Of Housing Workers In The Oil And Gas Industry

Ohio Oil Company Camp in Iraan, Texas (Photo courtesy of The Petroleum Museum, Jimmy Parker Collection)

By Diana Nguyen and Carlos Morales

For people working in the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin, finding housing can be a challenge. The blue-collar workforce often ends up in hotels, motels, and so-called man camps. Sometimes, companies even rent blocks of rooms to put their employees up.

But in the past, companies built their own housing, and it wasn’t just for employees — it was for their families, too. Since then, much has changed for workers heading to the Permian Basin to work in the oil and gas industry. 

A 'Tsunami' of Growth

Driving through Midland, countless pumpjacks dot the horizon. They're as part of the West Texas landscape as the jackrabbits, dirt devils, and the picture-perfect sunsets.

But even when you’re not face-to-face with it, there are other signs of the oil and gas industry’s importance to the region. In some Midland neighborhoods, there are subtle and not-so-subtle reminders: mailboxes shaped like pumpjacks and streets literally named after oil companies.

"We see oil and gas as our bread and butter, and that separates us out from a lot of other Americans who take a negative attitude toward the industry," says Diana Davids-Hinton, a professor with the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. "It’s how we rely on ourselves. That’s I think distinctive. I haven’t encountered this in other places. And in some ways, when you get used to it, it’s not only unique but rather valuable."

Hinton has spent more than forty years writing about oil. She lives off one of those company-named streets: Stanolind. 

Today, the Permian is experiencing all the trappings of a boom — higher wages, extremely low unemployment rates, a growing population, and more jobs than workers. That means good business for Ralph McIngvale, the fast-talking owner of Permian Lodging — one of many businesses benefitting from the region’s production. 

"It’s the greatest business environment I've ever seen and I don't know if I'll ever see the likes of this again right now," says McIngvale. "The amount of business going on the amount of activity the amount of growth that technology is crazy."

The towering McIngvale describes the influx of workers as a “tsunami” of people.

"We saw where all the hotels were $280 a night, we saw where all the apartments were completely booked and sold out," says McIngvale. "So we decided to get in the housing business.

The company has rooms throughout the Permian Basin; it's Midland location can accommodate about 1,200 people. Companies have rented out blocks of McIngvale's campsites for their employees, and he says the facilities are completely booked. 

"I've been to Rome, Paris, and Buenos Aires," says McIngvale, talking up the amenities — like bamboo pillows and extra large mattresses  — at his housing sites. "I've taken the finest hotel rooms in the world. We have quality accommodations."

At the Midland location, Permian Lodging offers full kitchens and weekly cleanings. The rooms are reminiscent of bare college dorms. If you’re an oilfield worker just needing a place to crash after a twelve-hour day, it’ll do.

Here and other dozens of other so-called "man camp" sites throughout the Permian Basin, blue-collar workers typically spend two to three weeks in the field until they can take a break and go back to their families.

This environment is a stark contrast to the experience of some workers more than 100 years ago.

'It was just like one big family'

From the early to mid-1900s,  oil and gas companies in Texas — like El Paso Natural Gas — set up their own housing for employees. These camps were established in remote areas, often far away from towns, but close to processing plants.

There were thousands of people who lived and worked at different company camps.

"It was a family company," says John Johnson, who retired after decades of work with EPNG. "They took care of everybody."

Johnson lives with his wife Carol in Midland now. He spent his childhood, hopping around the Permian Basin, living in different company camps, while his father worked for EPNG. Like a lot of families at the time, Johnson went on to raise his own family in the camps.

These places were more like little neighborhoods. They were modeled after employee housing set up by mining companies in the west, and textile mills in the east.

"They realized that a stable workforce was probably more economical, more efficient," says UTPB professor Diana Davids-Hinton, who has written about oil and gas company camps. "So you want to keep good workers and you’ve got to give them a good reason to stay with you.

Davids-Hinton says the camps are an example of the robust permanent workforces companies needed at the time. So by the 1920s and 1930s, companies came up with incentives for employees who would come to these rural stretches of Texas to work. 

"Everybody in camp knew you," says John Johnson, sitting next to his wife, Carol, in their Midland home. "It was just like one big family and it was that way in every camp."

The dwellings were pretty much identical to one other. Cookie-cutter houses that had well-kempt lawns and a couple rooms. Some even had a garage. Companies would provide things like light bulbs, repaint the houses and in some cases help maintain yards.

"It was just a perfect life, I think," says Carol Johnson, sipping on iced tea.

Families like the Johnsons would go on to live in camps for decades, raising their kids in a what they considered a picturesque environment.

"I wish you were talking to our children right now because so many times they have told me, 'thank y’all, thank y’all so much for giving us the opportunity to grow up in a gas camp," says Carol. "They were up and down the street on bicycles and playing games. Our kids had everything."

It’s important to note here that the camps were mostly racially homogenous, which helped to establish a firm identity for companies’ mostly white workforce. And all of these characteristics are important because, in one way or another, they cultivated a strong sense of loyalty to the job. It’s part of what kept these families anchored to a single company.

And loyalty to the camps — like the kind the Johnsons still have for EPNG decades after John retired from the company — outlasted the camps themselves.

Market Forces and Camp Closure

Unlike a lot of El Paso Natural Gas camps which stayed open into the late twentieth century — most of the company housing in the Permian Basin started closing in the 50s and 60s.

"Because price volatility, and that’s been with the industry since its beginnings," says Davids-Hinton of the camps shuttering across the region.

So, companies had to adjust. The expenses of having a settled workforce in these rural places no longer made financial sense, so the camps started to close.

Companies often sold off homes to their employees at extremely affordable prices. But today, there are very few physical traces that these communities ever existed. Still, people want to remember.

"Those are your youthful memories with your grandparents, with your parents, with frankly at this point, with all those you loved who have passed," says Jim Case, with Sul Ross University. Case lived in a camp until he was 10 years old. He mostly remembers Halloweens, where he’d go to all of the houses to fill up on popcorn balls and candied apples.

For many, keeping these experiences alive is a part of their personal history. Carol and John make it a point to do this.  They stay in the loop through a Facebook group called the El Paso Natural Gas Camp Brats.

"I have gotten in contact with people I haven’t seen since the late sixties and we get to talk," says Carol, who's one of more than 2,000 thousand "brats."

Members post old photos and share memories. Occasionally, there are reunions. Everyone brings a dish, and they catch up and reminisce about the past. Davids-Hinton says this makes sense.

"I think it is important to remember this part of our past, simply because of the number of people who were caught up in it," she says. "But it matters because so many individuals were shaped by that part of the past. It really is part of their heritage.

Leaving John and Carol Johnson’s home, you'll spot a man camp in their neighborhood. It houses blue-collar workers, just like the one Ralph McIngvale operates. It’s one of several that have been set up in the Permian Basin, providing temporary housing to a transient workforce.

But unlike in the past, when these workers go home, their families aren’t waiting for them.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.