From “Booger Town” to “All-American City”

A friend told me that in the 1920s her father’s job of hauling construction materials in the Texas Panhandle required that he drive through Borger.

Thomas Hart Benton's painting, "Boom Town," depicts Borger's Main Street.

Thomas Hart Benton’s painting, “Boom Town,” depicts Borger’s Main Street.

The place had such a bad reputation that her father carried a loaded .45 on the seat beside him. On one occasion a man jumped on the truck’s passenger-side running board. Her father, fearing for his life, grabbed his gun and fired out the window, past the man’s head. The fellow fell, and her father just kept driving.

That story prompted me to check out Borger, a town near the Canadian River, an hour drive northeast of Amarillo. When oil was discovered in the area in March 1925, A.P. (Ace) Borger, a man known in Oklahoma and Texas as a shrewd land promoter, went into partnership with John R. Miller, purchased 240 acres and laid out the town site—named Borger, of course. It only took ninety days of advertising the sensational discovery of “black gold” for the population to reach 45,000—mostly oilmen, roughnecks, panhandlers, bootleggers, and prostitutes—causing the new town to be known as “Booger Town.” The following October Borger was incorporated, and John Miller was elected mayor.

Early Downtown Borger

Early Downtown Borger

There was great progress—a railroad spur arrived; a school district opened; and the three-mile-long Main Street boasted a hamburger stand, a hotel, and a jail. Steam-generated electricity and telephones were available before the end of the year, and before water wells were dug, tank wagons delivered drinking water. However, Mayor Miller had an associate, “Two-Gun Dick” Herwig, who led an organized crime syndicate that opened brothels, dance halls, and gambling facilities along present Tenth Street. Robbery and murder became common practice. With the blessings of local authorities and the king of the Texas bootleggers, W.J. (Shine) Popejoy, illegal moonshine stills and home breweries flourished.

Traffic Jam, Main Street, Borger

Traffic Jam, Main Street, Borger

Governor Dan Moody, by the spring of 1927, had received enough complaints and requests for investigations that he sent a detachment of the Texas Rangers under captains Frank Hamer (famous in 1934 for tracking down and killing Bonnie and Clyde) and Thomas Hickman to clean up the town. Some of the rough crowd departed, but after the district attorney was assassinated in 1929, Governor Moody imposed martial law and sent in the Texas National Guard to restore order.

It was August 1934 before the violence finally came to an end. Town founder Ace Borger, had established himself as president of the Borger State Bank. When the bank failed, Borger was given a two-year prison term for taking deposits while the bank was insolvent. While his conviction was being appealed, Borger was at the post office when he was shot dead by the county treasurer, Arthur Huey. It seems that Huey, a long-time rival of Borger’s, was angry because Borger had not bailed him out of jail when he was arrested for embezzling county funds. Huey shot Borger five times with a Colt .45 pistol, and then took Borger’s gun from his pocket and shot him again before shooting another man who died a few days later. Ironically, Huey claimed self-defense and was acquitted. Three years later he was convicted of theft of county funds and sent to prison.

Borger’s struggles did not end with the violence. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl brought new challenges. The economic crash caused the price of oil and gas to drop, which ended the boom years. Carbon black produced during the oil heyday left a residue of soot that was blown by winds of the Dust Bowl, covering the town in dark-colored grime. The population shifted as Okies, farmers from Oklahoma who lost their land as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, arrived looking for work in the local oil refineries and plants.

Despite the economic problems that came with the Depression, the young men employed during the New Deal by the Works Project Administration (WPA) laid new red brick streets and replaced the boomtown shacks with permanent buildings. World War II introduced a second boom as local oil refineries worked to meet the demand for synthetic rubber and other petroleum products.

By the 1960s the area around Borger was one of the largest producers of oil, carbon black, and petrochemicals in Texas, but automation in the plants meant the loss of jobs, which resulted in a mass exodus. Faced with another decline, the citizens began a citywide renewal—cleanup of the old federal housing and the empty storefronts—proving that “Booger Town” had finally grown up. Borger’s brand new reputation won the 1969 National Civic League designation as an “All-American City.”

Today Borger is a thriving industrial community that serves as an important shipping center for agricultural and petroleum products. The revitalization of the downtown, including the update of building facades and the opening of the Hutchinson County Historical Museum, better known as Boomtown Revisited, followed the restoration of the Morley Theater. Borger has come a long way.

Hutchinson County Historical Museum, known as Boomtown Revisited

Hutchinson County Historical Museum, known as Boomtown Revisited

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8 thoughts on “From “Booger Town” to “All-American City”

  1. Myra, I sent your blog to my sister who lives in Perryton (northeast corner of Texas) – she said the Borger downtown is now all boarded up and the economy is in bad shape.  Perryton is booming due to the oil and wheat is big, but it just shows how fragile the economic times are — and the impact of climate change. Hope you are having a great summer, Patti

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  2. What a history this town has! Amazing how early they had electricity or telephone service, we did not get it until the forties on our south Texas farm. Missing Texas but loving your posts acquainting me with little known places with such interesting backgrounds.

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