Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2024)


Abilene, Texas, a town of 117,111 in 1999, islocated 150 miles west of Fort Worth at thejunction of Interstate 20 and U.S. Highways277 and 83. It was one of many towns thatcame into existence as the Texas and PacificRailway made its way west to California. Whatmade Abilene different from and more successfulthan other railroad towns was the aggressivenessof the people who lived there.From the beginning, they promoted Abileneas the "Future Great City of West Texas." Localranchers and businessmen C. W. Merchant,John Merchant, John N. Simpson, and John T.Berry persuaded H. C. Withers, town-site locatorfor the railroad, to select a site in northeasternTaylor County for the new town, ignoringthe already established community andcounty seat, Buffalo Gap. A tent city of 300was already established when the first townlots were auctioned on March 15, 1881. Some200 people spent $51,000 to become a part ofthe new city. Before long, Abilene had twonewspapers, an imported sheriff (John J. Clintonfrom Dodge City, Kansas), public schools,and churches. In 1883 Abilene won the electionto become the new county seat.

Religion has always been an important partof the community. In 1891 the first of threechurch-related universities, Simmons College(later Hardin-Simmons University), was established.Abilene Christian University originallyopened in 1906 as Childers Classical Instituteand was followed in 1923 by McMurryUniversity. Subsequently, they were joinedby branches of Cisco College and Texas StateTechnical College. The abundance of Christianuniversities has led some to say that Abileneis the buckle on the Bible Belt of theSouth. There is no doubt that the universitieshave had their impact on the city; they are amajor economic asset and help make Abilenean education center.

In the late nineteenth century, as the TexasPlains were being settled, Abilene boosters unashamedlypromoted their city, running promotionaltrains from Fort Worth to give peoplethe opportunity to settle in this "Eden ofthe West." This boosterism made Abilene thecenter of what is called today the "Big Country."By the early twentieth century, Abilenehad developed an ample water supply, publicutilities, streetcars, and a fairly dependableeconomy based on farming and ranching, includingsheep. The Abilene Epileptic Asylum,known today as the Abilene State School, wasbuilt in 1899 and, along with the West TexasRehabilitation Center and two major hospitals,made Abilene a major medical center forthe region. Abilene also quickly developedinto a center for wholesale and retail trade,transportation, media, and cultural events aswell as the headquarters for independent oiloperators after the oil boom of the 1920s,which had more than doubled the populationto 23,175 by 1930.

However, it was World War II that put Abileneon the map. The arrival of Camp Barkeleyand Tye Army Air Field in 1940 brought 1.5million soldiers as well as millions of dollarsinto the city. The closing of Barkeley at the endof World War II spurred civic leaders to diversifyAbilene's economic base, but they neverlost sight of what a military installation haddone for the economy. In 1952 their lobbyingefforts proved successful when Congress approvedthe construction of Dyess Air ForceBase in Abilene. The air force base, along withthe Nike and Atlas missile installations in theearly sixties, put Abilene into another economicboom that only temporarily subsidedin the late sixties before resuming once againduring the oil crisis of the 1970s. The oil industrystimulated a rapid growth in manufacturing,banking, and construction. Oil, however,has always been a fickle economic base,and declining prices in the 1980s once againset Abilene scrambling to shore up its economiclivelihood.

In the 1990s Abilene turned the decliningdowntown area into a historic district, anchoredby the Grace Cultural Center and Museumsof Abilene complex and promoted byan art walk. Old railroad buildings have beentransformed into a restaurant, candy factory,and tourist information and Chamber ofCommerce center. Minor-league baseball andhockey teams have complemented the strongAbilene Philharmonic Orchestra, opera association,ballet company, and theater groups asentertainment attractions. The LaJet Classic,held at the Fairway Oaks Golf and RacquetClub since 1981, was on the PGA tour forabout ten years. The Abilene Convention Centerbrings all types of organizations to thedowntown area, while the Taylor County Coliseumhas become the center for horse showsand rodeos. The ruins of Fort Phantom Hillnorth of Abilene and Buffalo Gap HistoricVillage just south of the city add to the culturalattractions.

B. W. AstonHardin-Simmons University

Downs, Fane, ed. The Future Great City of West Texas, Abilene, 1881-1981. Abilene TX: Richardson, 1981.

Duff, Katharyn,and Betty Kay Seibt. Catclaw Country: An Informal History of Abilene in West Texas. Burnet TX: Eakin, 1980.Lack, Paul, Paul Jungmeyer, Robert Sledge, and FaneDowns. The History of Abilene. Abilene TX: McMurry, 1981.

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2024)
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