Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Abilene, Texas, a town of 117,111 in 1999, is located 150 miles west of Fort Worth at the junction of Interstate 20 and U.S. Highways 277 and 83. It was one of many towns that came into existence as the Texas and Pacific Railway made its way west to California. What made Abilene different from and more successful than other railroad towns was the aggressiveness of the people who lived there. From the beginning, they promoted Abilene as the "Future Great City of West Texas." Local ranchers and businessmen C. W. Merchant, John Merchant, John N. Simpson, and John T. Berry persuaded H. C. Withers, town-site locator for the railroad, to select a site in northeastern Taylor County for the new town, ignoring the already established community and county seat, Buffalo Gap. A tent city of 300 was already established when the first town lots were auctioned on March 15, 1881. Some 200 people spent $51,000 to become a part of the new city. Before long, Abilene had two newspapers, an imported sheriff (John J. Clinton from Dodge City, Kansas), public schools, and churches. In 1883 Abilene won the election to become the new county seat.

Religion has always been an important part of the community. In 1891 the first of three church-related universities, Simmons College (later Hardin-Simmons University), was established. Abilene Christian University originally opened in 1906 as Childers Classical Institute and was followed in 1923 by McMurry University. Subsequently, they were joined by branches of Cisco College and Texas State Technical College. The abundance of Christian universities has led some to say that Abilene is the buckle on the Bible Belt of the South. There is no doubt that the universities have had their impact on the city; they are a major economic asset and help make Abilene an education center.

In the late nineteenth century, as the Texas Plains were being settled, Abilene boosters unashamedly promoted their city, running promotional trains from Fort Worth to give people the opportunity to settle in this "Eden of the West." This boosterism made Abilene the center of what is called today the "Big Country." By the early twentieth century, Abilene had developed an ample water supply, public utilities, streetcars, and a fairly dependable economy based on farming and ranching, including sheep. The Abilene Epileptic Asylum, known today as the Abilene State School, was built in 1899 and, along with the West Texas Rehabilitation Center and two major hospitals, made Abilene a major medical center for the region. Abilene also quickly developed into a center for wholesale and retail trade, transportation, media, and cultural events as well as the headquarters for independent oil operators after the oil boom of the 1920s, which had more than doubled the population to 23,175 by 1930.

However, it was World War II that put Abilene on the map. The arrival of Camp Barkeley and Tye Army Air Field in 1940 brought 1.5 million soldiers as well as millions of dollars into the city. The closing of Barkeley at the end of World War II spurred civic leaders to diversify Abilene's economic base, but they never lost sight of what a military installation had done for the economy. In 1952 their lobbying efforts proved successful when Congress approved the construction of Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. The air force base, along with the Nike and Atlas missile installations in the early sixties, put Abilene into another economic boom that only temporarily subsided in the late sixties before resuming once again during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The oil industry stimulated a rapid growth in manufacturing, banking, and construction. Oil, however, has always been a fickle economic base, and declining prices in the 1980s once again set Abilene scrambling to shore up its economic livelihood.

In the 1990s Abilene turned the declining downtown area into a historic district, anchored by the Grace Cultural Center and Museums of Abilene complex and promoted by an art walk. Old railroad buildings have been transformed into a restaurant, candy factory, and tourist information and Chamber of Commerce center. Minor-league baseball and hockey teams have complemented the strong Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra, opera association, ballet company, and theater groups as entertainment attractions. The LaJet Classic, held at the Fairway Oaks Golf and Racquet Club since 1981, was on the PGA tour for about ten years. The Abilene Convention Center brings all types of organizations to the downtown area, while the Taylor County Coliseum has become the center for horse shows and rodeos. The ruins of Fort Phantom Hill north of Abilene and Buffalo Gap Historic Village just south of the city add to the cultural attractions.

B. W. Aston Hardin-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 Fane Downs. The History of Abilene. Abilene TX: McMurry, 1981.

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