Midland, located at an altitude of 2,779 feet on the southern edge of the Great Plains, is doubly distinguished as a modern and wealthy oil capital and as one of the most isolated urban areas in the United States. The major metropolitan centers of Dallas–Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, and Albuquerque are all over 300 miles away. Midland shares its isolation, its airport, its oil and gas economy, and a standard metropolitan area designation with its nearby sister city, Odessa. Much of the world links the two cities with a common name, Midland-Odessa. The surrounding oil-producing region of West Texas is known as the Permian Basin in recognition of the subterranean oil-bearing geological strata deposited by ancient seas during the Permian Era.
Although Midland was founded in 1885 as a ranching and agricultural depot on the Texas and Pacific Railroad, where its midway location between Fort Worth and El Paso inspired its name, the city's growth and development since the 1920s have depended disproportionately on oil and natural gas. After major oil field discoveries throughout the Permian Basin during the 1920s, the city quickly developed into the regional headquarters for one of the most important oil-producing regions of the United States. Odessa, in contrast, developed into much more of a blue-collar city, becoming home to thousands of workers in the oil fields and related activities. Despite cycles of boom and bust in the "awl bidness," Midland has steadily grown to a population of approximately 97,000, combined into an Odessa-Midland population of approximately 225,000.
One prominent family name in Midland now belongs to the history of the nation. President George H. W. Bush arrived in the Permian Basin with his young family in the early 1950s, living briefly in Odessa and then in Midland for most of the decade. With some investment money in hand, Bush learned the oil business during one of its periods of rapid development. He was part of a stream of new arrivals from out of state who brought a high level of education and managerial expertise to the area. George and Barbara Bush's son George W. Bush grew up and attended several grades of public school in Midland. He was destined to become governor of Texas and the first presidential son since John Quincy Adams to follow his father to the White House. Some years after the family moved their oil interests to Houston, George W. returned to the city he still considers his hometown to start his own career in the oil business. Midland is also the hometown of President George W. Bush's wife, Laura.
Drivers approaching the city on Interstate 20 might well marvel at the tall business towers rising in a dense cluster from the arid West Texas plains. Those taking time to visit would probably be equally surprised to discover a well-planned city with many amenities usually associated with a much larger population. Inside the commercial and residential areas, most signs of the West Texas desert quickly disappear. Elegant and comfortable residential areas display ample evidence of the city's oil wealth along wide and well-landscaped streets. Residents often praise the sheer convenience of everyday life in Midland, where traffic jams are almost nonexistent and modern retail shopping and dining facilities developed rapidly during the 1990s.
The 2000 census reported a Midland population that was about 75.5 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent African American. School enrollment figures since then, however, indicate a rapidly changing demography. The Hispanic population, in particular, is increasing rapidly, a change that is already reflected in local civic and school board elections.
In compensation for Midland's distance from the rest of the world, much attention has been paid to surface and air transportation. In addition to Interstate 20, the city is encircled and connected to Odessa by a system of modern expressways that stimulated the remarkable commercial and retail boom of the 1990s. A glance at the map of North America reveals the inspiration for another transportation project that is under way for the Midland area. The city lies almost exactly at the midpoint of the most direct potential corridor between Dallas–Fort Worth and the large northern Mexican industrial city of Chihuahua. In the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a coordinated plan called La Entrada al Pacífico is already under way in both Texas and Mexico to build modern highway links between Midland and Chihuahua.
Midland has long been a regional air transportation center. During World War II the site of the present airport was a major military pilot-training facility. Today Midland International Airport serves a vast area of West Texas, including much of the trans-Pecos region. It is the closest full-service airport to Big Bend National Park, about a four-hour drive away. In 1991 the airport became home to the American Airpower Heritage Museum. With special emphasis on the preservation of World War II aircraft, the museum holds the largest private collection of these planes in the United States. Many of the aircraft are maintained in flying condition and are the focus of the annual October Airshow.
Given Midland's location in the desertlike chaparral of West Texas, with an average annual rainfall of only twelve to fourteen inches, visitors are often surprised at the amount of irrigated agriculture that is visible to the north and east of the city. The crops, which typically are cotton, alfalfa, and pecans, depend on water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which extends hundreds of miles north into the Great Plains and reaches its southern extent a few miles south of the city. Until recently, Midland was heavily dependent on wells for its municipal water supply. By the 1990s, however, pure water began reaching the city via a 150-mile pipeline from Lake Ivey in Central Texas.
Midland's premier educational facility is Midland College, a comprehensive two-year community college on a spacious, parklike campus on the northern edge of the city. A branch campus of the state university, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, offers a variety of baccalaureate and graduate-degree programs at its campus in Odessa. Midland's high schools, along with those of Odessa, have become nationally famous for the intensity of their annual football jousts. H. G. Bissinger's 1990 book, Friday Night Lights, has brilliantly documented this rivalry and the culture that has developed around it.
Despite its prominence, football is not the only diversion available to Midlanders. Low humidity and mild winters make other outdoor activities such as tennis and golf attractive year-round. When the flat and virtually treeless plains occasionally become too monotonous, many Midlanders have discovered that relief is only a short drive away, at least in Texas miles. The alpine resorts of Cloudcroft and Ruidoso, New Mexico, are close enough for a Midland colony of vacation homes, while Guadalupe National Park and the cool, green Davis Mountains are barely three hours away. The Nature Conservancy of Texas has recently established the Davis Mountains Preserve in the heart of this range, providing Midlanders and other West Texans an opportunity for increased awareness of the ecology and diversity of their region.
Jerry Franks Midland College
Bissinger, H. G. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Olien, Roger M., and Diana Davids Olien. Oil Booms: Social Change in Five Texas Towns. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.