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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    Rankin Hotel

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    Like a battered medieval castle, the empty red brick building stood for years on the hill overlooking the West Texas oil town of Rankin in Upton County.

    The building was the old Harlan Hotel, opened for business at the height of the oil boom as a competitor of the Yates Hotel, built by Ira Yates, promoter of the famed Yates Oil Field.

    Neither hotel succeeded in running the other out of business - in fact, both of them eventually closed for lack of business. But only the Yates still stands.

    Rankin, founded in 1911 after the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway bypassed the original county seat of Upland, had no need for a large hotel until Oct. 28, 1926. That's when the Yates No. 1-A blew in at 400 barrels a day.

    By 1928 Rankin had grown large enough to incorporate as a city. It had a new courthouse, a new school, a busy bank, and a weekly newspaper that seldom lacked for news. Soon Rankin also had a 46-room hotel, the three-story brick and concrete Yates.

    The hotel's grand opening in July 1929 made page-one news in Rankin and elsewhere around the Permian Basin. The high-rise, "fire-proof" Yates Hotel billed itself as the finest hostelry in West Texas, at least on the left side of San Angelo.

    According to popular legend, the colorful Ira Yates and another entrepreneur, former Upton County district clerk R.C. Harlan, had a little falling out over something or other. Typical Texas oil baron that he was, Harlan built the city's second large hotel and named it in his honor.

    At one time, as many as 10 hotels of sorts did a flourishing business in Rankin, but the Harlan and Yates amounted to the Waldorf Astoria and Ritz of the town once claiming a population of 10,000.

    According to one Rankin old-timer interviewed in the 1960s, both hotels made a lot of money for their respective owners - others say one owner did better than the other. No matter, during the wild and wooly boom days, neither hotel suffered for clientele.

    Another local legend, surely true, is that numerous big oil deals came to reality on the basis of a handshake in one or the other of the hotels. And, boot-leg whiskey washing down their gullets about as fast as oil spewed from the ground they leased, not a few oilmen lost their proverbial shirts (and more) in friendly poker games in smoke-filled rooms at the Harlan or Yates.

    Also, as more than one Rankin resident later admitted, numerous other activities not exactly printable took place in the two hotels.

    However, with the great boom soon a thing of the past, and oil crews moving on to new fields, both hotels started to decline in business as Rankin dropped in population during the Great Depression to only 672 residents by 1940. The emergence of tourist courts - motels to a later generation - also dealt the Harlan and Yates severe blows.

    The Harlan closed its doors first, followed by the Yates a few years later.

    When the Harlan went out of business, an Odessa man bought it. He, in turn, handed it over to a Midland wrecking contractor. The company demolished about 50 percent of the old building and then stopped for reasons local folks never completely understood.

    After 1964, only the first floor of the three-story Harlan survived. The windows of the vacant building looked out over the one-time boom town like hollow eyes in a crushed skull. Grass grew in the once well-trod threshold, and fallen pieces of roofing rattled in the steady wind that blew across the hill.

    The Harlan stood like a bombed-out ruin until 1969. But civilized societies don't leave their dead lying out in the open, and the people of Rankin finally removed the deceased hotel from view. Today, not a brick remains.

    The Yates Hotel, though no longer accommodating landsmen and wildcatters, is now home to the Rankin Museum.

    Author's note: This is a revised version of "Death of a Hotel," which first appeared in my long out-of-print first book, "Red Rooster Country." (Pioneer Book Publishers, 1970.)

    Mike Cox
    "Texas Tales" October 5, 2006 column

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