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Boom Town

Destination: Wichita Falls

Travel time from:
Austin – 4.5 hours
Brownsville – 9.5 hours
Dallas – 2.5 hours
Houston – 5.5 hours
San Antonio – 5.75 hours
Lubbock – 3.25 hours
El Paso – 8.5 hours

Visit Wichita Falls for nearby casinos, tender steaks and the world’s smallest skyscraper.

By Mike Cox

First, a note on nomenclature: While the city of 104,000 that lies only minutes south of the Red River is shown on the map as being Wichita Falls, if you want to blend in, just call it Wichita. While this could get confusing in Kansas, it won’t cause any problem at all in Wichita Falls.

The Wichita River cuts through the north side of town, but long before anyone started laying out streets, Wichita Indians often camped on the banks of the river near a small waterfall. That geologic feature is believed to have been the inspiration for the town’s name. A couple of other theories on how the city got its name have been advanced, but no matter how it got its handle, Wichita Falls is an interesting place to visit with a surprising number of things to do for a community its size.

In fact, an online travel resource called The Official Best Of (www.OfficialBestOf.com) in 2010 named Wichita Falls as the best weekend getaway city in Texas for that year.

“When I got the call from them, it was out of the blue,” says Lindsay Greer, director of the city’s Con­vention and Visitors Bureau. “We get quite a bit of event-driven weekend visitors from all over Texas and Oklahoma, with a lot coming from the Fort Worth-Dallas area.”

Wichita Falls

The city built a multi-level cascade in 1987 to serve as the official “falls” of Wichita Falls.

As Greer readily admits, one big reason to visit Wichita isn’t even in Texas — the 60,000-square-foot Kiowa Indian casino just north of the Red River. It’s only 15 minutes from downtown. With Wichita Falls being the nearest metro area to the casino, a lot of people doing their gaming in Oklahoma opt to spend the night, eat, shop and see the sights in this North Texas city.

Coincidentally enough, local legend holds that the 19 land certificates conveying ownership of the acreage on which Wichita Falls would eventually rise were won by Mississippian John A. Scott in a poker game long before Oklahoma had any casinos. In 1876, Scott’s heirs had a town site mapped out on the land.

Rather than play the odds in Oklahoma, I opted to reacquaint myself with Wichita Falls, a place I hadn’t visited in more than a decade.

Arriving in time to check into a hotel for the night, I got up in the morning ready for breakfast. I have a pretty firm rule, one I break only in extreme situations: I don’t eat at chain-owned fast-food places. Especially not breakfast. I want my eggs over easy, not over-microwaved.

So, based on a recommendation, my first meal in Wichita Falls was breakfast at the aptly named Pioneer Restaurant. While this location has been in operation only a few decades, the business began in 1943 with a location downtown.

The first thing I noticed when I settled in my booth was a jukebox song-selector box on the wall at the edge of the table. While my daughter would not recognize such a thing unless maybe she’s seen American Graffiti, I remember when most Texas cafes had jukeboxes. Of course, technology has changed the world of cafe music as well. Now, instead of vinyl records, the jukebox at the Pioneer plays shiny CDs.

Wichita Falls

Music fills the booths at the Pioneer Restaurant.

The sign on each play box says one song costs 50 cents or two songs for a dollar. You have to shell out two bucks to get a bonus fifth song.

And then there was my waitress, Nevalene Shell, “like the oil company,” she says. My coffee cup never emptied, no matter how much I blew and slurped. Shell has worked at the Pioneer for 25 years. She pampers regular customers and is exceedingly cordial even to strangers, most of whom don’t stay that way long.

Thus fortified, I drove downtown to meet Alex Mills of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. His office is on the fourth floor of the 13-story Hamilton Building, one of three high-rises built to accommodate oil companies during the heyday of Wichita’s oil boom days.

Mills says that while Wichita Falls isn’t in one of the three big areas of fracking play (the nearest being the Barnett Shale, the outer edge of the field being a bit east of town) the city is still benefiting from the latest oil and gas boom. Also, many of the old wells that transformed Wichita from a county seat cowtown to the classic wild and woolly boom town in the late teens and early ’20s of the 20th century are still producing.

My next stop was another downtown building, one that brought Wichita Falls that good kind of publicity you just can’t buy. Known as the world’s smallest skyscraper and first popularized by Robert Ripley in his Believe it or Not newspaper cartoon, the four-story structure is only 40 feet high, with outer dimensions of 10 feet by 18 feet.

Even so, its location in the old part of downtown known as the Depot District makes the tower stand out, a monument to the greed of one man and the gullibility of many.

Wichita Falls

Wichita Falls investors were surprised when their planned high-rise turned out to be the world’s smallest skyscraper.

Back in 1919 during the height of the oil boom, a slick oilfield landman originally from Pennsylvania raised $200,000 in capital to build what investors believed would be a high-rise office building that would tower over the city and surrounding landscape, a symbol of Wichita’s rapid growth and bright future.

Alas, when the brick building went up, it looked like a shoebox standing on one end. Realizing they had been hoodwinked, the investors filed a civil suit, but when the judge inspected the blueprints (which the investors had to admit they had examined before writing their bank drafts), he had to take judicial notice that the plan called for a structure 480 INCHES tall, not 480 feet. Having failed to read the proverbial fine print, the investors took a bath while the scam-artist builder took a train ride back East.

Marcie Brow operates an interior décor boutique in the original, one-story structure to which the tower later was added. She says she hopes to convert the ground floor of the “skyscraper” into a mini-museum, and then sublet the upper floors to artists or photographers.

Visitors can learn more about North Texas’ oil-stained past by visiting the Museum of North Texas History at 720 Indiana St. downtown.

Wichita Falls

Cowboy hats are on display at the Museum of North Texas History.

Assuming that many people who like history also like shopping for antiques, two large antique malls are within an easy walk of the museum. One, Mansion II, is operated by 76-year-old Kenneth Cunningham, a longtime collector of Wichita-related books and ephemera.

Where there’s oil play, there’s money. The city Landmark Commission has produced a coat-pocket-sized, 22-page brochure with a fold-out map listing all of Wichita’s historic structures, including a neighborhood known as Oil Baron’s Row. While most history buffs have to settle for a self-guided tour, the Convention and Visitors Bureau does provide guided tours for groups with advance notice.

Of course, there’s more to Wichita than its oil-smudged past and energy-driven present. For one thing, there are good groceries. Given that some of the largest cattle ranches in Texas surround Wichita Falls, it’s a good place to enjoy a steak.

I tried McBride’s Land and Cattle Co. at 501 Scott Ave. (there are two locations in town, but no, it’s not a franchise operation) and did not go away hungry or disappointed.

What caught my eye when I first opened the menu was the bacon-wrapped filet mignon. Meat prices being what they are, the filet cost about what a barrel of crude oil went for a decade ago, but I decided to go for it anyway.

After a supper like that, in the morning I went for a walk on a segment of Wichita’s surprisingly long and well-done trail system. Walkers or bikers can enjoy 24 miles of paved trail forming a nearly complete circle in the city, the lower part of the loop skirting Lake Wichita, one of the oldest in Texas, its dam dating to 1901.

Visitors to Wichita normally can enjoy recreational activities on Lake Wichita and two other close-in reservoirs, Lake Arrowhead (including Lake Arrowhead State Park) and Lake Kemp. Unfortunately, because of the drought, all three impoundments are at only a third of capacity. Paid for by a local church, blue and white signs posted all over town tell the story in three short words: “Pray for Rain.”

Hot weather doesn’t make life any easier in a time of scant rain, but Wichita Falls has capitalized on its often-scorching summer temperatures with its annual Hotter’N Hell Hundred, an endurance bike race now in its 32nd year. Staged nine days before Labor Day each year, the 100-mile race draws 10,000 to 14,000 participants as well as thousands of spectators.

One year older than the Hotter’N Hell race is the Texas Ranch Roundup, an annual rodeo in which cowboys riding for 10 historic ranches, including the storied Pitch­fork and Waggoner ranches, compete for trophies and bragging rights. Money raised during the two-day event, which also draws thousands of visitors to Wichita Falls, goes to support the North Texas Rehabilitation Center, the West Texas Rehabilitation Center and West Texas Boys Ranch at San Angelo.

A must-see for anyone interested in the outdoors is the River Bend Nature Center. Considered a local treasure, the 20-acre nonprofit environmental education facility is located on city-owned land on the sloping shoulder of the Wichita River’s southern bank.

After burning a few calories on the center’s scenic trail system, I headed back downtown to replenish the supply at Gidget’s Sandwich Shack at Seventh Street and Ohio Avenue, a highly recommended eatery. I figured I had probably made a pretty good call in deciding to eat there when I saw a line of people waiting to order. I wasn’t disappointed.

I ran out of time before I ran out of things to do in Wichita Falls — I mean Wichita.


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See more travel stories on TP&W magazine's Travel page


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