Borger – Rip Roaring “Booger Town”

Borger – Boomtown by Thomas Hart Benton.

The largest city in Hutchinson County, Texas, Borger got its start during the Oil Boom of the 1920’s. The first oil well in the area was drilled on May 2, 1921, on the 6666 Ranch, and though the strike was of a poor quality, it spawned more drilling in Texas Panhandle. Soon a number of successful wells were producing in the Borger area. In January 1926, Asa Phillip “Ace” Borger, a townsite developer, who had earlier established two other oil boomtowns — Slick and Cromwell, Oklahoma, came to the area to personally check out the reports of the oil boom.

Before long, Borger and John R. Miller, an attorney and old friend from the Oklahoma boomtowns, purchased 240 acres from rancher, John Frank Weatherly, for $50 per acre. Borger then obtained a grant to organize the Borger Townsite Company, with capital stock of $10,000 divided into 100 shares of $100 each. The Townsite Company was comprised of Ace Borger, John R. Miller and C. C. Horton of the Gulf Oil Company.

Lot sales began on March 8, 1926, and by the end of the first day, the Borger Townsite Company had grossed between $60,000 and $100,000. A post office was opened the next month on April 13th with Lawrence E. Brain as the first postmaster. Over the next months, the Borger Town Company took out full-page ads in area papers promoting settlement in the fledgling town and within a few months time, the boomtown had swelled to a population of 45,000, most lured by sensational advertising and “black gold”. Though the population had boomed, many of these new “residents” were transient and lived in tents and shacks.

After six months, Ace Borger sold out his interest in the Borger Townsite Company for more than a million dollars. But, he was not nearly done with development of the town or the area. In October, 1926, the charter incorporating the city of Borger was adopted, and Ace Borger’s partner, John R. Miller was elected mayor. By that time, the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railroad had completed a spur line to Borger, a school district had been established, a newspaper — the Hutchinson County Herald (now the Borger News-Herald) had started publication and Ace Borger had established a lumberyard. Along Borger’s three-mile-long Main Street, also stood the town’s first hamburger stand, established by J.D. Williams, as well as a hotel and a jail. Telephone service and steam-generated electricity were available by the end of of the year. Before wells were drilled, drinking water was provided in tank wagons.

Area ranchers John R. Weatherly and James A. Whittenburg, also hoped to cash in on the boom, by establishing three rival townsites, Isom, Dixon Creek, and Whittenburg, all next to that of Borger. Later Isom and Dixon Creek were incorporated into the Borger city limits. The town of Whittenburg was merged with the town of Pantex, and became Phillips.

In the months that followed, oilmen, roughnecks, prospectors, panhandlers and fortune seekers flooded the oil boomtown and along with them came a number of shadier elements including cardsharks, prostitutes, bootleggers and drug dealers. The city became known as “Booger Town” as it attracted fugitives from the law and some of the toughest hoodlums in the Southwest — people such as Yellow Young, Ray Terill, Spider Gibson, Wireline Yerkey, and Waltine. J. “Shine” Popejoy, who was known as the “King of Texas Bootleggers”.

Borger area Oil Well, 1920’s.

Making matters worse, the town government soon fell under control of an organized crime syndicate led by Mayor John Miller’s shady associate, Richard “Two-Gun Dick” Herwig, a man who was reportedly under indictment for murder in Cromwell, Oklahoma. Herwig, the town’s designated Chief Law Enforcement Officer, brought with him a number of felonious friends to staff his city marshal force and “police” the flourishing town. However, their primary responsibility seems to have been collecting fees from bootleggers and weekly fines from prostitutes.

Herwig and his men sanctioned and supervised wide-open saloons in defiance of Prohibition while supplying the illegal barrooms their own lines of bootlegged alcohol and beer, as well as narcotics. Dixon Street (now Tenth Street) was the center of all the “fun” — housing brothels, dance halls, speakeasies and gambling dens. Here, some 2,000 prostitutes were said to have practiced their profession, with each paying a weekly “fine” of $18 to stay in business. In addition to the fines and illegal products provided to the saloons, the city marshals also made money by demanding on-the-spot collections of arbitrary fines from other businesses and ordinary citizens as well as the buying and selling of stolen cars. Murder and robbery became an everyday occurrence, as the “marshals” had no time for the protection of everyday citizens.

Borger 90 days old

In the summer of 1926, two deputy sheriffs were shot down on a Borger street by one of the many fugitives, who had bought sanctuary from Herwig. Like all homicides at this time, this double murder went unpunished and provoked a crackdown by state and federal authorities. In October, 1926, the town was infiltrated with Prohibition and narcotic agents, U.S. Marshals, and Texas Rangers.

Some 20 bars and gambling dens were padlocked, the illegal liquor was confiscated, and the gaming equipment was destroyed. Fifty violators were arrested and hundreds more were herded into a domino hall by shotgun-toting federal marshals and strongly advised to relocate. The Federal agents then departed leaving the Rangers to police Borger and dispose of the prisoners, who were soon loaded into trucks and driven to jail in Amarillo. Numerous other “undesirables” were ordered to leave town. By the end of the month, the Texas Rangers declared Borger to be “100% better.” But, their proclamation was far too premature.

Within three months, the criminals were right back in business, at which time Borger was again teeming with slot machines, brothels and more than 20 gambling joints. In the meantime, Sheriff Joe Ownbey was taking no actions and was allegedly receiving frequent payoffs. In late March, gangsters killed a city policeman and on April 1, two of Ownbey’s deputies. By the spring of 1927, a new governor was in place in the Texas capitol, and acting on petitions and investigative reports, Governor Daniel J. Moody sent another detachment of Texas Rangers, under Captains Francis Augustus Hamer and Thomas R. Hickman, to once again rein in the town.

1 thought on “Borger – Rip Roaring “Booger Town””

  1. I volunteered at the Hutchinson County Museum and they placed me in the library to organize the books and donated materials and manuscripts. I found a handwritten biography from a man who described himself as a criminal, living in the early days in Borger. He wrote that he knew who killed John Holmes and at the end of the manuscript he identifies the name of the man. I gave the manuscript to the Director of the Museum and showed him the place where the writer identifies the proposed killer. I’m unsure what happened to the manuscript after I gave it to the Director.

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