Bob's Oil Well in Matador appeared to me in a dream. I was driving between Floydada and Paducah, not really thinking of anything but considering everything, when lights began to dance above the distant horizon. They were the lights of Bob's oil derrick twinkling more than 84 feet above the prairie.
Before the interstate highway system sliced distances across Texas into 70 mph segments, TX 70 was the north-south gateway into the Panhandle. About halfway between Sweetwater and Pampa, Bob's place was a truck stop and tourist trap known around the country. It might not have been a destination, but it was a reason to make a detour if you were in the neighborhood.
Luther Bedford "Bob" Robertson built a service station on the edge of Matador in 1932 and soon added a wooden derrick to attract truckers. He later rebuilt the station around a steel derrick with lights climbing into the night sky. At the intersection of U.S. 70 and TX 70, Robertson's travelers' oasis was known as the best place to get a hamburger in the Panhandle. He enticed visitors with a zoo of rattlesnakes, bears, monkeys, coyotes, and a buffalo. The enterprise eventually included a grocery store, a garage, and a cafe made of stone and petrified wood.
Two weeks after Robertson died in 1947, the derrick fell in high winds. His widow restored the tower, but the business closed in the 1950s. Robertson's granddaughter still owns the property.
"It's been a landmark as long as anyone can remember," says Marisue Potts of the nearby Mott Creek Ranch. Even though volunteers refurbished the store and hung new lights on the tower, Preservation Texas listed the roadside attraction as one of the most endangered places of 2004.
The interior was never redone because "it's a carpenter's nightmare," Potts says. "Everything slants inward with the bottom of the derrick." At one time it was going to become a visitors center. The rock cafe is just as Robertson's widow left it, with dishes still on the old bar that was carried from a New Mexican saloon.
The volunteer group still maintains the building. "People stop by all the time and say they remember the place from their childhood," Potts says. "It makes a nice entrance to town."
Only about 1,200 people live in Motley County. Matador, the county seat, was named for the 400,000-acre ranch of the same name. Established in 1882, the ranch is known for its livestock and high-dollar hunting leases.
The Hotel Matador (built in 1914) recently reopened as a bed and breakfast. Potts recommends the Main Street Cafe for the best hamburgers in town, JayBird's Kitchen for chicken-fried steak, and the onion rings at Billie Dean's Restaurant and Motel.
"For a small community, we try to keep it lively," Potts says, "even though most of us are getting a little worn out."
921st in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.
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