What You Need to Know About The City of Big Spring, Texas
Big Spring is the county seat of Howard County, Texas. The city is named for the large spring of clear, cold water that once issued from the ground near what is now the southwestern city limit.
The spring created an important watering hole for Native Americans and wildlife before the coming of Anglo-American settlers and the Texas & Pacific Railroad. The original Big Spring has long since dried up, but the city that bears its name is still going strong.
Let’s explore this city! This guide was written by the editor of Fixin to Texas Blog.
Exploration and Settlement of Big Spring
Captain R.B. Marcy of the U.S. Army led the first American expedition to the area in 1849. Marcy labeled the spring as a campsite on the Overland Trail to California, and knowledge of the spring’s existence began to attract buffalo hunters and ranchers to the area. Small settlements began to appear, which eventually became the farming and ranching communities of Big Spring, Colorado City to the east, and Stanton to the west.
Like so many of the cities and towns of west Texas, the economy of Big Spring grew from a predictable series of industries in sequence. First came the saloons, gambling dens, and other “houses of ill repute.” These serviced the transient railroad workers and buffalo hunters who passed through the area. Then came cattle ranching, followed by dry land cotton farming. Finally, in the 1920s, oil discoveries in the Permian Basin created the chief economic underpinnings of the entire region.
Big Spring’s economy, like that of its neighboring towns, still rests on the three-legged stool of cattle, oil, and cotton. But for three decades, the city’s economic stool had a fourth leg: a military installation.
Webb Air Force Base
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces set up the Big Spring Army Air Field, home of the Army Air Forces Bombardier School. Its mission was to train bomber crews in the art of high-altitude precision bombing. The Bombardier School graduated nearly 6,000 students before the Big Spring AAF deactivated in November 1945. Six years later, the base reactivated as Webb Air Force Base, which continued to serve mainly as a pilot training facility. Webb AFB continued to operate until after the Vietnam War, when budgetary constraints and the reduced need for pilots led to its closure in 1977.
The grounds of Webb AFB are now occupied by a general aviation airport, the privately operated Big Spring Correctional Center, and the Federal Correctional Institution, Big Spring, which is operated directly by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Places to Go and Things to Do in Big Spring
As would be expected of a town of 27,000 people, Big Spring isn’t a well-publicized tourist mecca. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to see and do in Big Spring, though. Outdoor activities can be enjoyed at Comanche Trail Park and Big Spring State Park, and history buffs will be attracted to Heritage Museum and Hangar 25 Air Museum. A convenient directory of local attractions and events appears on the city’s website, which is well worth a visit by anyone planning a trip to Big Spring.
There’s one historic attraction that doesn’t appear on the directory, but probably should. It’s a dusty old dance hall, just north of town on the Snyder highway, called the Stampede.
Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys
Anyone who knows anything about western swing music has heard of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Fewer, perhaps, have heard of Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys, unless they grew up in West Texas.
Hoyle Nix was born in 1918, and his family moved to Big Spring a year later. His father was a fiddler and his mother played guitar, so Hoyle came by his musical talent naturally. He was a great admirer of Bob Wills, whose work heavily influenced Hoyle’s own style.
In 1946, Hoyle and his younger brother Ben formed a western swing band called the West Texas Cowboys. They played a dance hall circuit that included Abilene, Midland, Odessa, Lubbock, San Angelo, and many other, smaller towns in the region. During the 1950s, Nix and his band began touring with Bob Wills and his band, and Wills appeared with Nix on occasion even after disbanding the Texas Playboys in the early 1960s.
Nix opened his own dance hall in Big Spring in May 1954 and called it the Stampede. It was a simple building. For the first few years, there weren’t even any tables, just benches next to the walls. After all, the place was built for dancing, not sitting.
A red stripe painted on the floorboards marked the dance floor, and anyone who wasn’t dancing had to stand behind the red line. The Stampede was always a family place, where daddies could dance with their daughters, and husbands with their wives. No alcohol was served. In the early days, there was even a dress code. The men had to remove their hats while dancing, and they had to keep their shirttails tucked in.
BIG BALLS IN COWTOWN
Hoyle Nix’s first and best known recording, “Big Balls in Cowtown,” was released on the Star Talent label in 1949. The song went on radio station playlists nationwide and has since been covered by George Strait and Asleep at the Wheel.
The Stampede is still in business, owned and managed by Hoyle’s son Jody, who is an accomplished musician in his own right. It isn’t open every weekend as in times past, but Jody Nix keeps his fans informed, and the word has a way of getting around.
That’s the way it usually goes in Big Spring. The place doesn’t get much publicity, and there’s not a lot of tourist trade. But when something good is going on, the word still has a way of getting around.