AMARILLO, Texas—Virginia Pirtle Malicoat's mother was part of the great houses-on-wheels disappearance of Phillips, Texas, nearly 30 years ago. The legal wrangling was over, and what had been several years in the making was done by 1989.
Houses, one after another, were trucked away from the unique company town two miles northeast of Borger. The town—founded in 1926 and renamed for the next-door petroleum company in 1938—in essence, went with them.
"It was sad," Malicoat told the Amarillo Globe-News. "I didn't actually see any of those houses being moved. I didn't want to see my mother's, but I was hurt. It almost killed us who grew up there."
But from that forced migration to the Buna Vista area of Borger was a discovery, a discovery that led to a book. To clean out that house for the truck, some old trunks were moved from the attic. In them were piles of letters, photos, old clipped newspaper articles. It was a treasure trove of history.
Over time, Malicoat began to group them and put everything in some kind of chronological order. It went from generations to finally Virginia's generation. By then, she knew this was special and the springboard for something bigger.
Always wanting to write, Malicoat had her inspiration. She only recently put the finishing touches on her book, "Stained Glass and Railroad Tracks," a breezy 296 pages.
"It's just kind of a coming of age of a young girl in a camp town that's definitely unique from any other town," she said.
For those of a certain age and a sense of Texas Panhandle history, there's an affinity for Phillips, which Malicoat spends a good portion of her book detailing. It was the self-contained company town nestled right next to the refinery.
It was a town of several thousand, one that in the 1950s was a state football powerhouse whose high-achieving school was a point of community pride. It had two churches, the Jolly Drug, Ostrum Grocery, 66 Cleaners, a movie theater, a hospital. It was a town that knew no economic class difference, because almost all worked for Phillips. It was a version of Mayberry in the Panhandle.
"Except we didn't have a sheriff," Malicoat said.
Walter Pirtle, Virginia's father, came to yjr oil boom town of Borger from East Texas in the 1930s as a department store window dresser. He went back to the Tyler area for a time and then returned for good a few years later, principally to work for a Borger department store owner from the Midwest, Sam Heinze.
When others were dropping their jobs to begin working for Phillips during the Depression, Pirtle stayed loyal to the man who gave him a chance. But when Heinze closed the store to move to Kansas City right at the start of World War II, Pirtle was able to land a job at Phillips.
Virginia was born at Phillips Pantex hospital in 1944, one of the last births before it closed at the end of the year and a new one opened. It was at Phillips' population height of 4,250. That began 19 years of calling Phillips home, and about 45 that her mother, Verda, did.
"Everybody thinks where they grew up was the center of the universe," Malicoat said, "but it was such a happy time. Part of it was the time we grew up—the 1950s. We didn't have any worries. We had no idea who made what kind of money or who had what kind of job. We were all equal."
As far as the book title, Virginia has always admired the beauty of stained glass, once a staple for churches, including both in Phillips. She has some stained glass in a frame from the Methodist church in Phillips that was blown out by an explosion in 1980.
There have been only a few towns in the Panhandle to completely disappear. The two high-profile ones were Glazier, in the northeastern Panhandle—which was virtually wiped off the map by a 1947 tornado—and Phillips.
Phillips Petroleum Co., offering residents money to leave, had been wanting to expand the plant into the community for some time starting in the 1970s. A plant explosion in 1980 that damaged business, houses, the school and churches—where Virginia got her stained glass—forced 317 families to leave by year's end. It was the beginning of the end.
It took another seven years before what was left of the town of Phillips came rolling down the highway. There's nothing left now, nothing but land where a bit of Mayberry in the Panhandle once stood. The only reminders are the jaw-dropping Phillips High School Heritage Center in Stinnett and works like those from Malicoat.
"We assumed everyone lived like we did," she said, "but that turned out to maybe not be the case."