The Writing Traveler: Oil, Texas, and Hilton’s First Hotel

The Mobley Hotel in Cisco, Texas, became Conrad Hilton’s first hotel.

Conrad Hilton had it figured right. The big money in Cisco might not be in the bank or the oilfield. He saw the future. He bought the hotel.

BIG STORIES come and go.

They make an impact and leave.

Travelers find the little stories, the ones so many overlook.

Yet it’s the little story that comes and stays.

They hang around and keep whispering for me to write about them.

Sometimes I listen.

This is one of those times.


Caleb Pirtle III

CONRAD HILTON stepped off the train in downtown Cisco, Texas, and the streets around him were stained the color of oil.

He had made the long journey to West Texas as soon as he heard about the strike in Ranger, just down the road, which meant that fortunes could be made by anybody who had enough foresight to reach town while the boom was still booming.

Conrad Hilton had not hesitated.

After all, there were rumors that gushers were spitting the residue of black gold over Ranger, and the little town was irrigating its crops with oil instead of water.

Farmers in debt to the bank during breakfast had enough money to buy the bank by suppertime.

And some of the drillers had even invaded the sanctity of the cemetery, putting down their wells between graves.

Conrad Hilton had always said he liked to “launch big ships,” and he went “where the water was deep.”

Cisco did not have a lot of water, perhaps, but the oil was deep, and Hilton had visions of taking home some of the money that came from those unbelievably wealthy West Texas fields.

Hilton fully intended to buy a Cisco bank, but he grew angry, then contemptuous, when the bank owner suddenly raised the promised sale price.

He would have left.

But time was late.

The day was ending.

The train wasn’t coming back.

He had nowhere else to go.

Hilton marched down the street to the Mobley Hotel, looking for a room and bed for the night.

There were none.

The hotel was so full that Henry I. Mobley was renting out his rooms in eight-hour shifts.

Roughnecks sleep.

Roughnecks go to work.

Another batch comes in for eight hours of sleep.

Same sheets.

Same stains.

Same sweat.

Didn’t matter.

Conrad Hilton smiled. The big money in Cisco, he decided, just might not be in the bank after all.

He promptly bought the hotel, which was just fine with Henry, who wanted to get out of town, drive down to Ranger, and drill for oil.

Time was wasting.

Hilton always referred to the old Mobley as a “cross between a flophouse and a gold mine.”

But it was his first hotel, and it marked the beginning of Conrad Hilton’s legendary career as “innkeeper of the world.”

Stories from my journeys as travel editor for Southern Living can be found in my memoir: The Man Who Talks to Strangers. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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