Visiting Cisco, Texas, to buy a bank, Conrad Hilton saw an opportunity in roughnecks standing in line for a motel room.
The first Hilton Hotel came in 1919 when Conrad Hilton, intending to buy a Texas bank, witnessed the booming Ranger oilfield. “He can keep his bank!” declared Hilton before buying a motel overflowing with roughnecks in nearby Cisco.
On October 17, 1917, the McClesky No. 1 well hit an oil-bearing sand at 3,432 feet deep and launched the world-famous Ranger oilfield boom. Thanks to this “Roaring Ranger,” in just 20 months the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company – whose stock had skyrocketed from $30 to $1,250 a share – was drilling 22 wells in the area. Eight refineries were soon open or under construction, and the city’s four banks had $5 million in deposits.
The Ranger oilfield and other nearby North Texas discoveries gained international fame by eliminating critical oil shortages during World War I – allowing the Allies to “float to victory on a wave of oil.”
Investment capital and aspiring millionaires soon overwhelmed the little town of Ranger as well as nearby Cisco, where the Texas Central Railroad crossed the Texas & Pacific. The new oilfield gave birth to countless stories of fortunes made with gushers and good luck. But only one tale endures of a fortune made because oil was easier to find than a good place to sleep.
Conrad Hilton learned the banking business from the ground up in his hometown of San Antonio, N.M. As a young man with only $2,900 capital, he founded the New Mexico State Bank of San Antonio. His tenacity in pursuit of investors and deposits paid off.
In two years, Hilton built his bank’s assets to $135,000. He believed he had found his life’s work. World War I interrupted his plans, prompting Hilton to sell his bank and serve his country.
Upon returning from France after the Armistice, Hilton began anew. He set out for Albuquerque, determined to start again in the banking business. But times had changed and banking opportunities had dried up. Despite Hilton’s best efforts, he couldn’t break back into the business.
Then a longtime Albuquerque friend, Emmett Vaughey, suggested Texas, where the Ranger oilfield was making millionaires. Persuaded and confident, Hilton boarded the train bound for Wichita Falls.
But just as he had found in Albuquerque, there was no room for a “new guy” in the solidly locked up banking community of Wichita Falls. The same was true even further south, in Breckenridge.
Disappointed but determined, Hilton continued down the Texas Central Railroad to the Cisco railway station, just east of Ranger’s booming oilfield in Eastland County. He was 31 years old and determined to build a banking empire.
With $5,011 in his pockets, Hilton walked to the first bank he saw in Cisco and found to his delight that it was for sale – asking price – $75,000.
Accustomed to finding financial backers and undeterred by the $70,000 shortfall, he wired the absentee Kansas City owner to close the deal.
Hilton was poised to build the banking empire he had long dreamed of when the seller came back by telegram, tersely raising the price to $80,000.
First Hilton Hotel
In his autobiography, Be My Guest, Conrad Hilton recalled telling the startled telegraph operator, “He can keep his bank!” Then I strode out of the station and across the street to a two-story red brick building boosting itself as the ‘Mobley Hotel.’
Henry Mobley, the hotel’s owner, was making the most he could off of the Ranger oilfield boom. His lobby was constantly packed with tired workers, maneuvering for space and impatiently awaiting their turn to rent a room. Mobley rented the hotel’s 40 beds in eight-hour blocks corresponding to shifts.
Hilton joined the crowd in line, suddenly alert to an unanticipated opportunity. He approached Henry Mobley, who was convinced that the real money was in oil, not in the “glorified boarding house” business. Before long, they closed a $40,000 deal and Conrad Hilton had his first hotel. He would never return to banking.
Later in the year, with profits earned from the Mobley Hotel, Hilton bought the Melba Hotel in Fort Worth, and the following year the Waldorf in Dallas. Then in 1921, production from the Ranger field collapsed, taking with it scores of businesses and a number of failed banks.
Hilton’s hotel business continued to expand. By 1923 he owned five Texas hotels. By 1930, he was the largest hotel operator in the region.
The Depression and the years that followed brought Conrad Hilton challenges that were inevitably answered with tenacity and innovation. While memories of the Ranger boom gradually slipped into history, Conrad Hilton’s business grew to dominate the hotel marketplace.
According to a National Register of listed sites narrative about the Mobley Hotel, Hilton considered his purchase the “ideal hotel to practice on.”
Two principals now basic to all Hilton hotels were first tried in the Mobley: maximum reduction of wasted space and “esprit de corps” among the employees. Hilton is remembered not as a banker but as a preeminent hotelier…and an oilfield entrepreneur.
The restored and renovated Mobley Hotel, which Hilton once referred to as “a cross between a flophouse and a gold mine,” now hosts the Cisco chamber of commerce and serves as a community center, museum, and park. Hilton later regarded his oil boom town purchase as his “first love; a great lady.” Learn more about North Texas boom towns in Pump Jack Capital of Texas.
The Bad Santa of Cisco, Texas
Adding to the lore of Cisco, Texas – in addition to being near the 1917 “Roaring Ranger” oilfield and home of Hilton’s first hotel – on December 23, 1927, a man disguised as Santa Claus made an ill-fated attempt to rob a bank two days before Christmas. Marshall Ratliff donned a Santa Claus disguise and tried to rob the First National Bank with three armed accomplices. A running gun battle with police and citizens ensued, leaving more than a dozen wounded or dead before Ratliff was captured.
“After the gun smoke cleared, six people were dead, eight others wounded, two little girls and a young man had been kidnapped, and two bloody gun battles had been fought, launching the largest manhunt in Texas history,” explains Damon C. Sasser in The Bloody Cisco Santa Claus Christmas Caper.
In November 1928, Ratliff attempted to escape from the Eastland County jail and mortally wounded a guard before being subdued. The next morning, enraged citizens dragged Ratliff from the jail and strung him up from a nearby utility pole. When the first rope broke, they got a new one that did not.
Organized in 1992, the Eastland County Museum & Historical Society maintains an archive of period photographs and other memorabilia related to the county.
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Citation Information: Article Title: “Oil Boom Brings First Hilton Hotel.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-hilton-hotel. Last Updated: October 14, 2019.