By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Downtown Big Spring is pocked with abandoned gas stations, Mexican restaurants and barbecue shacks. In some cases, it's difficult to tell the difference between operating businesses and the remains of their shuttered siblings.
But perhaps the most poignant symbol of Big Spring's current predicament, which turned grim after Webb Air Force Base was shuttered in 1977 and the boom and bust cycles of the petroleum industry began to exact their toll, is the Settles Hotel. This 15-story circa-1930 hotel is the tallest building in Big Spring. Indeed, it was once the tallest building between El Paso and Dallas. It was also one of the most opulent structures in West Texas, with 150 guest rooms, apartments, a luxurious grand ballroom, a vast lobby planked with marble, a curved staircase and a private club. It was a stopover for celebrities and dignitaries such as Elvis Presley, Lawrence Welk, Agnes du Pont and President Herbert Hoover. But the bustle went dead more than 20 years ago. Today this Texas landmark, owned by the city of Big Spring, is a gutted and disheveled maze of busted walls, perforated floors, knocked-out windows and leaky pipes.
Pyles left Big Spring long before it succumbed to decay. He wasn't even sure if the restaurants his family owned when he was a boy--the Phillips 66 Truck Stop, the Wagon Wheel restaurant, the Coahoma Café and the Lakeside Café--still were open. When asked if he knew anything about a Phillips 66 truck stop that existed years ago on the western edge of town, the manager of Carlos Restaurant and Bar shook his head. "Who owned it?" he asked. When told the name of the owner, he shook his head again. "The only guy I know of named Pyles is some five-star chef out of Dallas. He ate here once."
But an old-timer at the next table over did remember the truck stop, which thrived in Big Spring long before the massive Rip Griffin Phillips 66 Truck/Travel center emerged on Interstate 20. He explained that it had been abandoned for more than 20 years after changing hands several times, but it was still standing, lying dormant and decaying, like an old lighthouse long ago extinguished.
The corpse of the old Pyles truck stop sits on a triangular sliver of real estate just before U.S. Highway 80 splits into Third and Fourth streets, thoroughfares that run through the heart of Big Spring. The tiny structure is striped with fat bands of blue and white. "Lefty and Denny's Pool" is crudely stenciled over the sign that once carried the Phillips 66 insignia. The windows are fractured, and the dining area that once held a handful of tables is strewn with old car batteries, a plastic gas can and a hydraulic jack. A sign on the wall reads "no fighting or cussing" in blood red.
Pyles' father, Austin, a butcher by trade, left Big Spring in 1981 and now lives in East Texas. He says the family earned a good living from that truck stop before he sold it in 1965. "The town was booming then," he says.
He put Stephan to work at the truck stop when times were lean. The younger Pyles started his restaurant career at the age of 8, busing tables on weekends. "I loved it," Pyles recalls. "I looked forward to it all week. It was just as hick and Western as could be. All chewing gum and big hair."
The truck stop was by far the most successful of his parents' four restaurants, and it enabled them to build their dream house. But construction of Interstate 20, which diverted most of the truck traffic from Highway 80, forced them to sell. Their next restaurant venture was a spot called the Wagon Wheel, a large brick structure that had a neon wagon wheel on its roof. The menu bulged with steaks, Mexican food, fried chicken, chicken-fried steaks and broasted chicken. "It was Texas food, before I knew what Texas food was," Pyles says.
Though he says he was always fascinated with food, an interest aroused by Sunday family dinners and meals in restaurants, Pyles never considered going into the restaurant business as a profession. Watching his parents struggle to eke out a living from their restaurants soured him.
Besides, he had other interests. In the seventh grade he played football, where his 5-foot-8-inch frame proved meaty enough to earn him a slot on the line as a right guard. But he never grew taller, and by the end of the ninth grade, Pyles washed out, his football career abruptly ended.
So he focused on other pursuits: music, drama, radio and Bible club. "I was kind of thought of as a Jesus freak," Pyles confesses. "I had a very conservative, religious fundamental upbringing. That sort of shapes everything."
This fervency forged his adolescence in seemingly contradictory ways. The rigid strictures of the Church of Christ had the odd effect of opening him up to the world of music. Because musical instruments were forbidden as accompaniment to hymns during church services, virtually all of Pyles' singing was done a cappella. "It taught everyone to sing better," he says. His musical inspiration also came from family gatherings, where they would sing hymns accompanied by his father's mandolin and his uncle's guitar playing.