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DIMMIT COUNTY

DIMMIT COUNTY. Dimmit County (P-13), in southern Texas, is bordered by Zavala, La Salle, Webb, and Maverick counties. Carrizo Springs, the county's largest town and the county seat, is located in the northwestern part of the county at the intersection of U.S. Highways 83 and 277. The center point of the county is 28°25' north latitude and 99°46' west longitude. Dimmit County was named for Philip Dimmitt, one of the framers of the Goliad Declaration of Independence; his name was misspelled when the county was formed. The county comprises 1,307 square miles of generally flat to rolling terrain vegetated with mesquiteqv and small trees, scrub brush, cacti, and grasses. The elevation of the county ranges from approximately 500 to 800 feet. Soils in the nearly level areas are loamy and sometimes poorly drained, while soils in the rolling south central part of the county are loamy to clayey. Most of Dimmit County is drained by the Nueces River, which flows across the northeastern quarter. In 1982 almost 90 percent of the county's land was devoted to ranching and farming. Two percent of the land was cultivated, largely with irrigation. Dimmit County is known as part of the Winter Garden Region for the vegetables grown there. Mineral resources include caliche, industrial sand, sand and gravel, oil, gas, and lignite coal. Oil and gas production is significant. Temperatures in Dimmit County range from an average high of 99° F in July to an average low of 40° in January, with average annual temperature of 72°. Rainfall averages twenty-two inches a year, and the growing season lasts for 290 days.

Indian artifacts dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200 to 6000 B.C.) demonstrate that man has lived in the area of Dimmit County for about 11,000 years. The local Indian population seems to have increased during the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000), when many groups of hunter-gatherers spent part or all of their time in the area. During this period the county's inhabitants subsisted mostly on game, wild fruits, seeds, and roots. They carved tools from wood and stone, wove baskets, and sewed rabbitskin robes. Their most effective weapon was the atlatl, a throwing stick that greatly increased the deadliness of their spears. The hunting and gathering life persisted into the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to the arrival of the Spanish), though during this time the Indians in the area learned to make pottery and to hunt with bows and arrows. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Coahuiltecan Indians native to Dimmit County were squeezed out by other Indian who were migrating into the area and by the Spanish, who were moving up from the south. Many of the Coahuiltecans were taken to San Juan Bautista in Coahuila. Apaches and Comanches moved in to take their place.

No permanent Spanish settlement seems to have been established in the future Dimmit County. Beginning in the late 1600s, however, Spaniards passed through the area on the Old San Antonio Road, a camino real, to and from other Spanish settlements in Texas. In 1778 Juan Agustín Morfi, a Franciscan friar, for example, led a group through what later became southern Dimmit County and noted in his diary the Spanish names of various creeks and springs he saw. After the Mexican War of Independence the Mexican government used land grants to encourage its citizens to settle in Texas. Perhaps as many as seven grants were made between 1832 and 1834 that included territory now in Dimmit County. None of the recipients seems to have made use of the land, however. By 1836, when Texas became independent from Mexico, the area remained populated almost solely by Indians.

Between the Texas Revolution and the Mexican Warqqv (1836–46), most of Dimmit County lay in the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. Since neither the Republic of Texas nor the Mexican government could establish control over this strip of contested land, known at the time as Wild Horse Desert or El Desierto Muerto (Dead Desert), it became a haven for desperate characters. This remained true for years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo definitively assigned the Nueces Strip to Texas. In 1858, Dimmit County was officially formed from parts of Bexar, Webb, Maverick, and Uvalde Counties. Dangers posed by outlaws and unfriendly Indians, however, deterred settlement in the county until after the Civil War. Dimmit County as it was found by early settlers was much different than it is today. Grasslands punctuated by clumps of mesquite, oak, and ash trees supported an abundance of wildlife, including buffalo, deer, turkeys, wild horses, panthers, and javelinas. Springs, bubbling up from a vast reservoir of underground water, fed into running streams that harbored giant catfish, crawfish, and mussels. As one visitor described it, the place in the mid-nineteenth century was "a poor man's heaven." Before it was settled, the area became known to a number of men who went there on Indian patrols, to hunt mustangs, or to seek good places to feed and water their cattle.

According to local tradition, the first attempt to establish a settlement in the area occurred just before the Civil War, when a black man from Nacogdoches named John Townsend led a group of families to a site on Pendencia Creek. Harassed by Indians, this group soon moved on to Eagle Pass. A band of settlers from Milwaukee also attempted a settlement on San Lorenzo Creek near the Webb county line. The first permanent settlement in Dimmit County, Carrizo Springs, was founded in 1865 by a group of fifteen families from Atascosa County. These early settlers were led by Levi English, a cattleman and frontiersman who, like some of the other settlers, was already familiar with the area from earlier visits. A second group of settlers from Goliad arrived at Carrizo Springs about two years later. The first years of settlement were difficult. Most of the early residents of the county lived in primitive jacals or dugouts, and hostile Indians and outlaws often disturbed the peace. Indian attacks posed the greatest threat to isolated ranchers. Some of the earliest settlers were forced to abandon their lands and move closer to the Carrizo Springs settlement, which itself was sometimes endangered. But, hounded by patrols of Texas Rangersqv and local volunteers and with their numbers decimated by disease, the Indians were forced to leave Dimmit County by 1877. Banditry lasted well into the 1880s, partly because of the county's proximity to the Mexican border. Dimmit County residents filed many claims with the Mexican government for cattle stolen and driven across the Rio Grande by Mexican raiders. The Nueces Strip offered opportunities for cattle rustlers on both sides of the border; the Mexican government also registered protests about Mexican cattle taken to Carrizo Springs. Thanks in part to the sometimes extralegal efforts of John King Fisher, county marshall cum outlaw, banditry in Dimmit County was greatly reduced by the 1880s and the area became more domesticated.

The county was formally organized in 1880 with Carrizo Springs as county seat. That same year, Levi English donated land for a county courthouse, schools, and churches in the town. The Carrizo Springs Javelin, the county's only newspaper, was established in 1884. By 1885 the county seat was described as a "flourishing town" with two churches, a grocery, a livery stable, and a harness and boot shop. Unlike most frontier towns, Carrizo Springs had no saloon. County residents voted to outlaw the sale of alcohol in the early 1880s; and Marshall Fisher, himself a teetotaller, vigorously enforced this law. By 1892 the town also supported a steam gristmill-gin, two apothecaries, and a nursery. The growth of Carrizo Springs mirrored the development of the county as a whole between 1870 and 1890. Cattle ranchers firmly established themselves in the county during this period, especially after 1880, when barbed wire was introduced. According to the United States census, only sixteen farms and ranches existed in Dimmit County in 1870, and half of these were no larger than ten acres. By 1890 the county had ninety-six farms and ranches, and of these only five were ten acres or smaller. Twenty-three of the ranches in 1890 were larger than a thousand acres, and some considerably larger; the average size of all farms and ranches in Dimmit County that year was almost 4,100 acres. The number of cattle reported during this period almost tripled, rising from 15,575 in 1870 to 44,934 in 1890. Meanwhile, the county's population grew from 109 in 1870 to 665 in 1880 and 1,049 in 1890. Sheep ranching was also an important part of the economy for a time. In 1870 there were only 300 sheep in the county, but in 1880, 36,714 were reported and 72,000 pounds of wool were produced. An intense drought in 1886 and 1887, however, helped to bring an end to this promising start. The dry weather killed many sheep outright and helped to wipe out much of the county's grassland, which was increasingly replaced by brush that harbored coyotes. As the forage decreased, the predators increased; by 1900 sheep raising was no longer profitable in Dimmit County, and the census for that year counted only 207 sheep left.

At the turn of the century cattle ranching completely dominated Dimmit County's economy and set the tone for its culture. There were 105 farms and ranches in the county in 1900, comprising 904,000 acres. Though some ranchers set aside a few acres for such crops as wheat, corn, oats,and peanuts, the vast majority of the land was devoted to raising cattle. No manufacturing establishments were reported. The population had grown to 1,049 by 1900, but many of its inhabitants lived on scattered ranches; the only real town in the county was still Carrizo Springs, which for all its growth was still a modest settlement. The county's demographic profile was also relatively homogeneous in 1900. The typical Dimmit County rancher at the end of the nineteenth century was a native white Protestant; many had Southern roots. Only thirty-seven of Dimmit County's 1,106 residents in 1900 were black. Mexican Americans, though growing in number, still constituted only a minority of the county's population, and though some of them owned their own land, the great majority had come to the county to work as shepherds or vaqueros. In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, the introduction of commercial agriculture made possible by the use of underground water brought an infusion of new settlers to the area and ushered in an era of optimism and prosperity. The early settlers who established ranches during the nineteenth century adapted their operations to the limited rainfall in Dimmit County. Even gardens were rare in the first years of the county's settlement. Though some experimented with irrigating small plots of land, few attempted to cultivate large fields. Of the county's 904,000 acres devoted to agriculture in 1900, "improved" land constituted only 3,100 acres. Only 163 acres was planted in corn, which was at that time the county's biggest crop. A gin built in the late 1880s or early 1890s in anticipation of a good cotton crop was left unused.

Water was the missing ingredient. The editor of the Carrizo Springs Javelin wrote in 1899, "Our soil only needs water to make it the most productive in the state." The first use of artesian water in Dimmit County is attributed to D. C. Frazier, who drilled a well near Carrizo Springs in 1884. Frazier's well spouted forty gallons of water a minute, which he used for his household and for a small irrigation project. "The water appears to have the same effect as rains," an 1890 report on Frazier's project noted. "Irrigation is necessary about three years out of five." Local ranchers were rather slow to appreciate the significance of Frazier's finding, though T. C. Nye proved the profitability of vegetable farming in the area in 1898, when his experimental patch of Bermuda onions brought him more than a thousand dollars an acre. By 1900 about twenty-five artesian wells were flowing in the Carrizo Springs area, but most of the water was wasted, and very little was used for irrigation. "Colonel" J. S. Taylor, an audacious land developer who had already helped to establish the town of Del Mar, California, was the first to use irrigation on a large scale in Dimmit County. In 1899, Taylor began construction of a thirty-foot dam across the Nueces River to irrigate 2,000 acres of farmland he hoped to sell in his Bermuda Colony development. To ensure a good water supply for his project, Taylor drilled a deep artesian well; he also introduced the planting of Bermuda onions and strawberries on a large scale. Local ranchers ridiculed the scheme at first, but when the Bermuda Colony proved to be a financial success it became a model for development. By 1910, Taylor's idea of changing dry rangeland into lucrative farmland was being imitated by a number of other developers. The remarkable land boom that ensued peaked between 1910 and 1916.

Artesian water, good soil, and the area's long growing season produced profitable results for the many farmers who began growing vegetables in Dimmit County. Perhaps 8,000 acres of county land was planted with onions as early as 1902. So many onions were produced in 1903 that, according to one estimate, the county's farmers would have had to use 100 wagons for six weeks to carry all of their produce to the nearest railroad. Forty-five carloads of onions was shipped in 1906. By 1909, water was flowing out of about 200 artesian wells in Dimmit County as more and more land was prepared for cultivation. Land values in the county rose dramatically after 1900 as a new influx of settlers moved in. "The man with the hoe has appeared on the horizon," the Javelin reported in 1902; "he is coming with his wife and children, and is coming prepared to stay." The real boom began about 1909, as developers laid out ambitious plans for entire new towns and "colonization" projects in anticipation of the county's first railroad connections. The towns of Palm, Dentonio, Valley Wells, Big Wells, and Winter Haven were all founded by developers during this period, as national advertising campaigns attracted settlers from states across the Union. About 1909 the town of Asherton was built by Asher Richardson, a prominent Dimmit County rancher. Apparently unhappy with the county government at Carrizo Springs, Richardson hoped Asherton would become the new county seat. His 40,000-acre development was the most successful of the projects begun in Dimmit County during the boom, largely because the Gulf and Asherton Railway, which Richardson built himself, began trips to the town in 1910. Richardson's hope that the railroad would help his settlement to eclipse Carrizo Springs failed, however, after the San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf Railroad ran a spur into Carrizo Springs later that year in exchange for a bonus.

Irrigation and the long growing season transformed Dimmit County as it became known as part of the Texas Winter Garden Region, one of the most prolific vegetable-growing areas in the country. Though onions were the county's biggest cash crop, by 1920 farmers also planted spinach (called "green gold" by some of the farmers) and strawberries; meanwhile, orchards of figs, peaches, plums, and citrus fruits were also being harvested or planted. Improved acres in farms grew from 3,081 in 1900 to 8,053 in 1910, and then to 23,172 in 1920. Meanwhile, the average value of an acre of farmland jumped from $1.80 in 1900 (when much marginal ranchland seems to have been reported as farmland) to $24.60 in 1910, and then to more than $40 in 1920. The county's population grew rapidly in this period, too, rising from 1,106 in 1900 to 3,081 in 1910 and 5,296 in 1920. Many newcomers, attracted by the developers' nationwide advertising campaigns, were whites from midwestern or western states such as Ohio, California, and Oklahoma; a few came from Canada. More than a hundred Mennonites traveled from Ohio to settle at Palm, while many of those who settled at Valley Wells were from Oklahoma. Many began their farms with only limited financial resources. Some of them had never farmed before. Nevertheless, many of these new farmers brought with them a vested interest in the future of commercial agriculture that contrasted with the views of some of the ranchers in the county. As a contemporary writer put it, old ranchers doubted that anybody could "make a garden out of this country," but the new commercial farmer "was computing the number of acres he would plant to Bermuda onions and strawberries." Even as one wave of immigrants moved in from the North, another important source of the rise in Dimmit County's population during this period came from south of the border, as people moved into Dimmit County to clear land, to help build the railroads and towns, and to work on the new commercial farms. Perhaps 25 or 30 percent of the new Hispanic settlers came from other parts of Texas; when Big Wells was founded, for example, Mexican Americans from Cotulla were encouraged to move there. Many new workers, however, came from Mexico. Some were escaping the dislocations occasioned by the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910; others were brought in by Mexican labor agents, who were sometimes paid a dollar for each worker they recruited.

These simultaneous influxes of new residents, one from the north, the other from the south, altered the social and political facts of Dimmit County life. Even as the new commercial farmers came to outnumber the old ranchers, the Mexican-American population grew more rapidly. By 1915, Mexican Americans constituted more than half of Dimmit County residents. As early as 1911 the editor of the Carrizo Springs Javelin, who seems to have sympathized with the interests of the new farmers, urged restricting the voting rights of Mexican Americans. Since the first days of settlement, Hispanics had never fully shared in the economic and political life of the county. But now they were also caught in the middle of the developing conflict between the old ranchers and the new commercial farmers. Some were suspected of sympathizing with the old ranchers rather than their employers, the new farmers. Small farmers feared that large ranchers would illegally obtain the votes of Mexican Americans to dominate county politics and perhaps inhibit development. These concerns, mixed with the sentiments evident in the Javelin's editorials, contributed to the formation of the White Man's Primary Association in 1914. This organization helped to consolidate political power in the hands of the new farmers and effectively excluded Mexican Americans from any meaningful participation in county politics for almost fifty years thereafter (see WHITE PRIMARY). By 1930, Mexican Americans constituted almost two-thirds of the county population. In 1948, noting "segregation and discrimination" in virtually every aspect of Dimmit County life, one writer observed that Mexican Americans were considered to be "a class apart from the rest of the population."

A sharp drop in the price of onions, coinciding with an extended drought from 1916 to 1918, shook out many of the undercapitalized small farmers who came to Dimmit County between 1900 and 1916 and crippled Bermuda, Big Wells, and several other towns that had mushroomed during that time. The development spirit boomed again briefly during the 1920s. Dimmit County was hailed again as a "County of Miracles," where cow pastures were "transformed" into lucrative farms by the "abundance" of artesian water. During this period a wealthy and ambitious group of Kansas investors attempted to build another new town, Catarina, on the site of the old Taft-Catarina ranch; perhaps seven different "development propositions" were in operation by 1925, and the county's population rose to 8,828 by 1930. This boom failed, too, however, with the onset of the Great Depression and the end of the days of cheap and bountiful artesian water. Many of the county's farmers were forced to cut back their once-lucrative vegetable production during the depression, and fell back on raising poultry, hogs, and dairy cattle. Many farms failed or were abandoned. Only 11,666 acres of cropland was harvested in 1939, two-thirds of the 17,344 acres harvested in 1924. By 1940 the county's population had dropped to 8,542. Few had noticed when some of the original artesian wells stopped flowing between 1910 and 1912, since many wells continued to flow without mechanical aid. In the 1920s, however, most of the county's artesian wells had stopped flowing and many of the county's creeks and springs had gone dry. Farmers had to install pumps to get their water out of the ground, and the added expense, combined with the onset of the depression, drove many farms out of production during the late 1920s. The agricultural boomtown of Palm, for example, faded away after the irrigation pumps burned up, and the surrounding land was abandoned. In 1934 the United States Department of the Interior concluded, however, that the Carrizo sandstone appeared to contain enough water to supply Dimmit County farming at its new, lower level. But, noting the "persistent decline" in groundwater levels before 1929, the study concluded that the existing water supply would not support "substantial additional development."

The days of plentiful water were over. Nevertheless, after the hard days of the depression were over, irrigation enabled farmers to put more acres into production than ever before. In 1944 almost 15,000 acres was harvested in Dimmit County, nearly 30 percent more than in 1939; in 1950 almost 19,000 acres was harvested. By 1956, 40,000 acres was irrigated for crops, particularly vegetables. Onions, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes were among the county's most important crops, along with cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, and radishes. Most of the produce was shipped to northern states during the winter and early spring. In the long run, however, these levels of production could not be sustained. A water survey conducted in 1955 demonstrated that water levels had dropped dramatically since the end of World War II. Farmers were taking two to three times more water out of the ground than annual recharge could replenish. Though Dimmit County continued to be an important source of the country's vegetable supply, production dropped over the ensuing decades. By 1965 only about 15,000 acres was being irrigated. Much of the land reverted to rangeland, as the cattle business again became more important to the county's economy. By 1969 about 60 percent of the county's farm income came from its crops, and most of the rest derived from beef cattle.

Meanwhile, oil and gas production had become the most important source of revenue. Trace amounts of oil were found in the county in 1903 by men drilling water wells, and the first systematic exploration efforts were conducted in 1915 near Las Vegas. The first producing well was not found until 1943, however, and relatively small amounts of oil were extracted until the late 1950s. Oil production in 1947 totaled only 973 barrels; the 1954 production was 56,947 barrels. But in 1958 more than 513,000 barrels of oil was taken from Dimmit County lands, and the rise in production continued through the 1960s and 1970s until oil and gas became the county's largest source of income. In 1972 more than 7,445,000 barrels of oil was produced in Dimmit County. Though production declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil and gas remained an important part of the economy. In 1980, Dimmit County farmers earned about $20 million for their crops, while about $60 million in oil and gas was produced.

Since the county was organized in 1880, Dimmit County voters have regularly cast their ballots for Democrats. The county went Democratic in twenty-three of the twenty-seven presidential elections between 1884 and 1988. The only Republican presidential candidates to win majorities during this period were Herbert Hoover (1928), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952 and 1956), and Richard Nixon (1972). Only in 1896, when the Populist ticket outpolled Republican William McKinley, and in 1912, when about 12 percent of the county's voters cast their ballots for Progressive candidate Theodore Roosevelt, have third parties played a significant role in county political history. In presidential elections since 1976, the Democrats have won large majorities in the county; in 1988, Michael Dukakis received 2,735 votes, while George H. W. Bush received only 900. In 1990, Dimmit County had a population of 10,433. Most of the towns that had appeared during the agricultural boom of the early twentieth century had severely declined or disappeared altogether, however, and the residents were increasingly concentrated in Asherton and Carrizo Springs. Reflecting this trend, the school districts regularly consolidated after 1940, so that by the early 1980s the county had only two, with a total of five elementary schools and two high schools. Carrizo Springs, with a population of 5,745 in 1990, continued to be the principal town and county seat, and was home to the county's general aviation airport, the Carrizo Springs Javelin, and the only radio station. In 1990 almost eighty percent of the county's inhabitants were of Mexican descent; most of the rest of the population was of English or Irish descent, while African Americans constituted less than 1 percent of the residents. See also AGRICULTURE, ONION CULTURE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Gunnar Brune, Springs of Texas, Vol. 1 (Fort Worth: Branch-Smith, 1981). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Lura Rouse, A Study of Spanish-Speaking Children in Dimmit County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1948). Paul S. Taylor, "Historical Note on Dimmit County, Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 34 (October 1930). Laura Knowlton Tidwell, Dimmit County Mesquite Roots (Austin: Wind River, 1984).

John Leffler

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

John Leffler, "DIMMIT COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcd09), accessed July 25, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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