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FRANKLIN COUNTY

FRANKLIN COUNTY. Franklin County is located in northeast Texas, one county removed from Oklahoma and three counties removed from Arkansas. Mount Vernon, the county seat, is on Interstate Highway 30 seventy-two miles southwest of Texarkana and ninety-six miles northeast of Dallas. With a 2000 population of 2,286, Mount Vernon is the largest town situated entirely within the boundaries of the county, but Winnsboro, located in southwestern Franklin and northwestern Wood counties, had a 2000 population of 3,589. The county's center lies at 33°09' north latitude and 95°14' west longitude. The county comprises 294 square miles of the post oak belt and is heavily wooded; post oak, blackjack oak, and pine trees predominate. The terrain varies from nearly level to rolling, and the soils are predominantly loam with clay subsoils. The county is drained by the Sulphur River, which forms its northern boundary, and Big Cypress Creek, which runs through the southern portion. Mineral resources include oil, gas, limestone, and lignite coal. Wildlife native to the area once included buffalo, bear, deer, beaver, and turkey. Temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in July to an average low of 35° in January. Rainfall averages almost forty-five inches a year, and the growing season averages 234 days annually.

Archeological evidence to the north in Red River County indicates that the area was occupied by Indians as early as the Late Archaic Period, around 1500 B.C. At the time of first European contact, the area was occupied by the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed culture. During the last decade of the eighteenth century, due to epidemics that decimated the tribe and problems with the Osages, most of the Caddos abandoned the villages they had occupied for centuries. During the early 1820s bands of Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo Indians immigrated to the area. These Indians stayed for only a brief period, then generally abandoned their settlements in the mid-1830s. The time of earliest European exploration of the area has not been conclusively determined. The Moscoso expedition of 1542 may have passed through or very near what is now Franklin County. It could be, however, that the first European contact with the area did not occur until after 1719, when the French founded Le Poste des Cadodaquious in what is now Bowie County. Although the French occupied the post for more than fifty years, little is known about their activities. It seems probable, however, that they did explore as far to the southwest as Franklin County. White settlement began in the late 1830s along the eastern edge of what became Franklin County; most of the early settlers came from the upper southern states, predominantly Tennessee. The Cherokee Trace passed through the area, and by the late 1840s the central part of the county was also settled. By 1870 Mount Vernon had a population of 223. The county was marked off by the legislature in March 1875 and named for Judge Benjamin C. Franklin, an early Red River County settler. An election was held on April 30, 1875, to select the county seat. Mount Vernon won by a large majority, and the matter was never again contested.

In 1880 the county had a population of 5,280. The most important factor inhibiting growth was the lack of adequate transportation. The county had no navigable waterways and before 1876 no railroad. This deficiency, coupled with the availability of equally suitable croplands nearer Jefferson, the major market for Northeast Texas, prevented the area from becoming dominated by plantation agriculture in antebellum Texas. As a consequence the county was predominantly white. The 614 blacks present in 1880 were less than 12 percent of the total population. The state's growing rail network finally reached the county in 1876, when the East Line and Red River Railroad was constructed across the southeastern corner of the county. This railroad, although still inconveniently located for those in the northern and western portions of the county, undoubtedly made it somewhat easier for farmers to transport their crops to market. Its effects on the population are impossible to measure because no census of the county was taken until 1880. In 1887 the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway was built across the center of the county and became the major access to market for most farmers. Between 1884 and 1890 Mount Vernon, the largest town and major shipping point, grew from an estimated 350 to an estimated 700 residents. The county as a whole was also growing, though at a much slower rate. Its population expanded from 5,280 in 1880 to 6,481 by 1890, at which time the 819 black residents constituted 13 percent of the population.

The county was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural and remained so for more than seventy subsequent years. Two crops dominated the agricultural economy—cotton, the principal cash crop, and corn, the principal food crop (see COTTON CULTURE, CORN CULTURE). Together these two crops accounted for three out of every four acres of cropland harvested in 1880. From 1880 through 1950 the acreage planted in these dominant crops varied from six out of ten acres to more than eight out of ten acres harvested. Although farmers seem to have devoted enough acreage to the corn crop to maintain self-sufficiency, cotton absorbed an increasing amount of their time and land during the years 1880 through 1929. In 1879 the county's 706 farms had 8,660 acres of cotton, an average of slightly over twelve acres per farm. In 1929 there were 1,678 farms with 37,969 acres of cotton, an average of more than twenty-two acres per farm. In fact, during the 1929 crop season, about one in five acres in the entire county was planted in cotton. During this same period the average acres per farm devoted to corn dropped from thirteen to nine. Truck farming provided some diversity to county agriculture, and farmers shipped cane syrup, peaches, and melons around the turn of the century. For most farmers the ever-larger cotton fields did not mean a rising standard of living. As they planted successive cotton crops on the same land and extended the fields into areas that were less fertile, the yield per acre dropped steadily. In 1879 the average yield was almost half a bale of cotton per acre planted; in 1929 the yield was one-fifth of a bale. Additionally, farm tenancy had risen through the years. In 1880, 34 percent of all farmers were tenants; by 1930 the figure was 62 percent.

The county was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s, which had actually begun for farmers in the mid-1920s. The average farm in Franklin County in 1930 was worth $2,085, compared to the 1920 average of $4,172. But while the value had dropped drastically, the average farm size had increased from seventy to seventy-five acres. For most citizens the depression meant harder times, but it did not bring poverty, since most residents were already poor. The population had grown steadily between 1880 and 1910, from 5,280 to 9,331, but dropped to 9,304 by 1920 and to 8,494 by 1930. During the 1920s the number of farms also fell, declining from 1,844 in 1920 to 1,678 in 1930. Hard times in agriculture, in a county with an economy that was almost exclusively agricultural, were responsible for the decline. During the 1930s the programs of the New Deal helped to alleviate some of the worst effects of the depression. A local development also provided some economic opportunities; oil was discovered near Talco in northwestern Titus County in 1936, and it was soon ascertained that the oil deposit extended into the northeastern portion of Franklin County. Since that time, oil has been discovered in various portions of the county, but all of the fields are comparatively small. The discoveries, particularly those of the 1930s when conditions were so bad for farmers, directly benefited those who owned land in or around the fields, but the overall impact seems to have been minimal. As a 1939 issue of the local newspaper put it, the oil boom had helped the county, but it was "not large enough to disrupt the economic structure nor disturb the way of living."

By 1940 the number of farms had fallen to 1,310. The average farm size had increased to 105 acres, and the average value per farm had fallen to $1,870. While the drop in value was a sign of continuing problems in the agricultural sector of the economy, there were also signs of a more positive trend. For the first time since 1900, more than half of all farmers owned the land they worked. Although cotton was still the principal cash crop in 1940, the number of acres in cotton had fallen from 37,969 acres in 1930 to 16,582 acres in 1940. Although partly due to increasing diversity in crops, the most important cause of the decline in cotton was the beginning of a move away from staple-crop agriculture. The programs of the New Deal reimbursed farmers for letting land lie fallow, while the emphasis on livestock production increased. Although the number of farms had fallen, production of dairy and beef cattle and poultry had risen. The value of farms began to rise in the 1940s, but the other trends that were evident in 1940 continued through the 1970s. The number of farms steadily declined until 1982, when there were just 478 farms. Those farms had an average size of 245 acres and an average value of $204,630. By 1982 livestock production dominated the agricultural economy, accounting for 96 percent of total cash receipts in agriculture. Tenant farming had also virtually disappeared by 1982, when just 9 percent of farms were occupied by tenants. In the 1990s hay was the principal crop, and farmers also grew blueberries, blackberries, and peaches. Poultry production increased to meet the needs of the Pilgrim plants in nearby Pittsburg and Mount Vernon. Fewer people made their living in agriculture, and consequently the population fell, since the county had no cities and a very small industrial base. The decline that began in the 1920s continued until 1960, when the population was reported as 5,101, the lowest figure ever recorded. During the 1960s citizens, particularly in Mount Vernon, worked to bring industry and jobs into the county. They established the Franklin County Industrial Foundation and purchased an industrial-park site. In 1964 three plastics industries built plants in Mount Vernon. In 1958 only 57 laborers had been employed in manufacturing; that number had risen to 300 by 1972 and 400 by 1982. Pine and hardwood production totaled 1,073,412 cubic feet. Increases in the industrial sector were probably responsible for the turnaround in the population trend. The population was reported as 5,291 in 1970 and 6,893 in 1980. The county remained predominantly white; the 409 blacks in the county in 1980 constituted less than 6 percent of the total population. The county continued its modest but steady growth in the 1980s, reaching a population of 7,802 in 1990.

Because Mount Vernon had a population of fewer than 2,500 in 1980, the county was still defined as almost exclusively rural by the Bureau of the Census. Only the 862 Franklin County residents who lived within the city limits of Winnsboro were considered urban residents. Still, the county had undergone drastic changes. In 1981 nonfarm income totaled more than $47 million, and total farm cash receipts were less than $29 million. The dirt roads that had crossed the county for generations had been paved beginning in 1916, when voters approved a $200,000 bond issue for road improvement. Improving transportation and the changing nature of employment opportunities made it easier and more advantageous for citizens to obtain more formal education. In 1896 the county had been divided into thirty-one school districts, twenty-eight of which were completely within the county. Most of these districts had only one teacher, a one-room school, and a session of fewer than 120 days. Most children dropped out of school before reaching high school. By 1980 the county had just one school district completely within its boundaries, but that district had almost twice as many teachers as the twenty-eight districts had in 1896. In 1980 more than 75 percent of students aged sixteen to nineteen graduated from high school; for the first time more than half the citizens the county over the age of twenty-five had received a high school diploma.

Franklin County voters have consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates since the county's inception in 1875. In 1896 the Populist partyqv candidates, William Jennings Bryan and Tom Watson, received 391 votes for president and vice president. The Democratic ticket, Bryan and Arthur Sewall, won 971 votes for each office, and the Republicans, William McKinley and Garret A. Hobart, came in third with 76 votes. In 1968 and 1992 third-party candidates George Wallace and Ross Perot made strong showings in the county, and Republican Ronald Reagan took the county in 1984, but except for 1984 Democratic candidates carried the county in every presidential election from 1874 through 1992, when Bill Clinton won a plurality of the area's votes. By the late twentieth century the area had begun to shift politically, however. Repubican Bob Dole won a plurality of the county's votes in 1996, and George W. Bush won the county with solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.

The census counted 9,458 people living in Franklin County in 2000. About 86 percent were Anglo, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. More than 77 percent of the residents older than age twenty-five had completed four years of high school, and more than 16 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness and some manufacturing were the key elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 549 farms and ranches covering 132,241 acres, 48 percent of which were devoted to crops, 42 percent to pasture, and 10 percent to woodlands. In that year Franklin County farmers and ranchers earned $63,884,000; livestock sales accounted for $62,629,000 of the total. Dairy and beef, beef cattle, and hay were the chief agricultural products. Mount Vernon (2000 population, 2,286) was the county's largest town and seat of government. Other communities included Scroggins (125) and Winnsboro (3,589, mostly in Wood County). Recreation facilities in Franklin County are primarily geared toward outdoor pursuits. Opportunities for boating and fishing abound. Cypress Springs Reservoir, the largest lake in the county, covers 3,400 acres. Several other lakes dot the landscape. In addition to the Sulphur River several streams run through the county. Various species of animals are available for hunting, including deer, squirrel, and quail. State Highway 37 and Farm Road 21 are scenic drives through the southern part of the county. The Rogers-Drummond House, near Mount Vernon, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mount Vernon hosts a rodeo in June, a county fair in October, and a Christmas Parade in December. The Franklin County Museum Complex in Mount Vernon offers a variety of exhibits on local and natural history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Comprehensive Overall Economic Development Study and Plan for Franklin County (Mount Vernon, Texas: Franklin County Study and Planning Committee, 1962). Millard F. Fleming, Reorganization of the Public Schools of Franklin County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1938). Billy Hicks and Doris Meek, comps., Historical Records of Franklin County, Texas (Mount Vernon, Texas: Franklin County Historical Survey Committee, 1972). Ina M. O. McAdams, A Study of the Mount Vernon Optic-Herald, 1906–1931, and Its Community (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1960). Rex W. Strickland, Anglo-American Activities in Northeastern Texas, 1803–1845 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1937).

Cecil Harper, Jr.

Citation

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

Cecil Harper, Jr., "FRANKLIN COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcf08), accessed December 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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