Bailey County, in the western Panhandle, is bordered on the west by New Mexico, on the north by Parmer County, on the east by Lamb County, and on the south by Cochran County. The county center lies at 34°04' north latitude and 102°50' west longitude, about seventy-five miles northwest of Lubbock. Bailey County is a part of the Southern High Plains and has an altitude of 3,800 to 4,400 feet above mean sea level. Its 835 square miles of plain are surfaced by sandy loam covered with grasses and mesquite brush. The Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River drains the northern parts of the county; other sections drain to numerous small playas. The most conspicuous topographic feature is a range of sand hills that runs from northeast to southwest a mile south of Muleshoe. The average annual rainfall is 17.29 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 20° F; the average maximum in July is 92° F. The growing season of 181 days is shorter than the average for West Texas counties because of the higher elevation and cooler weather. U.S. Highway 70/84 crosses the northeast part of the county. State highways 214 and 298 carry traffic north to south and east to west, respectively; in the early twenty-first century the area was also served by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
The county was marked off from Bexar County in 1876 and named for Peter J. Bailey, an Alamo hero. Bailey and twenty-one other counties newly formed at the time were attached to Jack County for judicial purposes. In 1881 jurisdiction of Bailey County was transferred from Jack to Baylor County; then, in 1887, to Hale County; and in 1892 to Castro County. Settlement of Bailey County did not come early, since the XIT Ranch held most of its land from 1882 until the division and sale of the ranch in 1901.
The XIT had its origin in 1879 when the legislature set aside three million acres in Dallam, Hartley, Oldham, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Lamb, Bailey, Cochran, and Hockley counties to fund the building of the Capitol. In 1892 the XIT Ranch was organized with British backing; its landholdings included northern and southeastern Bailey County. Fencing in the county was done between 1883 and 1886, and the first cattle reached the ranch in 1885. Among the eight major divisions of the XIT, Bailey County land fell within the Spring Lake, Yellow House, and Bovina divisions. Even after the XIT sold lands in 1901, other large ranches (the VVN, the Snyder, the Bovina Cattle Company, the YL, and the Muleshoe) dominated the region. As late as 1900 the United States census counted only four people living in Bailey County.
The county developed rather quickly during the early twentieth century, however, as old ranchland was divided up and sold to farmers by land developers. From 1906 to 1912 the Coldren Land Company and the Vaughn Land Company held promotions in Bailey County. Midwestern farmers took special excursion trains to nearby Farwell, then were taken south and shown Bailey County lands selling at ten to twenty dollars an acre. In 1909 the county's first irrigation well was dug. By 1910, seventy-one farms had been established in the county and the population had increased to 312.
A severe drought in 1910 drove away many of these early settlers, but others moved in to take their places, particularly after the Santa Fe Railroad extended its tracks through the county in 1913. Hoping to establish a taxing authority that could provide schools and roads for the area, residents decided to organize the county. They raised $1,500 to send delegates to Austin to lobby for a revision of the minimum county-voter requirement to seventy-five. Despite the opposition of ranchmen who feared that organization would bring taxation, the delegates succeeded. A county seat election followed in 1919, with Muleshoe carrying seventy-four of the 111 votes cast. By 1920 there were seventy-nine farms and 517 residents in Bailey County.
During the 1920s and 1930s new conditions helped to transform the county's economy from ranching to farming. Ground water was discovered at depths of twenty to forty feet, and large ranches were broken up and sold as farm tracts. Both the Watson Ranch and the Newsome Ranch, for example, were subdivided in 1924 and 1925. While many of the new farmers grew wheat, corn, and forage crops, a rapid expansion of cotton farming was responsible for much of the development of the county during these years. In 1920 little if any cotton was grown in the area, but by 1929 over 24,000 acres was planted in cotton and it had become the county's leading crop. The first cotton grown in the area was sent to Plainview for ginning; but Bailey County got a gin in 1923. By 1924 there were 302 farms in the county, and by 1929, 758 farms had been established there. The expansion of cotton farming continued in the county even during the years of the Great Depression, when cotton farming in other parts of the state suffered severe declines. By 1940 cotton production in Bailey County took up almost 45,000 acres, and the number of farms had increased to 820. Because of this growth, the population of the county rose significantly during this period. The population in 1930 was 5,186, and 6,318 people lived there by 1940. Though many West Texas counties declined in the years immediately after World War II, Bailey County continued to grow in population until the 1960s. In 1950, 7,592 people lived there, and by 1960 residents numbered 9,090. But the population declined thereafter, to 8,487 in 1970, 8,186 in 1980, 7,064 in 1990, and 6,910 in 2014.
In the early 1990s the county had 160,000 acres of irrigated lands and was among the leading counties in agricultural income. It has been said that Bailey County "is one of the few areas in the United States that can produce varying crops such as cotton, wheat, corn, grain, sorghums, soybeans, castor beans, hay, peanuts, cabbage, lettuce, peas, and beans." About 40 percent of agricultural receipts derive from livestock. Manufacturing income in 1980 was almost $2 million, from farm tools.
The voters of Bailey County supported the Democratic candidates in almost every presidential election from 1924 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover carried the county. After 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhowerqv won most of the area’s votes, the county’s sympathies began to shift. Thereafter the Republican presidential candidates carried the area in virtually every election from 1956 through 2004. The only exceptions occurred in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon Johnsonqv won most of the county’s votes, and in 1976, when Jimmy Carter did.
The U.S. Census counted 6,910 people living in Bailey County in 2014. Of these about 36.6 percent were Anglo, 61.1 percent were Hispanic, and 1.6 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 62 percent had completed high school, and 9 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century the manufacture of mufflers and farm supplies, an electrical generating plant, agriculture, and food processing plants were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 436 farms and ranches covering 303,574 acres. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $127,834,000; livestock sales accounted for $104,594,000 of the total. Feedlot cattle production, dairy cattle, cotton, wheat, sorghum, corn, and vegetables were the chief agricultural products.
Communities in Bailey County include Baileyboro, Bula, Circle Back, Enochs, Goodland, Maple, Progress, and Needmore. Muleshoe (population 5,078), the largest town in the county, hosts the Mule Days festival each August and the county fair every September. Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge is a major recreation site.