Ballinger is at the junction of U.S. highways 67 and 83 and State Highway 158, thirty-six miles northeast of San Angelo in south central Runnels County. The Colorado River and Elm Creek converge there, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway runs through the town. Ballinger was established when the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway built westward out of Brownwood in 1886. Runnels City, the original county seat, campaigned for selection as the new railroad terminal but could not compete with the superior water supply offered at the future site of Ballinger, five miles to the south.
Extensive advertising in the Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and Galveston newspapers brought 6,000 people to the sale of town lots in Ballinger on June 29, 1886. As early as June 7 railroad-company ads in the Dallas Morning News promoted the sale, offering half-price excursion trains from Dallas. The 1.7-square-mile area was laid out in large lots, with a courthouse square and public park set aside for future use. Roughly half of the lots sold on the first day. To ensure the success of their new terminal, Santa Fe officials offered free property to anyone who would move a home from Runnels City to Ballinger and to any church that would erect a building.
The town was originally called Gresham and then Hutchings (in honor of Santa Fe stockholders Walter Gresham and John H. Hutchings); it was officially named in honor of William Pitt Ballinger, a Galveston attorney and stockholder of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe. Rapid growth and opportunity brought a boomtown atmosphere, attracting a crowd of drifters, fugitives, gamblers, and ruffians to the town's nine saloons and gambling halls. Stagecoach robberies were not uncommon. By 1888, however, the railroad extended to San Angelo, the overland stage business ended, and new, permanent settlers came to the land.
A post office was established in Ballinger on June 1, 1886, with William A. Procter as postmaster. The town was incorporated in 1892 and began using the commission form of city government. In 1886 I. C. Huege moved his newspaper, the Runnels County Record, from Runnels City to Ballinger and changed its name to Ballinger Eagle. Two more newspapers quickly appeared on the scene—the Ballinger Ledger, published by P. E. Truly, and the Banner Leader, published by C. P. Shepherd. In 1911 the Ledger and the Banner Leader were consolidated as the Ballinger Daily Ledger, which published a weekly edition, the Banner Ledger.
Under the influence of the advertising of such groups as the Ballinger Business Men's Club and the Pecan, Colorado, and Concho Immigration Society, the population grew from 1,128 in 1900 to 3,536 in 1910. The area had long been regarded as excellent stock land, but the decade from 1900 to 1910 witnessed the ascendance of farming over stock raising in Ballinger and Runnels County. By 1904 the town had four cotton gins, an ice plant, a steam laundry, a steam bakery, a city waterworks, a telephone company, three newspapers, two large furniture stores, three drugstores, a grain and feed store, two hardware stores, four lumber yards, two saddle stores, several dry goods stores, coal yards, blacksmith shops, a wagonyard, cotton yards, a public school building, churches, hotels, and a restaurant.
In 1909 Ballinger received a $12,500 gift from Andrew Carnegie to build a library, which opened in 1911. The open auditorium on the second level was converted during World War II to an Army-Navy Club to entertain cadets from nearby Harmon Training Center, a primary flight school for United States Army Air Force cadets. In 1975, after many years of neglect, the building was in ruins. The Ballinger Bicentennial Committee organized a renovation effort, and the library was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The drought years of 1916–18 brought a major crisis for this largely agricultural area. The population of Ballinger dropped from 3,536 in 1910 to 2,767 in 1920. Subsequently, with improved weather conditions in the 1920s, the town began to grow steadily, reaching a peak of 5,302 in 1950. A pattern of slow decline followed until the population reached 3,975 in 1990. In 2000 the population was 4,243.
Ballinger is the main shipping and distribution center for Runnels County. The major sources of employment are light manufacturing, mining, and retail trade. The number of businesses in the town reached a high of 290 in 1940, dropped to 146 immediately after World War II, and climbed back to a postwar high of 210 in 1950. In 1990 the town had ninety businesses. The health care needs of the town are met by two general hospitals with a combined capacity of fifty-five beds. In addition, Ballinger Memorial Hospital supports a vocational nursing school that provides both training and jobs. Ballinger is home to numerous churches, the largest of which are Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist. The community also maintains paid fire and police departments and supports radio station KRUN-AM, KRUN-FM. Each spring the town is host to two special events, the Rattlesnake Roundup (March) and the Texas State Festival of Ethnic Cultures Arts and Crafts Fair (April). In the fall Ballinger presents the Pinto Bean Cookoff (October) and the Miss Ballinger Pageant and Parade (December).