Bandera County is twenty-five miles northwest of San Antonio in the Edwards Plateau region of southwest Texas. It is bordered by Kerr and Kendall counties on the north, Bexar County on the east, Medina and Uvalde counties on the south, and Real County on the west. The county seat and largest town is Bandera, and the center of the county lies at 29°45' north latitude and 99°11' west longitude. The county is crossed by State highways 16, 46, and 173 and Farm roads 187, 337, 470, and 1283.
Bandera County comprises an area of 793 square miles, with elevations that range from 1,200 to 2,300 feet. The western part of the county is drained by the Sabinal River and the eastern part by the Medina River. The alkaline and generally shallow soils overlie limy subsoils. The vegetation consists primarily of grasses such as bluestems, grama, buffalo grass, winter grass, and wild ryes. Along the many streams of the county grow cedar, post oak, Spanish oak, live oak, pecan, and cypress trees. Deer and turkey are plentiful, but there are no large predators.
The climate features dry and mild winters and warm summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 36° to an average high of 69° F, and in July from 69° to 95° F. The average annual rainfall is twenty-nine inches; the average relative humidity is 76 percent at 6 a.m. and 45 percent at 6 p.m. There is no significant snowfall. The growing season averages 235 days a year, with the last freeze in late March and the first freeze in mid-November.
The region has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and settled in rockshelters. Lipan Apaches and, later, Comanches subsequently drifted into the area.
The first Europeans to set foot in what is now Bandera County were the Spanish, who probably explored the region in the early eighteenth century. Bandera is Spanish for "flag," and there are a number of colorful accounts as to how the county was named. One has it that a Spanish general named Bandera led a punitive expedition in the area against the Apaches after the Indians raided San Antonio de Béxar. Another relates that after pursuing the Indians to Bandera Pass the Spanish left a flag or flags to warn them against future raids. And a third legend claims that in 1752 (or 1732) a council was held between Spanish and Indian leaders, during which the Spanish pledged never to go north of the pass if the Indians agreed to cease their raids in the south, and a red flag was placed on the pass as a symbol of the treaty.
Though it is not clear if one or any of these accounts is true, the name was in use by 1842, when a group of Texas Rangers under the command of Col. John Coffee (Jack) Hays defeated a large party of Comanches at Bandera Pass. In 1852 John James, Charles S. DeMontel, and John J. Herndon entered into a partnership to acquire land "in and above the mountains, commencing ten or fifteen miles above Castroville." Their purpose was to establish a town on the Medina River with a sawmill in order to cut the huge cypress trees that grew there for shingles. In 1853, James and DeMontel surveyed and platted the town of Bandera, and in early 1853 A. M. Milstead, Thomas Odem, P. D. Saner, and their families camped along the river and began making cypress shingles. By the fall of the same year the firm of James, Montel and Company built a horse-powered sawmill and opened a commissary store.
In March 1854 a group of Mormons led by elder Lyman Wight reached Bandera. The colony, numbering approximately 250, eventually settled a few miles below the town at a site known for many years as "Mormon Camp," which is now covered by Medina Lake. For a time the Mormons manufactured tables, chairs, and other furnishings, which they sold in San Antonio. But Wight died before the colony was fully established, and many of the colony moved on to Utah or settled in San Antonio. A small number, however, stayed, and their descendants still live in the area.
In February 1855 sixteen Polish families arrived in Bandera to work in James and DeMontel's sawmill, and in August of the same year August Klappenbach opened the first store and post office. On January 25, 1856, the legislature marked off Bandera County from portions of Bexar County; the new county was formally organized on March 10, 1856.
Though Bandera County had schools in 1857 and 1858, taught by teachers named P. P. Pool and Koenigheim, the area maintained its frontier character until well after the Civil War. Indian attacks were frequent. Despite the establishment of Camp Verde just over the line in Kerr County, settlers lived in constant fear of raids. As late as 1860 the population was only 399, the majority of whom were recent immigrants from East Texas or from the states of the Old South. As was typically the case on the western edge of settlement, men outnumbered women (222 to 167), and the county had only twelve slaves. Farming was still at a subsistence level; as late as 1860 improved acres in the county totaled only 1,461, planted in wheat, corn, beans, and a few vegetables.
Because of its distance from the battlefields and the fact that there were so few slaves in the county, Bandera County was spared much of the trauma of the war and Reconstruction. The population continued to grow slowly, and by 1870 the number of residents in the county was still only 649, most of whom lived in or near the settlement of Bandera. The decade of the 1870s, however, brought signs that Bandera County was slowly losing its frontier character. Indian attacks became less and less frequent, new stores opened, and stone increasingly replaced cedar logs as a building material.
Much of the economy in the early postwar period was dependent on cattle ranching. In 1870 the county had 4,740 cattle, and Bandera County was a staging area for cattle drives up the Western Trail. Local farm boys became cowboys, ranchers built holding pens and signed on as trail bosses, storekeepers contracted as outfitters, and the town of Bandera briefly boomed. During the late 1870s, however, the era of the great cattle drives was waning, and sheep, which were easier to feed on the sparse vegetation in the county, gradually replaced cattle. By 1880 sheep outnumbered cattle 32,974 to 9,471, and Bandera County became an increasingly important source of wool. In 1880, the county produced 296,578 pounds of wool, which accounted for its most important export product. Angora goats also began to raised in large numbers in this period, and mohair began to be shipped in significant quantities during the late 1880s (see SHEEP RANCHING, GOAT RANCHING, WOOL AND MOHAIR INDUSTRY). The lack of good roads, however, kept the county relatively isolated. Because of the county's hilly terrain, the railroads bypassed it to the north or south, and ranchers were forced to use the arduous overland road to ship their products to market in San Antonio.
Despite the relative hardships, numerous new settlers arrived during the 1870s. In 1880 the population had grown to 2,158, and by 1890 the number of residents stood at 3,795. As before, the great majority of new settlers came from the South, though recent immigrants, especially Germans, formed an increasingly larger portion of the county's residents.
During the late 1880s attempts were made to introduce large-scale farming in Bandera County; for a time cotton was grown as a commercial crop. The amount of cropland harvested, however, remained small, and most landowners found it more profitable to raise sheep and goats on the thin limestone soils. Angora goats in particular proved to be well-adapted to the climate and terrain. By 1910 there were 73,853 goats in the county, nearly twice the number of sheep (42,247) and almost five times the number of cattle (15,308). During the ensuing two decades the trend away from farming and cattle continued. In 1930 the county reported 128,950 goats, 89,594 sheep, and only 7,668 cattle; the same year 470,311 pounds of mohair and 588,943 pounds of wool were shipped.
With the cattle drives over and much of the best land worn out from farming and overgrazing, however, the economy declined. The county population peaked in 1900 at 5,332, and then began to fall as more and more residents moved on to seek their fortunes elsewhere. By 1920 the residents numbered 4,001, and by 1930, 3,784. The onset of the Great Depression brought a marked downturn in prices for wool and mohair, and by the early 1930s many ranchers and residents found themselves economically strapped. Road building and other government-funded projects helped to employ some locals, but the economy did not completely recover until the onset of World War II, when wool and mohair were in demand for the defense industries.
The county's population grew in the late 1930s and in 1940 reached 4,234, but in the years after World War II it fell again; between 1950 and 1960 it fell from 4,385 to 3,892. During the 1960s, however, the number of inhabitants grew modestly, and in 1970 the population was 4,747. Subsequently the county has seen impressive growth, largely due to the influx of new residents from San Antonio. In 1980 the population reached 7,084, and in 1991 it was 10,562. As of 2014, the population was 20,892. In 2014, 79.7 percent of the population was White, 0.7 percent African American, 0.5 percent Asian, and 17.4 percent Hispanic. The largest towns were Bandera and Medina.
In the early 1980s Bandera County had two school districts, with two elementary, one middle, and two high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 1,192, and expenditures per pupil were $2,381. Forty-seven percent of the 103 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 88 percent of the school graduates were White, 12 percent Hispanic, .3 percent black, and .2 percent Asian.
Religion has always played an important role in Bandera County. The Mormons organized their church shortly after arriving in 1854, and the following year the Polish immigrants, all of whom were Catholic, built a small log church where Father Leopold Moczygemba came to offer Mass and administer the sacraments once a month. St. Stanislaus Church is the second oldest Polish parish in the United States. The First Methodist Church was organized just after the Civil War, a Church of Christ began meeting in the 1870s, and the First Baptist Church was organized in 1883. In the mid-1980s Bandera had fifteen churches, with a estimated combined membership of 3,319. The largest denominations were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist.
The voters of Bandera County favored the Democratic presidential candidates in every election from 1872 through 1920. In 1924, however, Republican Calvin Coolidge won a plurality of the county’s votes, and in 1928 Herbert Hoover easily carried the county over Democrat Al Smith. In 1932, after the onset of the Great Depression, the county’s voters began to vote Democratic again and supported Franklin Roosevelt in the elections of 1932, 1936 and 1940. In 1944 the area’s sympathies shifted again, as the county’s voters favored Republican Thomas Dewey over Roosevelt. Thereafter, the Republican presidential candidates have carried the county in virtually every election from 1948 through 2004; the only exception occurred in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon Johnsonqv won most of the area’s votes. Democrats, on the other hand, generally dominated local elections for many years. In the 1982 primary 82 percent of county voters voted Democratic and 18 percent Republican, with a total of 1,842 votes cast. By the early 1990s, however, Republican candidates were fully competitive in state and local elections in the county.
The total number of businesses in the Bandera County in the early 1980s was 118. In 1980, 19 percent of workers were self-employed; 22 percent were employed in professional or related services, 7 percent in manufacturing, 19 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 16 percent in construction; 37 percent worked in other counties; 907 retired workers lived in Bandera County. Leading industries included tourism and the manufacture of leather purses. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $63,665,000.
In 1982, 82 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 4 percent of the farmland under cultivation. Sheep, goat, cattle, and poultry raising are the chief occupations. Only 11 to 20 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. Crops include corn, oats, hay, pecans, and some grain sorghums. Bandera County ranked 238th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 95 percent coming from livestock and livestock products. During the 1980s Baxter Adams, a former petroleum geologist, introduced commercial apple growing at his Love Creek Ranch, and subsequently the area around Medina became an important apple-growing region, with more than 30,000 bushels picked annually in the late 1980s.
The tourist trade has also become a major source of the county's income. In 1920 Cora and Ed Buck began taking summer boarders at their ranch on Julian Creek. Other families soon advertised for guests, and Bandera, despite its relative isolation, became well known as a resort, with numerous restaurants, dance halls, and dude ranches.
The U.S. census counted 20,892 people living in Bandera County in 2014; about 79.7 percent were Anglo and 17.4 percent Hispanic. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 79 percent had completed high school and twenty percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century tourism, ranching supplies, hunting, fishing, and agriculture were important elements of the county’s economy. In 2002 the county had 780 farms and ranches covering 366,827 acres, 76 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 11 percent to crops, and 10 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $6,961,000; livestock sales accounted for $6,084,000 of the total. Beef cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and apples were the chief agricultural products.
Bandera (population, 833) is the county’s seat of government. Other communities include Lakehills (5,285), Medina (850), Tarpley (30), and Vanderpool (20). Such attractions as the Frontier Times Museum, Bandera Pass, and the site of Camp Montel also bring in thousands of tourists and vacationers annually. Lost Maples State Natural Area, near Vanderpool in the west end of the county, is a birder's paradise known for its fall foliage display; Hill Country State Natural Area is a 4,253-acre primitive camping area with trails for hiking and horseback riding. Numerous hunters are also drawn to the county because of its large deer and turkey population.