Brown County (F-14), near the geographic center of Texas, is bordered on the north by Eastland County, on the west by Coleman County, on the south by McCulloch and San Saba counties, and on the east by Comanche and Mills counties. The center of the county lies at 31°45' north latitude and 99°00' west longitude, sixty-five miles southeast of Abilene. The county is named for Capt. Henry Stevenson Brown, a company commander in the battle of Velasco, a delegate to the Convention of 1832, and one of the first Anglo-Americans in the area. Elevation over this rolling country varies from 1,200 to 2,000 feet. Soils vary from heavy loam to sand, clay, and shales over the county's 936 square miles. Local waterways are Pecan Bayou and its tributaries and the Colorado River, which forms the southern boundary of the county. The average low temperature in January is 33° F; the average high in July is 96°. The growing season lasts 242 days. Rainfall averages 27.42 inches annually, and 6,000 acres are under irrigation. The county produces $30.5 million annually from agriculture, including cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, grain sorghums, wheat, and pecans.
Comanches of the Penateka band (Honey-Eaters or Wasps) roamed the region in the nineteenth century; they were the southernmost Comanche band and apparently led the advance into the southern plains. Like other plains people they were mounted warriors and splendid hunters of buffalo.
The first whites in the area were Spanish soldiers under Capt. Nicolás Flores y Valdeza, who in 1723 pursued Apaches to recover stolen horses and captives. After a similar Spanish expedition in 1759, a group of Anglo-Americans, led by Capt. Henry Stevenson Brown, entered the region in 1828 to recover livestock stolen by Comanches. Land surveys were made in 1838. In 1856 Welcome W. Chandler, John H. Fowler, and others settled in the valleys of Pecan Bayou and Jim Ned Creek.
The county was formed on the western frontier in 1856 from Comanche and Travis counties and organized in 1858, with Brownwood designated as the county seat; the town was also awarded the county's first post office that year with Wiley B. Brown as postmaster. In 1860 the United States census found 244 people living in the county, none of them slaveholders. The census also counted 2,070 cattle in the area, and ninety-one acres of land was classified as "improved." The county developed slowly between its founding and the 1870s, primarily because conditions were not secure for settlement until the late 1870s or early 1880s, as settlers were harassed by Indians and white predators for twenty years after the county was formed. The original settlers had to resist Comanches who entered the region from the north at Mercer's Gap or from the west along Pecan Bayou, near Elkins. White desperados caused problems too; in 1875 the Fort Worth-Brownwood stage was robbed five times in two months. Much of the criminal activity during the 1870s was attributed to John Wesley Hardin's gang; in 1874 Brown County citizens were among those who lynched suspected gang members at Comanche, and Hardin himself was forced to flee.
Though increasing numbers of farmers moved into the area in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the county's economy was dominated by cattle ranching throughout most of the nineteenth century. The number of cattle in the county rose from 2,070 in 1860 to 40,000 in 1880 and remained at about the same level until 1900. County ranchers joined the main cattle trail to Abilene and Dodge City in north Coleman County and fought with local farmers attempting to fence off their lands. Strife between ranchers and farmers over the fencing of open range raged for several years until 1886, when the Texas Rangers killed two fence cutters (see FENCE CUTTING). Meanwhile, the number of farms in the area increased steadily, rising from only twenty-two in 1870 to 1,206 in 1880 and 1,396 in 1890.
Development of the county was accelerated in the 1890s and early 1900s when two railroads built tracks into the area, providing a stimulus to area farmers and helping maintain an atmosphere favorable to experiments in crop diversification. The Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway reached the county in 1892; the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe line built into Brownwood in 1895, and by 1903 had extended its tracks to Menard. The new railroad connections helped Brownwood to prosper, since the absence of railroad facilities in southern Eastland and Callahan counties led farmers from those areas to Brownwood to do their marketing.
Political affairs were volatile in Brown County in the 1880s and 1890s. The Greenback party was active there during the 1880s and was championed by two newspapers, the Investigator, published by Judge Charles H. Jenkins, and the Age of Reason, published by the Mikel brothers. In the late 1880s and early 1890s the Populists were supported by the Brownwood Bulletin, first published by J. H. Byrd and later by William H. Mayes. Most residents during this period, however, were Democrats and read the Pecan Valley News, first published in 1894 (a weekly newspaper named after this one was published in the 1970s by Tevis Clyde Smith). Prohibition caused discord until the county voted itself dry in 1903. It remained dry until the late 1950s, when the sale of beer for off-premises consumption was made legal.
Between 1870 and 1900 citizens of the county also developed a school system and centers of higher education. The first school in the county opened in 1860, when Judge Greenleaf Fisk, a large landowner, volunteered to teach the children. By the 1874–75 school term a number of communities maintained schools on a regular basis. Altogether, 514 pupils in the county were enrolled for the four-month term. Brownwood established its own school system in 1876, and other communities soon followed suit. By 1885 the county had 2,000 students and sixty-four teachers in small rural schools and community school systems. In 1888 the Presbyterians established Daniel Baker College, the county's first center of higher learning, and in 1890 a group of Baptists established Howard Payne College. Daniel Baker struggled financially until 1894, when it passed to the Southern Synod of the Presbyterian Church. Howard Payne granted degrees until 1897, then operated as a junior college until 1913, when it was again upgraded to senior college status. In 1953 the two schools were combined under the name of Howard Payne College (now Howard Payne University).
By 1900 the county was much more settled than it had been twenty years before, and farming had become the chief mainstay of the local economy. The United States census counted 2,044 farms and ranches in the county that year, 823 of them operated by tenants; and the county's population had risen to 16,019. Although farmers planted oats, wheat, and other crops, corn and cotton were the favorites. In 1900 29,000 acres of county land were planted in corn and 46,000 were planted in cotton.
The county's agricultural economy boomed during the first ten years of the twentieth century, primarily because of a rapid expansion of cotton culture. Cotton had been Brown County's most important crop since 1890, when a total of more than 16,000 acres was devoted to producing the fiber. In the early 1900s, however, cotton acreage in the county expanded more rapidly and became even more important for the local economy. In 1908, the peak year for cotton in the county, 43,574 bales were ginned, and in 1910 county farmers planted almost 83,000 acres in to cotton. By this time fruits and pecans had also become an important part of the local agricultural economy. By 1910 Brown County farmers were raising 74,300 peach trees and 46,400 pecan trees. During these boom years the number of farms in the county increased 35 percent, to 2,741; tenants operated 1,160 of the farms in the county in 1910. By 1910 the population was 22,935.
The boll weevil appeared in the county about 1909, however, and production of cotton quickly declined. By 1920 only 7,335 acres was planted in cotton, and in 1929 only 7,281 bales were produced; in 1940 12,400 acres was devoted to the crop. Some local farmers turned to other crops, especially wheat and oats; others, however, were driven off their farms. By 1920 the number of farms in the county had dropped to 2,303, and by 1930 only 2,158 remained. The population of the county dropped to 21,682 in 1920. By 1930 it had risen again to 26,382, partly thanks to a brief oil boom.
Oil was discovered in Brown County in 1879, and a small producing well was drilled on the H. M. Barnes farm near Grosvenor in 1900. Later, several other wells were drilled, but the first commercial production came from the efforts of Jack Pippen in 1917 at Brownwood. The first large field began producing from a depth of 1,100 feet in 1919 near Cross Cut. In 1926 a boom followed the success of the White well on Jim Ned Creek; some 600 wells were drilled in several fields in the county during this time.
The Great Depression of the 1930s ended the oil boom, as prices dropped and production fell off. The agricultural sector was also hammered; between 1929 and 1940 cropland harvested in the county dropped from 146,129 acres to 118,000, and the number of farms dropped to 2,119. Hardship was widespread during the 1930s, but conditions were alleviated somewhat by the state's "bread bonds" and New Deal relief programs. Among the federal projects that employed workers and improved county facilities were road and school construction. The construction of a dam during the early 1930s also helped to alleviate some of the effects of the depression.
Interest in an irrigation dam below the confluence of Pecan Bayou and Jim Ned Creek first arose during a serious drought that afflicted the area in 1894 and 1895. Initial attempts to fund the project failed, but in 1928 voters of the Brownwood Water District approved bonds for $2.5 million to construct the dam, which was completed in 1932. Depression conditions made local bond funding for canals impossible, but the federal government granted $450,000 to carry water from Lake Brownwood to thirsty land. It was predicted that several years of normal rainfall would be required to fill the lake behind the dam, but an almost unprecedented storm in July 1932 filled it in six hours. In spite of projects such as these, the depression further damaged a local economy that in some respects had been already struggling. By 1940 only 2,119 farms remained in the county, and the population had dropped to 25,924.
The beginning of America's involvement in World War II helped to resurrect the local economy. Between 1941 and 1943 military needs led to the construction of Camp Bowie, an infantry and cavalry training center that covered 122,000 acres south of Brownwood and cost $35 million to build. The facility affected the county both socially and economically; over 10,000 construction workers were hired to build the camp, and eventually 30,000 troops were assigned there; German prisoners of war were also confined there. The influx of people into the county caused a housing shortage in greater Brownwood and around the camp that lasted through the war despite the army's construction of a 200-unit housing project.
The war also helped to revive the local oil industry; in 1944 Brown County lands produced more than 400,000 barrels of crude. The industry fully revived after the end of World War II, when large fields were discovered at greater depths, and water flooding of old fields was begun. In 1958 production totaled 542,132 barrels, and in 1960 more than 516,000 barrels. Production dropped during the early 1960s but picked up again during the late 1970s. The county produced 418,000 barrels of oil in 1978, 452,648 barrels in 1982, and 498,000 barrels in 1989. In 1990 production dropped to 349,400 barrels. By 1991 more than 50,561,000 barrels of oil had been taken from Brown County lands since 1917.
Though the revival of the oil industry during the 1940s had helped to raise the county's population to 28,607 by 1950, the county experienced an extended drought between 1950 and 1957; rainfalls during this period fell to as low as twelve inches a year, forcing some farmers to move to Brownwood and other cities. By 1960 the population of the county had dropped to 24,728. The county revived somewhat during the 1960s, however, and by 1970 the population had risen again to 25,877. It was 33,057 in 1980 and 34,371 in 1990.
After the 1950s the Republican party carried the county in five of nine presidential elections, including 1980 and 1984. The party did less well in gubernatorial and senatorial races during the same period, winning just one of the former (1984), and three of the latter (1966, 1972, 1984).
By the 1980s Brown County's economy was stable and becoming more diversified. In 1982 the county reported 59,495 cattle and an income of over $4.5 million from dairy products, 17,056 goats, 11,009 sheep, and 8,031 hogs; major crop production included 251,437 bushels of wheat, 167,493 bushels of oats, 47,256 bushels of sorghum, and 5,910,819 pounds of peanuts.
In 1984 Brown County had 937 businesses employing 11,660 people, with annual wages of over $186 million; the majority of these businesses were located in Brownwood. County businesses in the mid-1980s were chiefly linked to agribusiness, brick and tile, and oil products, though industries also included a 3M plant, a Superior Cable factory, and a Kohler toilet factory. County income in 1984 from agribusiness, oil products, and brick and tile concerns totalled $110,800,000.
The county is served by an adequate transportation system, with U.S. highways 67 and 84 crossing from east to west, and 377 and 183 from northeast to southwest. A state highway crosses from northwest to southeast. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad crosses the state from the northeast to the west through Brownwood. Communities in Brown County include Early, Bangs, Blanket, Brookesmith, Cross Cut, Grosvenor, Indian Creek, May, and Zephyr. Brownwood, the largest city in the county, had a 2014 population of 19,694. The county is the birthplace of author Katherine Ann Porter, who was born on a farm at Indian Creek; her family moved to Hays County in 1892. Robert Ervin Howard, a pulp fantasy writer who attended school in Brownwood and published his first writings there, achieved considerable popularity during his lifetime and still has a considerable following. Recreation in the county centers around Lake Brownwood State Recreation Area. Brownwood also has a youth festival in January.