Callahan County (I-13) is in the Rolling Plains region of Central Texas on Interstate Highway 20 east of Abilene. The county is bounded on the north by Shackelford and Jones counties, on the east by Eastland County, on the south by Coleman and Brown counties, and on the west by Taylor County. The county seat is Baird. The largest town, Clyde, is nine miles east of Abilene and roughly 162 miles west of Fort Worth. The center point of the county is at 32°18' north latitude and 99°23' west longitude. In addition to Interstate 20, the county's transportation needs are served by U.S. highways 80 and 283, State highways 6, 36, 206, 279, 351, and the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Callahan County embraces 899 square miles of grassy prairie. The elevation ranges from 1,500 to 1,900 feet. The county is divided by a low range of hills known as the Callahan Divide, which runs from east to west. The region to the north is in the Brazos River basin, and the area to the south is in the Colorado River basin. Most of the county has light to dark loamy soils with clayey to loamy subsoils. In the southeast the soils are light-colored with loamy to sandy surface layers and clayey subsoils. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The eastern quarter of the county has vegetation typical of the Cross Timbers and Prairies regions-a variety of grasses, including mesquite grass, red grama, red love grass, tumble grass, and Texas grama, and small stands of trees, including mesquite, post oak, live oak, and pecan. The southwest corner has tall grasses. The remainder of the county has short to mid-height grasses, with some mesquite, juniper, and cacti (see GRASSLANDS). The subtropical and subhumid climate features mild winters and warm summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 31° F to an average high of 56°, and in July from 71° to 96°. The average annual rainfall is twenty-five inches. The average annual snowfall is six inches. The growing season averages 230 days a year, with the last freeze in late March and the first in early November. Tornadoes are common in the area. Since its establishment in the last century Callahan County towns have suffered several severe storms, most notably Baird in 1895, Oplin in 1922, and Clyde in 1938 and 1950.
Until the 1870s the county was dominated by Comanche Indians. The area was first explored and described by Dr. Henry C. Connelly of the Chihuahua expedition in 1839–40. Callahan County was formed by the Texas legislature in 1858 from Bexar, Bosque, and Travis counties and named for James Hughes Callahan, a survivor of the Goliad Massacre and leader of the Callahan expedition. Because of the threat of Comanche attack, little permanent settlement took place in the area until after the Civil War. The first White settler to reside in the county was probably James Dulan, a native of Georgia, who built a shelter on Hubbard Creek in 1859 and tended a small herd of cattle. Sometime before November 1863 the Whitten family moved in and established a camp on Deep Creek in the northeastern part of the county. They were followed by the Hittsons and Eubankses, who ranched in both Callahan and Shackelford counties just after the Civil War. The first permanent residence in the county was built by A. A. and Caroline Hart and their four sons, John, Jim, Early, and Jesse, who settled on the South Prong of Pecan Bayou in 1868. They moved to Coleman County shortly thereafter, but returned to Callahan County in 1872 and constructed a double log cabin that for many years was a county landmark.
During the early 1870s a number of other settlers arrived. Most were ranchers, drawn to the area by abundant grazing land. In 1873 John Hittson established the headquarters of his Three Circle Ranch in Callahan County, and in 1874 Jasper McCoy established a ranch on Pecan Bayou. Other early settlers included the Merchant brothers and Dr. J. D. Windham, a physician, who also started a ranch operated by his sons in the southwestern part of the county. Despite the growing population, the threat of attack from hostile Comanches continued during the early 1870s. In 1874 United States troops under Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie defeated the Comanches at Palo Duro Canyon, and the same year Company E of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers, under the command of William J. Maltby, was sent to the area to drive the remaining Indians away. With the danger of Indian attacks over, large numbers of settlers began moving in. By 1875 land promoter Nelson A. Smith established the first town, Belle Plain, near the center of the county. During the mid-1870s Callahan County became a transit area for cattlemen driving their herds to Kansas. On the way to Dodge City the Western Trail ran up the Pecan Bayou valley, passed near Belle Plain, and extended northward by way of the Bar-be-cue Ranch, just east of the site of present-day Baird. The Jacksboro Echo of July 21, 1876, estimated that some 73,000 cattle were driven up the trail in the first part of that year alone, and by 1880 the annual figure surpassed 260,000. The drives ended in the mid-1880s with the coming of the railroads, but they played an important role in drawing settlers to the area (see CATTLE TRAILING).
Between 1858 and 1877, Callahan County was attached successively to Bexar County, Travis County, and Eastland County for administrative and judicial purposes. In 1877 the residents, more than 150 strong, signed a petition requesting the organization of Callahan County. At the election of July 3, 1877, Callahan City became the first county seat, a position the town retained only until the election of October 13, 1877, when Belle Plain was voted in as the new county seat. Belle Plain showed signs of rapid growth, and a number of settlers moved there in anticipation of the railroad; by 1878 it had a population of more than 100, and by 1880 the number of residents had grown to nearly 300. In 1880–81 the Texas and Pacific Railway was constructed from Fort Worth to El Paso. Stations for the railroad were located at Putnam, Baird, and Clyde, all of which soon developed into towns, but bypassed Belle Plain six miles to the north. An election on January 16, 1883, made Baird the new county seat. Belle Plain soon declined; the stone jail and many of residences were moved to Baird, and by 1897 only four families remained. The construction of the railroad also opened the way for numerous new settlers. During the 1870s and 1880s several communities formed, including Cottonwood, Atwell, Cross Plains, Caddo Peak, Eagle Cove, and Eula. More settlers continued to arrive during the 1890s, and by the turn of the century there were post offices in Oplin, Tecumseh, Denton, Dressy, Admiral, and Dudley. In 1880 the county population was 3,419; by 1890 it had grown to 5,274.
During the 1880s extensive farming was introduced. Settlers from East Texas began farming in the area around Cottonwood in the mid-1880s, raising cotton, oats, and various varieties of fruit. A severe drought in 1886–87 ruined crops and caused some to wonder if the region was suited to agriculture, but by the late 1880s the farming economy had recovered and was rapidly expanding. Between 1880 and 1890 the number of farms in the county grew from 346 to 518, and by 1900 it had increased to 1,176. During the late nineteenth century corn was the largest crop; by 1900 Callahan County farmers were producing more than 300,000 bushels a year. Wheat and oats were the other main crops; in 1900, 13,450 bushels of wheat and 44,560 bushels oats were harvested. In the early 1890s large-scale cotton production was also introduced, and during the first two decades of the twentieth century cotton became one of the county's leading crops. In 1890, 7,640 bales were ginned; by 1910 that figure had jumped to 52,467, placing Callahan County among the leaders in cotton culture in the state.
Despite the impressive growth of agriculture, however, ranching continued to form the mainstay of the economy. The total number of cattle in the county during the period from 1890 and 1930 ranged between 25,000 and 35,000. Most were beef cattle, although dairying became more popular after the turn of the century, and for a time the county was a major producer of butter. Some ranchers tried their hands at raising sheep in the 1880s and 1890s-the number of sheep in the county was reported at 6,818 in 1880 and 6,487 in 1890-but by the turn of the century most ranchers had sold their flocks, and in 1910 only fifty-six sheep were recorded. During the first three decades of the twentieth century many farmers raised hogs. After 1900 chickens also were raised in large numbers: 54,246 in 1910 and 73,138 in 1930.
The population grew from 8,768 in 1900 to 12,973 in 1910. After 1910 the pace of growth slowed, and by the mid-teens it had begun to decline. It fell to 11,844 by 1920. Growth in the number of farms was steady at the beginning of the century, as more settlers arrived, lured by the prospect of plentiful land. By 1905 county farms numbered more than 1,600, three times as many as in 1890. Land prices, however, also increased, and many newcomers could not buy land. As a result, the number of tenant farmers grew steadily, until by 1920 nearly half the farmers-823 of 1,649-were tenants. Most were sharecroppers, who farmed the land in exchange for a share of the harvest. In contrast to tenants in many parts of the state, however, virtually all of the Callahan County tenants were White; in 1910 there was only a single Black tenant in the county (see FARM TENANCY).
Many of the county's farmers, both tenants and owners, were heavily indebted, and with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s a large number experienced hard times. Falling agricultural prices, combined with a boll weevil outbreak and the unwillingness of most banks to extend additional credit, forced many farmers off the land. By 1940, 1,200 active farmers were left, down more than 600 from the peak in 1910. The downturn in agriculture was partially offset by the discovery of oil in the county in 1923. A number of promising fields were soon located, including the Cross Plains Townsite, Pioneer, Cross Cut, and Blake fields, and by the late 1920s the oil business was in full bloom. Oil and gas revenues helped some landowners to survive the economic slump of the 1930s and made a few large landowners wealthy.
The period after World War II saw a continuation of the prewar trends. Ranching and farming continued to form the twin pillars of the economy, with the largest proceeds coming from beef and other livestock products. The years after the war saw a trend toward fewer and larger ranches and farms, as well-to-do landowners added to their previous holdings. In 1982, 91 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 18 percent of the farmland under cultivation and 4 percent irrigated. That year Callahan County ranked 180th of the 254 Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 73 percent coming from livestock and livestock products, primarily from cattle. Overgrazing and water problems-erosion, salinity, and a shortage of potable water-had brought about several conservation programs. Principal crops included wheat, oats, hay, sorghums, and peanuts. Other significant agricultural products included watermelons, peaches, and pecans.
Businesses in the county in the early 1980s numbered 174. In 1980, 15 percent of the labor force were self-employed, 18 percent were employed in professional or related services, 13 percent in manufacturing, 21 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 14 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 55 percent were employed in other counties; and 1,401 retired workers lived in the county. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $97,794,000. The industries with the most employment were agribusiness and the manufacture of fabricated metal products. Oil and gas extraction continued to form an important part of the local economy. In the early 1990s oil production averaged a million barrels annually; between 1923 and 1991 crude production totaled 79,523,155 barrels.
The first schools in Callahan County were opened in the 1870s. Among the earliest ones was a private academy in Belle Plain, established in 1877 by Professor and Mrs. W. J. Westmoreland. Belle Plain was also the site of one of the earliest colleges in West Texas, Belle Plain College, which opened in 1881. Another institution of higher learning, Baird College, operated for a brief time around the turn of the century. The first public schools in the county were opened in the mid-1880s. In the early 1990s Callahan County had four school districts with five elementary, one middle, and four high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 2,253, with expenditures per pupil of approximately $2,000. Forty-seven percent of the 141 high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 96 percent of the high school graduates were White, 4 percent Hispanic, and 0.1 percent Black. Callahan County has generally been staunchly Democratic, although Republicans made advances in the second half of the twentieth century. Of the nine presidential elections between 1952 and 1988, Callahan County voted six times in support of the Democratic candidate and three times for the Republican candidate. In gubernatorial elections since 1952, county voters supported the Democratic candidate in every election except in 1986, when they supported Republican Bill Clements. Of the senatorial elections between 1952 and 1988, Callahan County voted for Democratic candidates in every instance except 1972 and 1984. Democratic officials also continued to maintain control of most county-wide offices. The first organized church in the county was reportedly the Methodist church in Cross Plains, which was established in the 1880s. Other early churches were located in Belle Plain, Clyde, and Baird. In the mid-1980s Callahan County had thirty-one organized churches, with an estimated aggregate membership of 6,505. The largest communions were Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Church of Christ.
The county's population reached 12,785 in 1960 but fell to 8,205 in 1970. It was 10,992 in 1980 and 11,859 in 1990. As of 2014, the population was 13,513. That year more than half the residents lived in Baird (1,582), Clyde (3,754), Cross Plains (1,028), and Putnam (98). Anglos constituted 87.4 percent of the population, Hispanics 8.8 percent, and African Americans 1.5 percent. Among the county's attractions are the Callahan County Pioneer Museum and a number of historic houses, including the home of the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Recreational activities include hunting, lake activities, and the old settler reunion, held each July.