Carson County, in the center of the Panhandle and on the eastern edge of the Texas High Plains, is bounded on the north by Hutchinson County, on the west by Potter County, on the south by Armstrong County, and on the east by Gray County. Carson County was named for Samuel P. Carson, the first secretary of state of the Republic of Texas. The center of the county lies at roughly 35°25' north latitude and 101°22' west longitude. The county occupies 900 square miles of level to rolling prairies surfaced by dark clay and loam that make the county almost completely tillable and productive. Native grasses and various crops such as wheat, oats, barley, grain sorghums, and corn flourish. The huge Ogallala Aquifer beneath the surface provides water for people, crops, and livestock. Trees, usually cottonwood, oak, or elm, appear, along with mesquite, in the county's creekbottoms. Antelope and Dixon creeks, both intermittent streams, run northward from central Carson County to their mouths on the Canadian River in Hutchinson County. McClellan Creek, also intermittent, runs eastward across the southeastern corner of the county to join the Red River. Carson County ranges from 3,200 to 3,500 feet in elevation, averages 20.92 inches of rain per year, and varies in temperature from a minimum average of 21° F in January to a maximum average of 93° in July. The growing season averages 191 days a year.
Prehistoric hunters first occupied the area, and then the Plains Apaches arrived. Modern Apaches followed them and were displaced by Comanches, who dominated the region until the 1870s. Spanish exploring parties, including those of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the 1540s and Juan de Oñate in the early 1600s, crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle, but it is not known if they traversed Carson County. American buffalo hunters penetrated the Panhandle in the early 1870s as they slaughtered the great southern herd. The ensuing Indian wars, culminated by the Red River War of 1874, led to the extermination of the buffalo and the removal of the Comanches to Indian Territory. The Panhandle was thus opened to settlement. Carson County was established in 1876, when its territory was marked off from the Bexar District.
Ranchers appeared in Carson County in the early 1880s. The JA Ranch of Charles Goodnight and John G. Adair and the Turkey Track Ranch both grazed large ranges in Carson County by 1880. In 1882 Charles G. Francklyn purchased 637,440 acres of railroad lands in Gray, Carson, Hutchinson, and Roberts counties, 281,000 of them in Carson County. The newly formed Francklyn Land and Cattle Company, with B. B. Groom as manager, attempted to ranch and farm on a large scale, but failed. The lands of the Francklyn Company were sold to the White Deer Lands Trust of British bondholders in 1886 and 1887.
In the later 1880s the railroads reached Carson County. By 1886 the Southern Kansas Railway, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, had built from Kiowa, Kansas, to the Texas-Indian Territory border. The Southern Kansas of Texas Railway was formed to extend the line into Texas. Panhandle City, a temporary railhead, was founded in 1887 in anticipation of the railroad line, which finally reached the town in 1888. The town grew, and its occupants hoped that another rail line, the Fort Worth and Denver City, which was building from Fort Worth across the Panhandle to Colorado, would pass through their city. As it happened, the Fort Worth and Denver City missed Panhandle City by fourteen miles to the south, just touching the southwestern corner of the county. In 1889 the two lines were finally linked by a fourteen-mile span between Panhandle City and Washburn, a station on the Fort Worth and Denver City. By 1890 Carson County had a rail network, and its first town, soon known simply as Panhandle; that year, the United States census listed twenty-eight ranches or farms in the area, and 356 people were living in the county, all of them White and twenty-nine of them foreign-born.
The establishment of ranches and railroad construction led to a need for local government. A petition for organization was circulated through the county in 1888, and in November of that year an election was held. Panhandle, the county's only town at that time, was designated the county seat. Despite organization, however, the county remained a ranching area throughout the 1890s, with a small population and only a handful of farmers and stock raisers appearing as the decade wore on. As late as 1900 only 469 people were living in Carson County, and only fifty-six farms and ranches had been established.
Water had to be brought to Panhandle by railroad from the area of Miami in Roberts County, then carried in barrels on wagons to homesteads. This problem hindered development until it was found that abundant underground water could be pumped to the surface by windmills. That discovery, together with the selling of White Deer lands to small ranchers and farmers in 1902, greatly increased the area's attractiveness. During the next thirty years a modern agricultural economy emerged, based on the production of livestock, wheat, corn, and grain sorghum.
Continued railroad expansion during the first decades of the twentieth century helped to encourage farmers to settle in the area. The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas Railroad built from the Texas-Oklahoma Territory border to Yarnall, crossing the southern edge of Carson County on an east-west line. The townsites of Groom, Lark, and Conway appeared at this time along the railroad right-of-way. In 1904 the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf bought this line. In the early 1900s the Santa Fe Railroad decided to improve its Kansas-Texas-New Mexico line and make it a major transcontinental route. The Santa Fe already had access to the Southern Kansas of Texas line from the Oklahoma Territory border to Panhandle City. In 1908 the Southern Kansas of Texas extended its line from Panhandle City to Amarillo, thus completing the Texas section of the Santa Fe's transcontinental route.
During the early twentieth century both Europeans and Americans built the agricultural economy of the county and added variety to the cultural milieu of the Panhandle. Anglo-American farmers arrived early in the century, settling as early as 1901 and 1902 around the new town of Groom in the southeastern corner of the county. A large number of German Catholics arrived in western Carson County and eastern Potter County between 1909 and the 1920s. They established St. Francis, a community that straddles the Potter-Carson county line. This community retained its ethnic character into the 1990s. Likewise, a large Polish Catholic population developed in the eastern part of the county on lands purchased from White Deer lands by immigrants. They began to arrive in 1909 and centered their community around a new village named White Deer, laid out in the same year. This community has also retained the cultural heritage of the settlers.
Between 1900 and 1930 farming activity in the county markedly increased. By 1920, 284 farms had been established in the county; by 1920, 426; and by 1930, 542. Meanwhile, the United States Census Bureau reported that the number of "improved" acres in the county had jumped from only 4,663 in 1900 to over 241,620 in 1930. Local farmers concentrated on growing corn, oats, sorghum, and particularly wheat; by 1930 wheat culture occupied more than 182,740 acres. By 1930 242,000 acres, or 42 percent of the entire county, was used for farming. Meanwhile, cattle ranching remained an important component of the economy. Carson County ranchers owned 18,435 cattle in 1900, 22,587 in 1910, 28,370 in 1920, and 16,621 in 1930.
During the 1920s and 1930s the oil and gas industry became another major component of Carson County's economy. Experimental drilling by Gulf Oil Corporation led to the county's, and the Panhandle's, first oil and gas production in late 1921. Little activity occurred, however, until the discovery of the huge Borger field, thirty miles north, in 1925, when a wave of oil exploration and production swept the Panhandle, including Carson County. By the end of 1926 the county had produced over a million barrels of oil and had also emerged as a large natural gas producer. Oilfield activity led to renewed railroad construction in the county and to the construction of another town. In 1926 the Panhandle and Santa Fe built a thirty-two-mile spur from Panhandle to Borger to tap the oil profits. In 1927 the same railroad built a ten-mile spur from White Deer to Skellytown, a new town built that year by Skelly Oil to serve a recently constructed refinery. Thus, by the 1930s Carson County had a diversified economy based on ranching, farming, petroleum, and transportation.
As the county's economy developed between 1900 and 1930, its population rose. In 1910 the census counted 2,027 residents in Carson County, and by 1930 the population had increased to 7,745. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, agricultural production dropped off, and many local farmers were forced to leave their lands. Cropland harvested in the county dropped from 220,734 acres in 1929 to 180,971 in 1940; the number of farms dropped during the same period from 542 to 493. The population of the county as a whole declined by 15 percent during the years of the depression, falling to 6,624 by 1940.
During and since World War II defense spending by the federal government has helped the local economy. In September 1942 the Pantex Ordnance Plant (see PANTEX) began to manufacture bombs and artillery shells. The plant was on 16,076 acres of southwestern Carson County land, where it operated until August 1945. In 1949 Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) acquired the site for use as an agricultural experiment station. During the Korean War, however, the federal government took back more than 10,000 acres of the site for use as a nuclear weapons assembly plant. By the 1980s Pantex had become the only nuclear assembly plant in the country; it employed more than 2,500 people and had been the scene of numerous antinuclear protests.
By the 1920s State Highway 33 (now U.S. Highway 60) ran from Oklahoma through Canadian, Pampa, and Panhandle, then proceeded to Amarillo, where it joined U.S. Highway 66. During the 1930s paved state roads were built from Panhandle north to Borger and south to Conway, on U.S. 66. Farm and ranch roads also appeared during those years. In the 1960s Interstate Highway 40, from Oklahoma City to Amarillo, was built across the southern portion of the county along the route of old U.S. 66, which was originally built in the 1920s.
Though petroleum production in the area has declined, Carson County has remained a substantial, if not spectacular, producer of oil and gas. In 1946 county wells pumped 4,955,000 barrels of petroleum; in 1978, 1,360,000; in 1990, 747,000, and in 2000, almost 396,500. By the end of 2000 more than 178,398,900 barrels of petroleum had been produced from county lands.
Carson County therefore has a balanced and diversified economy based on ranching, farming, oil, transportation, and the Pantex plant. Most of the farmland is located in the eastern part of the county, while the western part remains ranchland. In the 1940s and 1950s many local farmers drilled irrigation wells to tap the Ogallala Aquifer, and by the 1980s about 33 percent of cultivated land in the county was irrigated. The local agricultural economy remained relatively static after the 1940s; by 1982, land under cultivation totaled 281,424 acres. The number of farms and farmers declined, however, as mechanization led to a growth in farm size and corresponding decline in the number of farms. In 2002 the county had 363 farms and ranches covering 451,669 acres, 55 percent of which were devoted to crops and 45 percent to pasture. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $44,054,000; livestock sales accounted for $29,848,000 of the total. Wheat, sorghum corn, soybeans, and hay were the principal crops.
The voters of Carson County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1888 through 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower won a majority of the county's votes, the area began to shift, and Republican candidates carried the county in virtually every presidential election from 1952 to 2004. The only exceptions occurred in 1964 and 1976, when Democrats Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, respectively, took the county.
The population of the county also remained essentially stable after World War II. It rose from 6,624 in 1940 to 6,852 in 1950, and again to 7,781 by 1960. It declined somewhat during the 1960s to 6,358 in 1970, then rose again to 6,672 in 1980. By 2014 there were 6,013 people living in the county, most of whom lived in its towns, which include White Deer (population, 976), Skellytown (459), and Groom (558). Panhandle (2,348) is Carson County's largest town and its seat of government.