Childress County, on the eastern edge of the Panhandle, is bounded on the east by Oklahoma, on the south by Cottle County, on the West by Hall County, and on the north by Collingsworth County. The county is named for George C. Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The county seat, Childress, is located 116 miles southeast of Amarillo, on the Fort Worth and Denver Railway and U.S. Highway 287. The center of the county lies at approximately 34°35' north latitude and 100°13' west longitude. The county comprises 699 square miles of rolling prairies and rough riverbottoms. Its soils are a mix, usually a sandy loam mixed with alluvial sands from the county's many creeks and rivers. These soils support a variety of native grasses as well as cotton, wheat, and sorghum. Shin oak, mesquite, salt cedar, and hackberry grow in the bottoms. The county has a small yearly production of oil and gas, but minerals do not play a major role in the local economy. The elevation of the county ranges from 1,600 to 1,900 feet above sea level; the annual growing season averages 217 days, and annual precipitation averages 20.67 inches. The average minimum temperature is 26° F in January, and the average maximum is 99° in July. The major water feature of the county is the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which bisects the county as it flows eastward towards the main channel of the Red River. This stream and its tributary creeks (Dry Salt Creek, East Salt Creek, and Spiller, or Buck, Creek) render much of the central and northern part of the county unfit for farming. Thus ranching retains a significant role in the local economy. Baylor Lake and Lake Childress, two small bodies of water, lie to the northwest of Childress and provide recreation.
Archeological discoveries along the banks of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River indicate that permanent Indian farming communities existed in the area now known as Childress County between A.D. 1000 and 1600. The Indians lived in half dugouts and used stone and bone tools; they made pottery and supplemented their diet with buffalo, deer, dogs, turtles, and mussels.
Apaches occupied the area from about 1600 to about 1700, when the more warlike Comanches entered the region to begin a rule of the Panhandle and South Plains of Texas until they were crushed by the United States Army in the Red River War of 1874. As the Comanches retreated to reservations in Indian Territory during 1875 and 1876, buffalo hunters spread across the area. By the late 1870s the buffalo herds were exterminated and ranchers entered the local picture. The Texas legislature formed Childress County in 1876.
In 1879 the OX Ranch, owned by A. Forsythe and Doss D. Swearingen, was established in the southern part of the county. This large ranch occupied the entire southern half of Childress County and parts of Cottle and Motley counties. The Shoe Nail Ranch, owned by Chicago meat packer Gustavus Franklin Swift, was started in 1883 in the northern part of the county, while the Mill Iron Ranch spilled into the northwestern part of the county from Collingsworth County. These ranches dominated the local economy, and the unorganized county remained a sparsely populated ranching area until farmers began to appear in numbers during the early twentieth century. In 1890 the United States Agricultural Census enumerated 3,982 cattle in Childress County; in 1900 the number was almost 25,500.
Farms began to be established in the Childress County in the 1880s after the Fort Worth and Denver City extended its tracks into the area. This railroad began construction of its line from Fort Worth to the Texas-New Mexico border in 1881 and crossed into Childress County in April 1887. Organization of the county soon followed. A move to organize the county began even as the rails were being laid across it. A lively competition for the role of county seat developed between two townsites: Childress City, favored by most of the county residents, and Henry, the site favored by the railroad. In an election held in April 1887, county residents chose Childress City as their county seat, but soon changed their minds to accommodate demands and threats leveled by the railroad company. The Fort Worth and Denver City threatened not to stop in Childress City unless the election results were reversed, and sweetened its demand by offering lot owners in Childress City equal lots in Henry, the railroad's town. Using these tactics the FW&DC was able to force a new election in July 1887, and in the second election Henry became the county seat; its name was changed to Childress. The old Childress City disappeared as all its buildings were moved to the new town.
With both organization and a rail link to the East accomplished, farmers began to move into the county, settling on unclaimed or state lands and usually entering into stock farming to make a living. By 1890, 153 farms and ranches in the county encompassed almost 79,350 acres (including 39,671 acres classified as "improved" land), and the county's population had increased to 1,175. At this time county farmers planted only about 1,300 acres in cereal crops such as corn, oats, and wheat, and only fourteen acres in cotton. Population figures reflect a gradual shift in the county's economy during these years. The population swelled from twenty-five in 1880 to 1,175 in 1890 and 2,138 in 1900, as a small but steady stream of settlers moved into Childress County. By 1900 there were 262 farms and ranches in the county.
After the establishment of this base, farming expanded quickly in the county in the early twentieth century, as old ranches were divided and farmers opened more land to the cultivation of corn, wheat, and, especially, cotton. By 1910 961 farms and ranches were in operation in the county; cotton culture occupied more than 45,000 acres of the county that year, and wheat was planted on more than 12,000 acres. Local farmers had also planted more than 6,300 fruit trees, mostly peach. By World War I all readily tillable land in the county had been sold to the new farmers. The ranching industry survived, however, since the nonarable portions of the large ranches were sold to smaller ranchers during this same period; the county enumerated almost 12,900 cattle in 1910 and almost 12,000 in 1920.
The county's agricultural economy experienced a brief downturn after World War I, but quickly recovered and began to expand again in the 1920s. There were only 861 farms and ranches in the county in 1920, but by 1925 the number had jumped to 1,322, and by 1930 to 1,348. Cotton, already the county's most important crop by 1910, became even more important during this time. By 1930, almost 135,000 acres of county land was devoted to cotton cultivation. Wheat production also increased during this time, so that by 1930 over 40 percent of the land in the county was under cultivation. By this time poultry had also become a significant part of the local economy; in 1929 Childress county farmers owned almost 71,000 chickens and sold more than 289,000 dozen eggs. Smaller ranchers also increased their production, and in 1930 more than 18,719 cattle were counted in Childress County.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Childress County emerged as the center of a transportation network. The construction of the railroad through the county gave it an early advantage. Shortly after the turn of the century, the Fort Worth and Denver City moved its division point and shops from Clarendon to Childress, a process that began in 1901 and ended in late 1902. The addition of the railroad facilities boosted an already expanding economy and population. The construction of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway from Estelline to Plainview and Lubbock in 1927–28 further stimulated the Childress County economy because Childress served as the terminal for that branch line. Childress also served as the terminal for the Fort Worth and Denver Northern Railway, built from the main line at Childress to Pampa via Wellington and Shamrock during 1931 and 1932. Thus by the early 1930s Childress County's economy benefited from both the Fort Worth and Denver City's mainline and two of its major branch lines. Construction of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains and the Fort Worth and Denver Northern lines in 1929 and 1932 led to a doubling of the yard force at the Childress shops of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway.
Between 1900 and the early 1930s, this expansion of transportation facilities in Childress, combined with the expansion of agricultural activity in the county, resulted in a substantial increase in the local population. In 1900 only 2,138 people had been counted by the census in Childress County; by 1910 the population had jumped to 9,538, by 1920 to 10,933, and by 1930 to 16,044.
The hard years of the Great Depression, combined with effects of the Dust Bowl and farm mechanization, however, worked to reduce the number of small farmers and farm laborers in Childress County during the 1930s. Harvested cropland dropped from more than 183,000 acres in 1929 to only 114,467 in 1939; cotton production was reduced to about 57,000 acres, and the number of farms dropped from 1,348 to 904 during the same period. Railroad workers were also hurt during the depression, as the conversion from steam to diesel locomotives and the mechanization of some shop activities reduced the number of railroad employees during most of the decade. By 1940 the population of Childress County had declined to 12,149.
The presence of Childress Army Air Base probably kept the population from declining further during the 1940s; but after 1950 the population declined continuously, to a low of 6,505 in 1970. The loss is related to the great reduction in railroad operations and the unprofitability of small-scale farming. Though the county's population increased slightly to 6,950 in 1980, in 1992 only 5,953 people lived in Childress. By 2014, however, the population had grown to 7,089.
By the mid-1920s "improved" and paved roads linked Childress to Wichita Falls via Quanah, Vernon, and Electra, and to Amarillo via Memphis, Clarendon, and Claude. This major route, originally U.S. Highway 370, is now U.S. 287. "Improved roads" also linked Childress to Canadian by way of Wellington, Shamrock, Wheeler, and Mobeetie, while a more primitive dirt road ran from Childress to Paducah. During the 1930s and 1940s a network of crude farm-to-market roads developed. This system was paved during the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s U.S. Highway 287 ran through the county, U.S. 83 (from Laredo to Perryton) passed through Childress, and a complex system of paved farm-to-market roads was centered around that city and its larger road systems.
In 1888, when Childress County held its first presidential election, Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican William Henry Harrison each received eighty votes. For many years afterward, however, the voters of Childress County favored Democratic candidates, who won majorities in the area in virtually every presidential election from 1892 through 1948. The only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover took the county. After 1952, however, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county, presidential elections there became more competitive. Democratic presidential candidates took the county in 1956, 1964, and 1968, but by slimmer majorities than before, and Republican Richard Nixon actually carried the county in 1960. After 1972, when Nixon took the county over Democrat George McGovern, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter won in Childress County in 1976, the area went Republican in every presidential election from 1980 through 2004.
In the 1980s Childress County continued with an economy based on agriculture, both farming and ranching. Small oil discoveries made in 1961 contributed little to the local coffers; production was only 8,472 barrels in 1982, about 13,600 in 1990, and about 20,000 in 2000. Between 1961 and 2001 county production totaled 1,448,114 barrels, not a large output. In 2002 agricultural receipts in the area totaled $13,592,000, down 32 percent from 1997; crop sales accounted for $7,258,000 of that sum. In 2002 368,782 acres in the county were devoted to agriculture. Of those, about 42 percent were planted in crops, primarily cotton, wheat, hay, sorghum, and peanuts. Beef cattle also played an important role in the county's economy. By the 1980s small industry in Childress included the manufacture of clothing, mobile homes, fences, and wood products. Because of this, by 1980 most of the county's population lived in that town. Childress, the county seat and largest town, had an estimated population of 6,016 in 2014. The town is the home of the Greenbelt Bowl, a high school all-star football game. Other communities include Kirkland (population, 25), Carey (25), and Tell (20).