Comal County is located in south central Texas on the divide between the Blackland Prairies and the Balcones Escarpment. Its largest city and county seat, New Braunfels, is twenty-nine miles northeast of San Antonio and forty-five miles southwest of Austin. The county's center lies at 29°48' north latitude and 98°17' west longitude. The county comprises 555 square miles of prairie and Hill Country terrain. The eastern quarter, below the Balcones Escarpment, is gently rolling grass and crop land ranging in elevation from 600 to 750 feet above sea level. The Blackland Prairie soil of this section is loam with clay subsoils and is well suited for cultivation. The elevation of the northwestern three-quarters of the county ranges from 750 to roughly 1,500 feet above sea level. The loam in this section varies from shallow to deep and has proved better suited for grazing than for cultivation. The Hill Country terrain supports more timber-live oak, mesquite, and Ashe juniper-and fewer grasses than the prairies of eastern Comal County. Indigenous wildlife includes deer, doves, rabbits, turkeys, squirrels, ringtail cats, skunks, bobcats, and coyotes. Ranchers have also introduced several exotics into the area, including axis deer, sika deer, and Barbados sheep. The annual precipitation averages 33.19 inches, and average temperatures range from a low of 40° F in January to a high of 96° in July; the growing season lasts 265 days. Mineral resources include limestone, sand, and gravel; these have become the basis of a construction-materials industry in the county.
The Guadalupe River and, since 1964, Canyon Lake drain the central hills and valleys of the county. Cibolo Creek, which empties into the San Antonio River, forms the southwestern boundary of the county and is the primary drainage channel for that area. Numerous streams north and east of Canyon Lake flow north into the Blanco River in Hays County. The Balcones Fault zone of the Edwards Aquifer is the primary source of groundwater in Comal County.
Spanish explorers were familiar with the Comal Springs area but evinced little interest in settling the region. After the expedition of Domingo Terán de los Ríos of 1691, the Old San Antonio Road crossed the Guadalupe River near the future site of New Braunfels. Subsequent French and Spanish expeditions, including those of the Marqués de Aguayo and Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, commonly passed through what later became southeastern Comal County. In 1756 Comal Springs became the site of the short-lived Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Mission, but, rather than fortify the mission against anticipated Comanche depredations, Spanish authorities closed it in 1758. Nearly a century passed before settlement became permanent, although a Mexican land grant of 1825 gave title of the area around the springs to Juan M. Veramendi. During the eighteenth century the springs and river (which had been called Las Fontanas and the Little Guadalupe respectively) took the name Comal, Spanish for "flat dish." It is thought that the name was suggested to the Spanish by the numerous small islands in the river or by the shallow basin through which the river runs.
The inhabitants of the region on the eve of settlement were primarily Tonkawa and Waco Indians, although Lipan Apaches and Karankawas also roamed the area. Early settlers' contacts with these peoples were generally uneventful. Nomadic Wacos who were camped at springs north of New Braunfels moved their camp west within a year of the founding of the settlement, and a village of some 500 Tonkawas on the Guadalupe River above New Braunfels initially welcomed German visitors. Notwithstanding the rapid influx of settlers in the 1840s and 1850s and isolated incidents of violence, county fathers and Indian leaders generally maintained peaceful relations.
Permanent settlement of the county began in 1845, when Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels secured title to 1,265 acres of the Veramendi grant, including the Comal springs and river, for the Adelsverein. In succeeding years thousands of Germans and Americans were attracted to the rich farm and ranch land around New Braunfels. Settlement progressed rapidly; in March 1846 the Texas legislature formed Comal County from the Eighth Precinct of Bexar County and made New Braunfels the county seat. The final boundary determination was made in 1858 with the separation of part of western Comal County to Blanco and Kendall counties. The first county elections were held on July 13, 1846. It is estimated that in 1850 New Braunfels was the fourth largest city in Texas. In 1854 the county commissioners divided the county into eight public school districts, and in 1858, long before they were required by law to do so, New Braunfels citizens voted to collect a tax for support of public schools. The population of the county grew 133 percent between 1850 and 1860, and numbered more than 4,000 on the eve of the Civil War.
Comal County was exceptional among the largely German counties of south and west central Texas in the strength of its 1861 vote in favor of secession. The county contributed three all-German volunteer companies-two cavalry and one infantry-to the Confederate cause. There is little to suggest that the county's support for the Confederacy reflected enthusiasm for slavery. Free labor predominated over slave in all counties with large German populations; a survey of 130 German farms in Comal and two other counties in 1850 revealed no slave laborers. By 1860, as Anglo-Americans settled alongside the German pioneers, Blacks still made up less than 5 percent of county residents, and the family remained the primary source of labor. Comal County residents seem to have embraced the Southern cause because of their support of the larger cause of states' rights. But there is no record in the county of the violence between Unionists and Confederates that broke out in German counties to the northwest.
From the early years of its settlement Comal County supported diversified farming and ranching industries. Corn was almost universally cultivated by pioneers and quickly became a staple both of the German diet and of the local economy as a cash crop. It declined in importance relative to other crops and to livestock, however, during and after the Civil War as county ranchers and farmers began to produce commercially important amounts of cotton, wheat, oats, wool, dairy products, and beef.
As farming and ranching spread beyond the environs of New Braunfels into the Hill Country, the county seat developed as an important supply and processing center for products of the expanding agricultural frontier. Many immigrants brought manufacturing experience and commercial acumen to their new home and applied these skills to the products of local agriculture. Comal County never developed as a major cotton-producing area, but the crop played an important role in the local economy. Production rose from 1,220 bales in 1860 to a peak of more than 16,000 bales in 1900. Perhaps more significant, however, was early interest in cotton processing. The first cotton gin in the county was built in the mid-1850s, and by 1885 there were twenty. During the Civil War John F. Torrey imported machinery and looms to manufacture cotton textiles and laid the foundation of the Comal County cotton industry of the twentieth century. At almost the same time, another New Braunfels industrialist, George Weber, established the first cottonseed press in the state. Local businessmen also moved rapidly from sheep herding to woolen textiles. Production of raw wool expanded from 621 pounds in 1850 to 72,000 pounds in 1890, and in 1867 a company for the manufacture of woolen products was organized in New Braunfels.
County population growth slowed after the rapid expansion of the 1850s; from 4,030 in 1860 it reached 8,824 in 1920. In these years cotton and wheat peaked and were supplanted in importance by oats and dairy products. Oat cultivation surpassed 200,000 bushels annually; production of milk approached a million gallons and that of butter neared 200,000 pounds before 1920. Corn culture and livestock remained important sources of income. Production of corn reached as much as 439,000 bushels annually in the years after World War I, while the number of cattle, though fluctuating widely, grew to an annual average of about 20,000 head in the twentieth century. Near the end of the nineteenth century goat ranching also became a significant part of the county economy; in the 1930 agricultural census goats outnumbered sheep 22,176 to 15,457.
As county agricultural production expanded, so too did the scale of industry. The value of county manufactures grew inconsistently until the 1890s, when it increased nearly tenfold to more than $950,000; it grew again almost fivefold by 1920. Although the value of manufactured products approached $5 million in 1920, the number of manufacturers fell after 1900 from sixty to twenty-nine. Improvements in transportation and in power generation allowed a shift toward larger industrial concerns and the expansion of production. By the turn of the century the International-Great Northern and Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroads had replaced the stagecoach and oxcart in the passenger and freight-hauling business and linked the county with state and national markets. At the same time electricity began to replace water and steam power in New Braunfels industry. By the 1920s Comal County had established itself as a manufacturing and shipping center for textiles, garments, flour, and construction materials.
After World War I Comal County farming declined relative to ranching. Though the number of livestock, particularly cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, and poultry, remained relatively constant until 1960, production of the primary commercial crops of the nineteenth century, corn, cotton, and oats, fell in most decades after 1920. The agricultural censuses indicate that cotton cultivation ceased altogether in the 1950s. From a peak in 1920 of 439,182 bushels, corn production fell to slightly more than 60,000 bushels by 1970. The oat harvest in the same period dropped from 217,160 bushels to 40,814 bushels, while the number of cattle, goats and sheep, and poultry increased in most censuses through 1950. That year county ranchers raised 20,000 cattle, almost 60,000 sheep and goats, and 62,938 chickens, turkeys, and other barnyard fowl. By the end of the decade the number of goats alone surpassed 50,000.
By mid-century mixed stock raising and the production of hay and feed grains, particularly sorghum, supplanted the commercially important crops of the nineteenth century as the basis of Comal County's agricultural economy. After hybrid seeds became widely available in the 1950s, the yield from sorghum culture leapt from 3,958 bushels in 1940 to almost 250,000 bushels in 1969. Except during the decade of the Great Depression, the value of county farms and ranches rose steadily in the twentieth century, but the variety and number of agricultural enterprises in the area declined just as consistently. From a high of 899 in 1910, the number of Comal County farms dropped to 584 in the early 1980s; the bulk of agricultural income was increasingly concentrated in livestock and its products. In 1968 cash receipts from crops amounted to $385,000; that derived from livestock exceeded $2.6 million. That ratio held steady through the following decade; in 1985 cattle, goats, sheep, and poultry generated roughly 85 percent of the county's $8 million agricultural income.
As the diversified farms and ranches of the original Comal County agriculturalists gave way to the livestock economy of the twentieth century, local industrialists were increasing the scope and the scale of county manufactures. By 1982 fifty manufacturers, employing almost 30 percent of the county labor force, had a gross product of more than $188 million. The production of such construction materials as gravel, sand, limestone, crushed stone, and concrete, in addition to the manufacture of textiles and clothing and the milling of wheat and corn were still the mainstays of the industrial sector and accounted for much of its expansion. Metal and wood work and food processing also became important industries.
The county grew rapidly after World War II and boomed after 1970. From 16,357 residents in 1950, the population expanded by 21 percent in the subsequent decade and by the same amount in the 1960s, reaching 24,165 by 1970. In 1980 the figure was 36,446-a 50 percent increase from the previous census.
The emergence of tourism as a primary industry, as well as attendant increases in retail and service employment, explains much of the population growth. The county is located in the "corridor" along Interstate Highway 35 between San Antonio and Austin and in 1973 was included in the San Antonio Metropolitan Statistical Area. Between 1970 and 1984 the number of residents employed in trade nearly doubled, to 2,287; the number of jobs in service industries increased more than 600 percent, to 1,977; and employment in financial, insurance, and real estate businesses rose 400 percent.
Since its impoundment in 1964, Canyon Lake has transformed a rural stretch of the Guadalupe River valley in northern Comal County into one of the largest rural population centers in Central Texas. By 1984 more than eighty subdivisions had been built on the shores of the lake and in the hills surrounding it; the number of permanent residents is estimated at 12,000 to 15,000. The area is especially popular with retired people. Canyon Lake and the scenic river valley below the dam have also served as the focal point for revitalization of a tourist industry in the county that dates to the early years of the century, when the International-Great Northern Railroad promoted New Braunfels as a tourist destination for San Antonians. Capitalizing on the natural and historic attractions offered by the Guadalupe River, by Natural Bridge Caverns, and by the county's German heritage, tourism in the mid-1980s supported some thirty hotels and motels, as well as resort condominiums, around New Braunfels and Canyon Lake.
Comal County was founded and initially populated under the sponsorship of the Association for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The county was perhaps one-half German-born in the 1850s. The influx of Americans from the old South and border states in subsequent years diluted the Germans' early predominance, and by 1890 only about one in five county residents was a native German. When the children of German immigrants are included in the 1890 figure, however, German stock still comprised roughly 75 percent of the county population. The flow of German immigrants dwindled after the Civil War, and by 1940 only 1.6 percent of county residents were native Germans; but their influence on the social and cultural life of the area endured. The first newspaper in the county, the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung (later the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung), was published exclusively in German until after World War II. Social clubs and an annual celebration of the county's German heritage, the Wurstfest (begun in the 1960s), have also served to maintain the ethnic identity and cultural legacy of the original settlers. With the exception of Mexican immigrants, no other single foreign nationality settled in significant numbers in the area. Mexican immigration peaked during the period of the Mexican Revolution. The 1930 census recorded 3,662 ethnic Mexicans in the county, or 30.5 percent of the total population. Though there were nearly twice as many Hispanic-surnamed residents when they were next recorded in 1970, their number did not grow as quickly as the population of the county as a whole. By 1980, when 8,728 Mexican Americans were counted, they made up 24 percent of the county population. The 1860 census recorded only 193 African Americans in Comal County, and in 1870, when Blacks constituted 31 percent of the state population, they made up just 7.1 percent of the county total. By 1980 Blacks constituted barely 1 percent of the area population.
Within the context of the state's historic loyalty to the Democratic party, Comal County voters have been a remarkably independent lot, althoughhe county's antebellum voting record was in line with statewide trends; in 1848, 1852, and 1856 the county’s voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidates, and in 1860 almost unanimously voted for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. It voted Democratic in the first postªCivil War presidential vote in Texas, but produced solid Republican majorities in the next three elections. In 1888 and 1892 it supported the Democratic candidate, but in 1896 Republican William McKinley won most of the county’s votes. County voters gave majorities the Democratic candidates in every election from 1900 through 1916, but by the 1920s county voters must have felt disowned by both major parties: : in 1920 a plurality of the county’s votes went to American Party candidate James Ferguson, and in 1924 74 percent of Comal County voters rejected both the Republican and Democratic nominees for Progressive leader Robert La Follette. Four years later, perhaps with Prohibition uppermost in voters' minds, the county returned to the Democratic fold (four years earlier than the state as a whole), where they remained through the worst years of the Great Depression. In 1940, when Texans voted by more than four to one to return Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House, Comal County reverted to Republicanism. From 1940 through 2004 it has voted Democratic in only one presidential election, that of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
The influx of new residents as well as the expansion and transformation of the job market after 1970 dramatically improved the average educational level of citizens. In 1950 just 20 percent of the population over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. Steady improvement before 1970 raised that figure to 35 percent. In 1980, 60 percent of residents over twenty-five were high school graduates. The shift from an agricultural economy to one based on industry and tourism is reflected in the proportional growth of New Braunfels. In 1900 the city's 2,097 people made up less than 30 percent of the county's residents. In 1990 the 27,334 inhabitants were more than half the county population of 51,832.
The U.S. Census counted 123,694 people living in Comal County in 2014. About 69.5 percent were Anglo, 26.2 percent were Hispanic, and 2.1 percent African-American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 84 percent had completed high school, and 26 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century various manufacturing concerns, tourism, and agriculture were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 852 farms and ranches covering 203,291 acres, 62 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 18 percent to crops, and 18 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $5,631,000; livestock sales accounted for $21,138,000 of the total. Cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, horses, nursery plants, hay, corn, sorghum, and wheat were the chief agricultural products.
By 2014 the population of New Braunfels had grown to 63,675; other communities included Bulverde (4,868), Garden Ridge (3,551), and Spring Branch. Tourist attractions in the county include the Gruene historic area, tubing on the Guadalupe River, and the Schlitterbahn water park.