Comanche County, in central Texas, is bounded on the south by Mills County, on the west by Brown County, on the north by Eastland County and on the east by Hamilton and Erath counties. The county is named for the Comanche Indians, whose territory once included the area. Comanche County covers 944 square miles of rolling land with elevations from 650 to 1,700 feet. The center of the county lies at 31°55' north latitude and 98°40' west longitude; the county seat, Comanche, is located about seventy miles southeast of Abilene. The area is drained by the North and South Leon rivers and their tributaries, which in turn flow into the Brazos River system. The northern part of the county is in the Western Cross Timbers region, which is characterized by light sand and loamy soils that support mixed timber of cedars, oaks, mesquites, and pecans. Southern Comanche County forms part of the southern edge of the Grand Prairie region and has dark waxy and dark loam soils. The county has a 238-day growing season and an average annual rainfall of 18.45 inches. In 1982 there were 1,350 farms in Comanche that produced a variety of agricultural products. Peanuts, pecans, grains, and hay account for about 40 percent of the county's $69 million annual agricultural income, while beef, dairy cattle, swine, sheep, and goats account for the remainder. The average minimum temperature in January is 32° F; the average maximum in July is 95°.
The area that is now Comanche County was dominated from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries by the Comanche Indians. The Comanches' culture was well adapted to their life on the plains. Unlike some Indian tribes they organized raids and buffalo hunts without a tribal military society, but with a responsible hunt leader chosen as coordinator. Their prey included buffalo, elk, mustangs, longhorn cattle, and black bears of the Cross Timbers region; the last they used for their oil. They did not eat fish, wildfowl, dogs, or coyotes unless they were severely pressed for food. Comanches sheltered in the common plains type of tepee, made of tanned buffalo hides, standing twelve to fourteen feet high and resting on a framework of sixteen to eighteen poles. The entry was usually covered with a bearskin, and a flap at the peak vented smoke from winter fires.
White settlement in the area began with a colony organized by Jesse Mercer and others in 1854 on lands earlier granted by Mexico to Stephen F. Austin and Samuel May Williams. F. M. Collier built the first log house in the county in 1855, and in 1856 the Texas legislature formed Comanche County from Coryell and Bosque counties; Cora was designated as the county seat. In 1859 the more centrally located town of Comanche became county seat. By 1860 the United States census counted 709 people living in the county; farming and ranching occupied 24,730 acres, about 1,880 acres of which was classified as "improved." Twenty-five residents owned slaves, but there were no large-scale plantations in the area. The population included only sixty-one slaves, and only two of the county residents owned as many as eight slaves; most of the slaveholders owned only one. Cattle ranching was by far the most important economic activity in Comanche County at that time, and over 14,700 head of cattle were counted in the area that year. Wheat and corn were the county's most important crops on the eve of the Civil War; only one bale of cotton was produced in the county in 1860.
The withdrawal of the United States Army during the Civil War left the settlers without protection and even without livestock after Indian raids. Home-guard companies were organized for defense, but many settlers fled and the White population shrank to about sixty by 1866.
With the war's end, military protection returned, and settlers were once more attracted to the county, many to participate in a range cattle boom. By 1870 the county had 126 farms and ranches, encompassing about 17,500 acres, and the population had increased to 1,001. By the 1870s the town of Comanche had become the political center for some fifty counties, both organized and unorganized, to the west and northwest. The Comanche Chief, which began to be published in 1873, was for some years the only newspaper in this part of Texas.
The people worked for economic and social stability and were impatient with outlaws. When the notorious John Wesley Hardin killed Brown County deputy sheriff Charlie Webb in Comanche in 1874 many local citizens resented Hardin's escape. In misguided retaliation, a mob of 300 residents of Brown and Comanche counties stormed the county jail where Joe Hardin (brother of the outlaw) and two of the outlaw's associates were being held. The three prisoners were lynched. Some months later John Hardin was arrested in Florida, tried for murder in Comanche, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
By 1880 Comanche County had 1,985 farms and ranches that encompassed 190,482 acres. Ranching had expanded since the Civil War, and over 21,000 cattle, and 2,925 sheep were counted in Comanche that year. Farming had also markedly increased; the county's farms included 48,550 acres of improved land on which grains and cotton were produced. Over 14,200 acres were devoted to corn, the county's most important crop at that time, while cotton was grown on 9,301 acres that produced 2,098 bales.
As the economy of the area rapidly developed in the 1870s, its population increased almost eightfold, and by 1880, 8,608 people lived in Comanche County, including seventy-nine Blacks. Agriculture was further encouraged in 1881 when the Texas Central Railroad began service in Comanche County and started carrying cattle and cotton to market. That many of the county's settlers came from southern states may have been a contributory factor to racial tensions that emerged in the 1880s. Amid economically desperate times and political unrest in 1886, the second occasion on which a Black murdered Whites resulted in all the Black people being driven from the county by vigilantes. They have not returned in any number.
Between 1880 and 1900 the county's economy continued to grow rapidly despite periodic droughts, the savage winter of 1885–86, and the nationwide economic crisis that began in 1893. The number of farms and ranches in the area rose to 1,985 by 1890; by 1900 the 3,548 farms and ranches encompassed 522,273 acres. Almost 167,500 acres of farmland was classified as improved; on it farmers grew mostly cereals and cotton. Cotton had come to be the single most important crop in the county by 1890, when almost 35,000 acres of Comanche County land was devoted to the fiber. In 1900 the county planted more than 88,700 acres in cotton and produced 24,224 commercial bales.
Meanwhile, ranching continued to be crucial to the local economy, as more than 47,000 cattle were counted in 1890 and about 43,000 in 1900. More than 15,000 sheep were also found in the county in 1890, though the number of herds declined to only about 3,800 by 1900. Population growth during the last two decades of the nineteenth century reflected the economic development that took place during that period. The census enumerated 15,679 people in Comanche County in 1890 and 23,009 in 1900. The county's continued economic growth did not by any means inoculate local farmers against the many problems afflicting American farmers during the late nineteenth century, however, and in fact the People's Party (or Populist Party) grew powerful in Comanche County politics during the 1890s; in the 1898 election, the Populist slate won a number of county offices.
Expansion of cotton farming had been responsible for much of the county's growth during the late nineteenth century. But the local economy was severely damaged between 1900 and 1930, after the boll weevil plague entered the area in the early twentieth century and killed the cotton boom. The infestation devastated cotton crops and helped to drive a third of Comanche County farmers out of business between 1910 and 1925. Land devoted to cotton production in the county dropped from almost 89,000 acres in 1900 to only 39,000 acres in 1910, and never again came near the peak production of earlier years. Meanwhile, the number of farms in the county dropped from 4,372 in 1910 to 3,015 in 1920 and to only 2,746 in 1925. The population of the county dropped accordingly from 27,186 in 1910 to 25,748 in 1920 and to 18,748 in 1930.
Some of the impact of the boll weevil was offset by the efforts of local farmers to diversify their production during the early twentieth century. An experimental crop of peanuts planted in 1907, for example, paved the way for the county's longtime leadership in peanut products. Local farmers also planted tens of thousands of fruit trees (mostly peaches) during this period; by 1920 more than 70,000 fruit trees were growing in the county. Poultry products also became a significant part of the local economy; by 1920, over 140,000 chickens were counted in the county, and in 1930 more than 672,000 dozens of eggs were sold by the county's farmers. Meanwhile, ranching and the dairy industry remained strong. By 1930 the county had 28,000 cattle, not including almost 6,500 milk cows.
The discovery of oil at Desdemona in southeastern Eastland County in 1918 also helped to offset the worst effects of the boll weevil in Comanche County (see RANGER, DESDEMONA, AND BRECKENRIDGE OILFIELDS). Oil drillers moved into northern Comanche in the wake of the Eastland County discoveries and brought in wells at Sipe Springs, Sidney, Comyn, and Proctor; De Leon became an important supply center to the oilfields. The peak year for the Comanche County oil boom was 1920, when production was 328,098 barrels. The shallow wells at Sipe Springs were soon depleted, however, and the boom lasted only until 1924. Production continued at lower levels into the 1930s and beyond. In 1938, for example, the county produced about 22,000 barrels.
Local farmers suffered during the 1930s through the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl; many recalled watching helplessly as the soil from their holdings blew away. Cropland harvested in the county dropped from 188,606 acres in 1929 to 153,604 in 1940. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the previous damage done to the local economy by the boll weevil infestation, Comanche County farmers were able to make their way through the thirties more successfully than farmers in many other counties in the state; in fact, the number of farms in the county actually grew slightly during this period, from 2,768 in 1920 to 2,911 in 1940. The county population grew during this time from 18,430 to 19,245.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, however, the mechanization of agriculture combined with other factors (such as the droughts of the 1950s) to depopulate the area. The population declined to 15,516 in 1950 and 11,865 in 1960. During the 1960s, though, it began to rise slowly. In 1970 11,898 people lived in Comanche County; in 1980, 12,900; and in 1992, an estimated 13,381.
After the droughts of the 1950s action was taken to assure the county of a reliable water supply. Lack of rain encouraged rainmaking experiments in 1951 and 1952 with funds raised in the county, but the experiments did not improve the situation. A more meaningful answer to drought came in 1960 when federal funding became available for a reservoir on the Leon River. At a cost of $15 million a dam and flood-control system began operation in 1967 to protect 40,200 acres of farmland in the Leon River floodplain and store water in Proctor Reservoir for use in Comanche, De Leon, and other towns.
Oil wells in the county are still producing. The 1982 production of 90,000 barrels was valued at just under $2.5 million; in 1990, production was 30,820 barrels. By 1991, 5,764,906 barrels had been pumped from Comanche County lands since oil was first found in the county in 1918.
In the 1980s, agricultural production in the county was fairly well balanced between farming and ranching. The United States agricultural census of 1982 reported 88,993 cattle in the county and an income of $20,675,000 from the sale of dairy products. There were also 9,388 goats, 10,387 hogs, and 6,660 sheep in the county. Comanche County produced 129,305 bushels of sorghum, 95,234 bushels of wheat, and 37,910 bushels of corn. More than 45,546,000 pounds of peanuts was produced in the county in 1982, placing Comanche second in the state in peanut production. Farmers in the county also harvested 2,469 acres of vegetables that year.
Meanwhile, the county also profited from related agribusinesses, nut shelling, and food processing, while other manufacturing contributed a value of $12.9 million in 1980. These industries, a modest oil production, and ever-growing agriculture gave the county an aggregate income of over $100 million that year. Of this, some $8,556,000 came from the fifty-five businesses registered in the county.
The county's 13,550 residents live in several cities, including Comanche (population, 4,338); De Leon, the county's marketing center for peanuts (2,240); and Gustine (479). Principal highways are U.S. 67 (northeast to southwest), State Highway 36 (northwest to southeast), and State 16 (north to south). Tourist attractions include a January livestock show, a rodeo in July, a peach and melon festival in August, and Proctor Reservoir, with its five attendant county parks. Among distinguished Comanche County residents was the famed geologist Robert T. Hill (1858–1941), whose early investigations of fossils on Round Mountain near Sidney began an outstanding career.