Cooke County is located in north central Texas, on the Oklahoma border. The approximate center of the county is at 33°40' north latitude and 97°15' west longitude. Gainesville, the county seat and largest population center, is located seven miles south of the Red River and seventy-one miles north of Dallas. The county comprises 905 square miles. The central section of the county is part of the Grand Prairie; it is flanked by a small section of the Eastern Cross Timbers on the east and the Western Cross Timbers on the West. The rolling terrain is surfaced by mixed soils ranging from sandy to loam and from red to black. Grassy prairie predominates in the west. The county is forested mainly with blackjack oak, post oak, and hackberry, and with elm, pecan, walnut, and cottonwood along the creeks and rivers. The altitude increases from 700 feet on the eastern border to nearly 1,000 feet in the west. The northern quarter of Cooke County drains into the Red River, and the remaining three-quarters is part of the watershed of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Three lakes are found within the county's boundaries: Lake Kiowa, Hubert H. Moss Lake, and Lake Texoma. A fourth lake, Lake Ray Roberts, dammed in Denton County, covers much of southeastern Cooke County. Temperatures range from an average high of 96° F in July to an average low of 32° in January. The average rainfall is about thirty-four inches a year. The growing season extends for 226 days.
Before the coming of Anglo-American settlement Cooke County stood on the borderlands between the Caddo Indians to the east and the Comanches in the west. The first Europeans to visit the county may have been Spaniards on expeditions during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, but no permanent settlements were made. The county was included in the Cameron land grant, a Mexican grant of 1828, but no settlers came.
Cooke County was established by an act of the Texas legislature on March 20, 1848, and named for William G. Cooke, a hero of the Texas Revolution. The boundaries of the original county encompassed its present area, along with territory that became Montague, Clay, Wise, and Jack counties. Cooke County assumed its present boundaries in 1857. It was crossed by several early trails, including the Mormon Trail, a branch of the Chisholm Trail, and the Butterfield Overland Mail route. Settlements in the northern extension of the Peters colony reached the southeastern edge of the county by the late 1840s. Fort Fitzhugh was established in 1847 to protect area settlements against Indian raids, the last of which occurred in the western part of the county in January 1868. Early settlers employed Daniel Montague to locate a site for a county seat fifteen miles west of the Grayson county line. They planned to name the town Liberty, but the state rejected that name because another settlement near Houston had claimed it. Col. William F. Fitzhugh, commander at the fort, proposed that the town be named for his former commander, Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gainesville, founded in 1850, has been the county seat since the organization of the county. The southern and eastern parts of the county were settled by people primarily from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. The western part had only scattered settlements prior to the late nineteenth century, when German land speculators founded the towns of Muenster in 1889 and Lindsay in 1891.
The Denison and Pacific Railway reached Gainesville on November 7, 1879, from the east; it later became the Missouri, Kansas and Texas (Katy) Railroad. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe connected Gainesville and Denton on January 2, 1887, on its way to meet the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe at Purcell, Indian Territory. These links provided for the first time a north-south rail line from Chicago to Galveston. The Katy was later extended west toward Wichita Falls.
The earliest settlers brought slaves with them, but not in the numbers that accompanied migrants from the Deep South to East Texas. The slave population of Cooke County in 1860 was 369, 10.9 percent of the total. Although in 1861 the county's citizens voted more than 61 percent against secession, sentiment for the Confederate cause was so potent during the Civil War that in October 1862 an estimated forty-two men were executed because they were believed to have participated in a pro-Union conspiracy (see GREAT HANGING AT GAINESVILLE).
During most of its history Cooke County has voted for Democrats. From 1884 to 1916 the county gave more than 75 percent of its votes to Democratic presidential candidates; William Jennings Bryan received 83.2 percent over William McKinley in 1896. Democratic congressman and senator Joseph Weldon Bailey came from Cooke County. The Democratic hegemony continued through the Great Depression and the New Deal era. Harry Truman received 53.1 percent of the votes in the 1948 presidential election. From 1948 to 1992, however, Cooke County voted for Republican nominees for president, except in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson received 65.7 percent.
Education in Cooke County is conducted predominantly by nine independent school districts. Both Catholic and Protestant private education is available in the county, too. The county is also the home of Cooke County College, founded in 1924, and Gainesville State School for Girls, a reformatory.
Points of interest in the county include the Frank Buck Zoo, located in Leonard Park in Gainesville; Morton Museum in downtown Gainesville; and a center for diabetic children at Camp Sweeney east of Gainesville. Camp Howze, a military training base during World War II, had a troop capacity of 39,963. The installation was abandoned in 1946. Structural remains of support beams, storage towers, and various foundations in the camp can still be seen from Farm Road 1201 northwest of Gainesville. Cultural events in the county that attract the greatest number of visitors include the annual Germanfest in Muenster the last weekend in April. Festivities include traditional German foods, beer, booths, a bicycle rally, and the German Fun Run. Other events in the county are the Octoberfest in Lindsay and Sam Bass Days in Rosston. A popular attraction in Gainesville is the driving tour of the Victorian homes on Church, Denton, and Lindsay streets.
Throughout its history Cooke County has been heavily agricultural. In 1900 it had 3,307 farms, averaging 142.4 acres. The farms were almost equally divided between those owned by the people who worked them (44.1 percent) and those worked by sharecroppers (42.2 percent), with a handful of cash-rent farmers. Farm income in 1900 was more than $2.2 million. Cattle in 1900 numbered 48,765. Corn production was 1.68 million bushels-1.5 percent of the state's corn crop. The oats yield stood at 840,790 bushels, 218,330 more than wheat production. At the turn of the century, Cooke County ginned 11,332 bales of cotton. The years between World War I and the depression saw cotton production peak at around 20,000 bales a year. The emigration of the Dust Bowl and depression years reduced cotton production to 8,906 bales in 1936. Cotton production was only 1,540 bales in 1956, but rose to 6,200 in 1965. No cotton gins were operating in the county in 1984.
The 1920s was a bad decade for agriculture across the South, for the bottom dropped out of the cotton market. Cooke County was hit hard. The number of farmers owning the land they worked decreased from 1,299 in 1920 to 720 in 1930, a 44.6 percent decrease in one decade. Conversely, the number of sharecroppers increased from 1,390 in 1920 to 1,848 in 1925, but dropped to 1,673 in 1930 as tenant farmers went broke and moved away. The New Deal years saw the trend reverse somewhat. By 1940, 51.9 percent of the farms in the county were operated by tenants, either cash-renters or sharecroppers. The same year, the number of farms in Cooke County had dropped to 2,530, only 76.5 percent of the number at the turn of the century, partly because smaller farms were being consolidated. Only large farms-those of more than 180 acres-increased in number in the late 1930s; between 1935 and 1940 farms greater than 700 acres increased from sixty-five to eighty-two.
Dairying continued to grow as the chief agribusiness. The number of cows and heifers kept mainly for milking increased from 7,929 in 1930 to 11,565 in 1940. As cotton production decreased and the cattle industry increased, corn production rose. In 1934, 78,840 bushels of corn was harvested for grain; in 1939 the total was 465,671 bushels. Wheat production increased in the 1934–39 period by 62.75 percent. By World War II, then, Cooke County had changed from being part of the Cotton Belt to being a part of the West, that is, a cattle-producing area.
Agriculture still dominates the economy of Cooke County, for 77.9 percent of the county's total area is occupied by farms. Fifty-seven percent of the acreage is pasture or rangeland. In the 1978 agricultural census the value of all agricultural products sold was about $26,095,000, and 81.8 percent of it derived from the livestock industry. Of the income from livestock, 36.7 percent came from dairy products and 58.7 percent from the sale of cattle and calves. Cooke County is still cattle country.
The crops grown in the county also reflect the predominance of livestock. Corn culture is decreasing, though sorghum culture increased slightly during the 1970s. Wheat and oats are the primary crops: 756,571 bushels of wheat were grown in 1978, and 862,543 bushels of oats. Peanuts and hay are also important, though by 1978 cotton production had fallen to 5 percent of the peak yield of the early 1920s. By 1978, 58 percent of the farms in Cooke County were owned by the farmers, and only 11 percent were worked by tenants. Individuals or single families owned 87.4 percent of the farms. Of the 93,304 acres of harvested cropland in 1978, 73,608 were fertilized. The average market value of all machinery and equipment for each farm in 1978 was $19,037.
The county's major mineral resources are oil and gas. The first oil well started operation on November 9, 1924, two miles east of Callisburg. From 1924 to 1982 oil production was 4,288,009 barrels. The total value of oil production in 1983 was $131,899,471.
Manufacturing in the county, according to the 1977 manufacturing census, was valued at $79,500,000. The oil value in 1982 stood at $131,899,471. The wages paid in 1982 amounted to about $171 million. Property in the county in 1981 was assessed at $548,210,089. Taxable sales for 1982 amounted to $103,877,358.
Cooke County's population has remained relatively stable in the last hundred years. The 1880 census counted 20,391 inhabitants. By 1900 the figure had reached 27,494. Postwar urban migration brought the number of residents to 22,146, its lowest twentieth-century level, in 1950. The 1980 census counted 27,656. As of 2014, 38,761 people live in Cooke County. The population of the county was 77.2 percent Anglo, 16.7 percent Hispanic, and 3.2 percent African American. The largest town in the county is Gainesville, with a 2014 population of 16,502. It had more than doubled in size since 1900, when it registered 7,874 residents. Other incorporated areas were Muenster (1,620), Lindsay (1,082), Valley View (780), Callisburg (371), and Oak Ridge (158).
Cooke County is served by two federal highways, U.S. Highway 82, running east and west, and U.S. Highway 77, running north and south. In the early 1960s Interstate Highway 35 was built across the county from north to south. There is no longer any railroad service in the county. Carload lots can be delivered from one of the eighteen or so freight trains that transit the county daily on the AT&SF. Automobile registration in 1981 stood at 28,612. The county has one daily newspaper, the Gainesville Daily Register, which has been published continuously since 1890, and two weeklies. Radio station KGAF-AM broadcasts from Gainesville.