Cottle County, in the rolling prairieland of Northwest Texas below the High Plains, is bordered on the north by Childress County, on the west by Motley County, on the south by King County, and on the east by Foard and Hardeman counties. U.S. highways 62/70 (east to west) and 62/83 (north to south) are its main roads. The county was named for George Cottle, who died at the Alamo. Cottle County has an area of 900 square miles; its center point is at 34°05' north latitude and 100°15' west longitude, midway between Lubbock and Wichita Falls. The terrain is rough in the west and level in the east. Gray, black, sandy, and loam soils predominate. The county drains through the Pease, Tongue, and Little Wichita rivers. Elevations vary between 1,600 and 2,100 feet above sea level. The average annual rainfall in the county is 22.12 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 27° F, and the average maximum in July is 97°. The growing season lasts 219 days. The county produces an annual average income of $33 million from cotton, grains, guar, beef cattle, and alfalfa. Irrigated acres total 10,000. The county produces modest amounts of oil—135,489 barrels, for instance, in 1990.
The area that is now Cottle County was occupied by Apache Indians until about 1700, when Comanches moved into the region. Comanches of the Wanderers-Who-Make-Bad-Camps band controlled the area until the 1870s, when they were driven away by the United States Army. The buffalo herds that once roamed the area were exterminated by intensive hunting during the mid-1870s. The Texas legislature established Cottle County in 1876 and attached it for administrative purposes to Fannin County until 1887, when it became attached to Childress County.
In the fifteen years between the county's inception and its formal organization, it remained largely a grazing area. Some cattle were apparently brought in from New Mexico, and ranches such as the OX, SMS, and Matador established their headquarters in the area. The census of 1880 showed only twenty-four persons living in Cottle County. Between that year and 1890 the pace of growth quickened with the arrival of such settlers as J. J. McAdams, who had his headquarters at the site of present Paducah, and J. H. Cansler, who had a dugout on Buck Creek. In 1886 a post office was established at Otta Springs, near the present site of Paducah. The census counted fifty farms and ranches in Cottle County in 1890, when the population was 240 and growing.
A killing on the county line in 1889 induced residents to petition for county organization so that the suspect's trial could be held in the county. Cottle County was organized in 1892, with Paducah as county seat; four public school districts were established that year. Cottle County voters supported the Democratic candidate for president in 1892 and continued to support Democrats in national races through 1992, with the single exception of 1928. In 1893 the county's first newspaper, the Paducah Post, began to print, and the state legislature authorized a $12,000 bond to build a county jail.
Droughts held back early settlers; pioneer H. P. Cook remembered that "it didn't rain enough in 1892, '93, and '94 to wet my shirt." Public-works projects such as the building of a new courthouse and the construction of roads to Crowell, Childress, and Kirkland helped sustain the community. By 1900, 122 farms and ranches were operating in the county and the population had increased to 1,002. The area continued to be dominated by the cattle industry; only 7,758 acres of the county's farmland was classified by the census as "improved" in 1900, while more than 43,000 cattle were counted in Cottle County that year. Between 1900 and 1930 the farming sector of the county developed rapidly, however, as an expansion of cotton culture brought hundreds of new farmers. In 1890 only fifty acres of Cottle County land had been planted in cotton, but the building of a gin in the county in 1898– 99 indicated local interest in the crop; farmers no longer had to travel to the gin at Quanah, some forty-five or fifty miles away in Hardeman County. In 1900 cotton was planted on 749 acres of Cottle County; in 1910, more than 17,000. Cotton farming in the county particularly accelerated between 1910 and 1930; in 1920, almost 45,500 acres was planted in cotton, and by 1930 cotton cultivation had expanded to 133,467 acres.
County farmers also moved into other areas of agricultural production during this time. Wheat culture expanded from only 100 acres in 1900 to almost 11,500 acres in 1929; sorghum culture also became important for local farmers. By 1929, almost 131,300 acres of cropland was harvested in the county. Poultry production also began to become significant for the county's economy; by 1929, almost 44,000 chickens were counted on local farms, and that year Cottle County farmers sold almost 132,000 dozen eggs. Thousands of fruit trees were also planted in the area during this period. More than 7,500 fruit trees were growing in the county by 1920, producing mainly peaches but also pears, plums, and apples.
This economic development of the county during the early twentieth century was aided and encouraged by a growing transportation network. Auto roads between Paducah, Childress, and Matador were completed by 1910, making the movement of people and products easier. Prospects for the county were enhanced in 1909, when the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railroad reached the county. The county's first hard-surfaced road was built in 1913 from Paducah to Dunlap.
Cottle County grew considerably between 1900 and 1930, as the number of farms steadily increased. The census counted 506 farms in the county in 1910, 686 in 1920, 832 in 1925, and 1,047 in 1930. The population rose from 1,002 in 1900 to 4,396 in 1910, 6,901 in 1920, and 9,395 in 1930. This trend was reversed during the 1930s by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Cotton production in the county plunged; by 1940, only about 59,000 acres was devoted to the crop. About one-third of the county's farmers were forced out of business during this period, and by 1940 only 700 farms remained in Cottle County. Unfortunates sometimes sought shelter in the county jail, and everyone deplored the dust storms. Lyrical tributes to "The Beautiful Dust" appeared in the Paducah Post: "The dust, the dust, the beautiful dust; on the evil and on the just, From the North and from the South; in the eyes, the nose, the mouth...Bear it calmly since you must...Wear it bravely as a crown. Ope' your mouth and gulp it down." Farmers and other residents received some help from New Deal recovery measures; some women were paid for sewing done at WPA Sewing Rooms, for example. Nevertheless the local economy was battered, and more than 20 percent of the county's residents left. By 1940, only 7,072 people remained.
After the 1940s the mechanization of agriculture combined with other factors, such as the severe droughts of the 1950s, to continue depopulating the area. The cotton crop produced only 3,227 bales of cotton in 1953, and by 1960 only 387 farms were operating in the county. The county's population dropped to 6,099 by 1950, to 4,207 by 1960, to 3,204 by 1970, and 2,947 by 1980; in 1990 residents numbered 2,247. Despite this decline, however, the county was moderately prosperous in the late 1980s. The county produced an annual average income of $33 million from cotton, grains, guar, beef cattle, and alfalfa. Irrigated acres totaled 10,000. The county also produced modest amounts of oil—135,489 barrels, for instance, in 1990.
Most voters in Cottle County supported the Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election from 1892 (the first year national elections were held in the county) through 1992; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover carried the area. The county’s political loyalties began to shift, however, in 1996, when Democrat Bill Clinton won only a plurality of the votes there. Republican George W. Bush carried the county with large majorities in 2000 and 2004.
The U.S. census counted 1,415 people living in Cottle County in 2014. About 65.6 percent were Anglo, 23.8 percent were Hispanic, and 10.1 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 66 percent had completed high school, and 15 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture remained the central element of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 233 farms and ranches covering 574,177 acres, 73 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 26 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $13,029,000; livestock sales accounted for $8,960,000 of the total. Beef cattle, cotton, peanuts and wheat were the chief agricultural products.
Paducah (population, 1,143), the county’s only sizeable town, is still the county seat; other communities include Cee Vee (45), Dunlap, Hackberry, Chalk and Delwin. Cottle County holds a horse and colt show every April and the Fiesta Patria in September.