Eastland County is in Central Texas, bordered on the east by Erath County, on the north by Stephens and Palo Pinto counties, on the west by Callahan County, and on the south by Brown and Comanche counties. The county's center is at 32°20' north latitude and 98°50' west longitude. The county was named for Capt. William Mosby Eastland, a member of the Mier Expedition and a victim of the Black Bean Episode. Eastland County covers about 952 square miles of the West Cross Timbers region of Texas; its hilly, rolling terrain ranges from 1200 to 1800 feet above sea level. Eastland, the county seat, is located on Interstate Highway 20 in the north central part of the county, some ninety-five miles west of Fort Worth and fifty-five miles east of Abilene. Most of the county is drained by the Leon River and its tributaries, though other parts drain into Battle Creek and Sandy Creek in the northwest, Palo Pinto Creek in the northeast, the Sabana River in the south, and tributaries of the Colorado River in the southwest. Soils vary from sandy to loamy. Trees found in the county include post oak, shin oak, walnut, pecan, cedar, and ash. The average annual rainfall is 27.09 inches, and the average temperature ranges from 32° F in winter to 96° in summer. The growing season averages 229 days.
Comanche, Kiowa, and other plains Indians visited the area now known as Eastland County in the years before White settlement, though the region was too heavily wooded for the extensive migration of buffalo into the area. The area was part of the Department of Bexar during Mexican Texas. In 1822, much of it became a part of Robertson's colony, and in 1831 the area was part of the empresarial grant from Mexico to Stephen F. Austin and Samuel May Williams. Part of the area was included in the Peters colony during the republic era.
The first Anglo presence in the region cannot be positively documented, but in 1837 W. A. A. (Big Foot) Wallace might have entered what later became Eastland County with a surveying expedition. Among the first settlers in the county was Frank Sánchez, a Mexican American who arrived in the area in the 1850s. By 1858 residents included the families of John Flannegan (or Flannagan) from Kentucky, W. H. Mansker from Arkansas, W. C. McGough and James Ellison from Georgia, J. M. Ellison from Texas, and the Gilbert boys from Alabama. That year the Texas legislature formed Eastland County from land formerly assigned to Bosque, Coryell, and Travis counties; the county was attached to Palo Pinto County for judicial purposes.
McGough Springs, the first community in the county, was established before the Civil War; another, Mansker Lake (later named Alameda), was founded around 1859. Blair's Fort was built by C. C. Blair about 1860 and used for protection against Indian raids. In 1860, the census counted ninety-nine people living in the county, and the area's agricultural economy had only begun to develop. While the agricultural census enumerated 330 sheep, 1,075 milk cows, and almost 2,550 other cattle in the county that year, "improved" land comprised only 650 acres. Settlers were growing small plots of corn, beans, and sweet potatoes.
Due in part to its isolation from other settled areas and frequent trouble from raiding Indians, the county remained sparsely settled until the 1870s. Conflict between settlers and Kiowa and Comanche Indians became serious enough during the 1860s that a company of minutemen was organized to guard the frontier; the largest fight occurred at Ellison Springs in August 1864. Due to the dangers of settlement in the area, the county's population actually declined during the 1860s; in 1870 the census found only seventy-seven people living in Eastland County. Agriculture had also declined since the beginning of the Civil War. There were only five farms in the county in 1870, all of them smaller than twenty acres in size; only sixteen acres of improved land existed in the entire county.
When Indian raids ceased to present a problem in the early 1870s, however, settlers moved into the area in increasingly larger numbers. In early 1874 the Flannagan's Ranch headquarters, also called Merriman, was designated as the county seat. Through the efforts of Charles U. Connellee and other promoters, an election was held in 1875, and the new town of Eastland was designated the county seat. By 1880 there were 549 farms in the county encompassing about 100,800 acres of land, including 23,423 improved acres. Corn was planted on 5,867 acres that year, and cotton on 3,264. Meanwhile, cattle ranching was also becoming important to the local economy. In 1870, the agricultural census reported only sixteen cattle in the county; by 1880 there were 23,423 counted in the area. And the county's rising population reflected the area's economic development: by 1880, 4,855 people were living in Eastland County.
By 1881 the Texas and Pacific and the Texas Central railroads had reached the county. A new town was organized at the intersection of the two railways when residents of Red Gap, a mile away, moved and renamed their town Cisco. An intense rivalry grew between Eastland and Cisco, and in August 1881 a second county-seat election took place; Eastland won by 354 to 324.
The railroads encouraged immigration and helped to open the area to commercial farming and trade. During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century the number of farms in Eastland County increased from 549 to 2,510, and numerous settlements were established, among them Ranger, Rising Star, Ellison Springs, Pioneer, Red Gap, Rustler, Howard, Jewell, New Hope, Tiffin, Chaney, Delmar, Morton Valley, Okra, Olden, Staff, Romney, Nimrod, Carbon, Scranton, Kokomo, Mangum, and Shin Oak Springs. These new towns helped to diversify the local economy and provided opportunities for a variety of professions: dry goods stores, livery stables, saddleries, boardinghouses, drugstores, real estate agencies, and one nursery were advertising in local newspapers by 1890. The population of the county more than tripled between 1880 and 1900, rising to 17,971 by the turn of the century.
Agricultural development in the county continued almost uninterrupted into the teens, and much of the county's growth during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be attributed to a boom in cotton production during this period. Land devoted to cotton steadily increased from 3,264 acres in 1880 to 15,348 in 1890 and 57,305 in 1900. By 1910 cotton was raised on 87,441 acres in Eastland County, and by that year the number of farms in the area had increased to 2,981. Probably as a result of a boll weevil infestation that hit the county at about this time, however, cotton production dropped off abruptly sometime between 1910 and 1916, thus crippling the local agricultural economy. By 1916 only 6,265 bales of cotton were ginned in the county, and by 1920, the fiber was grown on only 23,600 acres. Total farm acres in the county dropped from 420,137 in 1910 to only 279,405 in 1920; meanwhile, the number of farms in the area decreased to 1,499.
In 1917, just as the cotton boom was disappearing, a major discovery of oil occurred at Ranger, on land leased from the Texas and Pacific Coal and Oil Company by William K. Gordon. The discovery touched off a spectacular oil boom that lasted into the 1920s. The county produced twenty-two million barrels in 1919, the peak year. Thousands of expectant workers and investors flocked into the county, among them George L. (Tex) Rickard, the boxing promoter, Jess Willard, the heavyweight champion, and novelist Rex Beach, who set his novel Flowing Gold in Ranger. For a time conditions were chaotic as new arrivals threw up shacks and tents faster than community services could handle them. Population figures reflected the boom: in 1910, 23,421 people lived in the county, but by 1920 the census reported 58,508 residents, placing Eastland County in tenth place among Texas counties. The oil boom also had the effect of encouraging railroads to build into the area. Earnings of the Texas and Pacific grew from $94,000 to $2,350,000 in 1918 and 1919. Circus man John Ringling built the Eastland, Wichita Falls and Gulf Railroad from Mangum to Breckwalker, while Ardmore, Oklahoma, promoter Jake L. Hamon extended his Wichita Falls, Ranger and Fort Worth to compete for the Ranger trade (see RANGER, DESDEMONA, AND BRECKENRIDGE OILFIELDS).
The boom faltered after oil production tapered off after 1922, but fortunately the agricultural sector began to recover at about that same time, driven in part by an increase in cattle production and a brief and limited resurgence of cotton production during the early 1920s. The number of cattle in the county almost doubled (from 11,085 to 20,174) between 1920 and 1930, and cotton production increased to 7,195 bales in 1926. By 1925 the number of farms and ranches in the county had increased to 2,012, more than 25 percent more than the number for 1910. By 1929, however, the figure had dropped to 1,990. County population figures for the time reflect the decline of the oil boom and declining number of farms. By 1930, only 34,156 people lived in Eastland County.
Many residents of the county suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and though the number of farms in the area actually increased to 2,332 by the end of the decade, the population of the county decreased during the same period, to 30,345 in 1940. Cotton production almost ceased entirely during the 1930s, and by 1940 occupied only 2,111 acres in the county.
From the 1940s to the 1970s the mechanization of agriculture combined with other factors to continue depopulating the county. County population dropped to 23,942 in 1950, to 19,526 in 1960, and to 18,092 in 1970. It rose slightly during the 1970s to reach 19,480 in 1980, then declined to 18,488 people in 1990, 18,297 in 2000, and 18,176 in 2014.
Though the county's petroleum industry has never returned to the levels of production of the boom years of the 1920s, oil has continued to be important to the area's economy. The county produced more than 985,000 barrels of crude in 1938, 728,218 in 1944, 865,979 in 1956, 631,969 in 1960, 880,731 in 1978, 2,487,169 in 1982, and 1,106,053 in 1990. By January 1991, 149,206,256 barrels had been taken from county lands since 1917.
Much of the present economy of Eastland County is centered around agriculture. In the 1980s the county had 498,000 of its 609,000 acres in farms and ranches; of this some 17,000 acres was irrigated. Cattle ranching was the most important sector of the economy, however; in 1982 about 52,000 cattle were reported in the county. That year the county also reported 3,925 hogs, 3,452 goats, and 1,575 sheep. In 1982 Eastland County ranked fifth in the state for the production of peanuts, with 29,533,617 pounds reported, or 8 percent of the total state production. That year the county produced 103,016 bushels of sorghum and 72,135 bushels of wheat; 102,848 bushels of pecans and 13,473 bushels of peaches were also reported. In 1982, 1,597 businesses were reported in the county, employing about 5,000 people for annual wages of $65 million. The most important of these were agribusinesses, petroleum industries, and manufacture of steel tanks, clothing, portable buildings, and oilfield equipment.
Politically, Eastland County has had a mixed history. Until the 1950s, county voters supported the Democratic party except during the 1890s, when People's party candidates won locally. During the 1950s the county began consistently to support Republican candidates for president; in statewide races for governor and United States senator, however, the Democrats almost always won except in 1986, when Republicans carried the county in the gubernatorial race, and in 1972 and 1984, when Republican candidates for senator won.
The county is well situated near the metropolitan areas of Dallas and Fort Worth and served by major highways, including Interstate 20 from east to west and U.S. 183 from north to south. State highways 6, 16, 36, 69, and 206 also pass though Eastland County along with a network of farm-to-market and county roads. Communities in the county include Eastland, Cisco, Ranger, Gorman, Rising Star, and Carbon.
Eastland County has a number of cultural assets, including Cisco Junior College and Ranger Junior College. It also has several lakes and smaller reservoirs, including lakes Leon and Cisco, which offer recreational opportunities. The Eastland County Fair and parade are held each October, and there is a permanent religious diorama and an annual Easter pageant at the Kendrick Religious Amphitheater, between Cisco and Eastland.
The story of "Old Rip" helped to draw attention to the county during the 1920s. Old Rip was a horned lizard, placed in the cornerstone of the old Eastland County courthouse in 1897, that supposedly emerged alive when the block was reopened in 1928. The toad became something of a national sensation, toured many U.S. cities, and received a formal audience with President Calvin Coolidge; he eventually returned home and died of pneumonia. Old Rip is now on display in a glass and marble case at the Eastland County Courthouse.