El Campo is on U.S. Highway 59 and State Highway 71, thirteen miles southwest of Wharton in south central Wharton County. The Lower Colorado River Authority provides water, and several creeks flow near the city limits. In 1882 a railroad camp called Prairie Switch was situated where El Campo now stands and served as a switching point on New York, Texas and Mexican Railway. Cowboys called the camp "Pearl of the Prairies." Located in the midst of cattle country, the camp was used by Mexican cowboys who changed the name to El Campo in 1890. Ranching was the chief industry, and thousands of cattle were shipped yearly to San Antonio. Four large ranches surrounded the settlement: the Texas Land and Cattle Company (KO Ranch) to the south, the Pierce Ranch to the east, the Herder Ranch to the west, and the Brown Ranch to the north.
For several years El Campo had no permanent structures except the section house and a switch serving the cattle-loading chute. In 1889 a general store was built. In 1890 a post office opened. In 1892 the community had an estimated population of twenty-five, a general store, a mill and gin, and a justice of the peace. Settlers began moving into the area and planted rice, cotton, and corn. Hay soon became one of the chief products, and in the early 1900s the town was the second largest hay-shipping center in the United States. The Farmers Union Warehouse Company was established in El Campo. A one-room schoolhouse was built in 1891, and in 1895 an independent school district was established. By 1901 it enrolled 177 students. Between 1890 and 1898 Swedish Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, German Lutheran, and Swedish Methodist churches were organized.
In 1896 a fire destroyed the principal business section; by 1900, 130 businesses had been rebuilt. In 1901 another fire destroyed a large part of the town, and this time the residents built brick buildings. El Campo Brick and Tile Company provided building materials for many of the permanent structures. In 1901 a library was organized. In 1902 the first bank was established. On June 19, 1905, El Campo was incorporated. The El Campo Ice and Water Company was established in 1907. This plant lighted businesses, streets, and homes, and made enough ice to supply the city. The El Campo Rice Milling Company was established in 1903. By 1904 seventy rice farms and 126 pumping stations were in operation around El Campo. Broussard Rice Mills was established, and in 1914 the two rice mills consolidated under the name El Campo Rice Milling Company, now known as ELCO. At one time rice hulls were compressed into bricks used as an experimental building material.
The first doctor in El Campo arrived in 1890. By 1906 two funeral homes had been established. In 1910 there were 1,778 residents. The first hospital was established in 1912. The first newspaper was published in 1894. The El Campo News began in 1928 and has survived in the present El Campo Leader News. In 1931 a Czech-language paper, Svoboda, was published. It was later purchased by Culp Krueger and merged with the main newspaper. In the mid-1930s gas and oil were discovered in Wharton County and spawned the local petroleum and oil-service industries. The Texas Company (now Texaco, Incorporated) established a branch office in El Campo. In 1930 the town had a population of 2,034 and 160 businesses. In 1941 the town had 3,906 residents and twenty-two businesses; the population was 6,216 in 1952, 7,700 in 1961, and 9,995 in 1970.
In 1990 agriculture and petroleum related businesses provided the base for local economy. Crops included milo, rice, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Three farm cooperatives were functioning. The area remained a major beef producer as well. Aquaculture products and pecans added to the diversity. Manufactured items included aluminum extrusion, children's clothing, nursery containers, foam cups and containers, and valves. El Campo also had a wholesale nursery. Much of the industrial development can be attributed to the work of the El Campo Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1959 to bring new industry and stimulate growth, and to the El Campo Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. El Campo Independent School District covers 445 square miles and has an enrollment for grades prekindergarten through twelve of 3,600. In 1990 El Campo had a population of 10,511 and 294 businesses. In 2000 the population was 10,945 with 722 businesses.