Frio County, in the Winter Garden Region of Southwest Texas, shares its eastern border with Atascosa County, its southern border with La Salle County, its western border with Zavala County, and its northern border with Medina County. The county is named after the Frio River, which flows northwest to southeast through the county. Pearsall, the county seat, is located on the Union Pacific Railroad fifty miles southwest of San Antonio and seventy miles east of the United States-Mexican border at Eagle Pass. Interstate Highway 35 passes north to south through the communities of Moore, Pearsall, and Dilley. The county's center lies two miles southwest of downtown Pearsall, near 28°52' north latitude and 99°07' west longitude. Frio County forms a rectangle thirty-seven miles east and west and thirty miles north and south; it comprises 719,360 acres or 1,133 square miles. The county is in the Nueces River basin and is drained by the Frio and Leona rivers in the west and by San Miguel Creek in the east.
The county terrain of flat to slightly undulating plains is surfaced by deep to moderately deep, light-colored loam and underlain by limestone and calcareous to neutral clayey subsoils. Hickory, oak, brush, mesquite, huisache, prickly pear, and grasses predominate in the flora. Elevations average 600 feet above sea level and range from 400 feet in far south central Frio County to 800 feet at the summit of Pilot Knob in the northwest. As much as 50 percent of the county is prime farmland.
The average low and high temperatures in the winter are 39° and 64° F; the average extremes in the summer are 74° and 98°. Frio county farmers can expect a growing season of 276 days and an average of twenty-five inches of rainfall a year; the last freeze typically occurs in late February and the first freeze of the new winter in early December. The sun shines an average 66 percent of all daylight hours.
Wildlife in the county in the 1980s not subject to hunting regulations included javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, and squirrels; those subject to hunting regulations included: quail, muskrats, beavers, opossums, ring-tailed cats, badgers, foxes, weasels, raccoons, skunks, civet cats, turkeys, sandhill cranes, ducks, coots, geese, woodcocks, jacksnipes, and mourning and white-winged doves. Wildlife in the county when its first settlers arrived in the mid-nineteenth century included mustangs, mountain lions, black bears, and an abundance of wolves, whose behavior apparently aided in predicting cold spells. Buffalo and antelope were present as well as large numbers of whitetail deer. Feral longhorn cattle roamed the area.
Before the era of European explorers and settlers the county was periodically inhabited by the Payaya and Pachal Indians, Coahuiltecan groups. Many of the nomadic Coahuiltecan Indians in Frio County were eventually embraced by the missions of San Antonio. Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who recorded his travels across the northwest corner of the county in 1685, was probably the first European to set foot in the future Frio County. Canadian Louis Juchereau de St. Denis traveled across the county in 1714 on the Old Presidio Road (see OLD SAN ANTONIO ROAD), a trail blazed by Domingo Terán de los Ríos in 1691. Martín de Alarcón traveled a path through the midsection of the county in 1718 on his way to establish San Antonio de Valero Mission. The Marqués de Aguayo crossed Frio County by way of the Old Presidio Road on his way to East Texas in 1720. The route became a camino real or king's highway, the principal road from Mexico to San Antonio and the route of a monthly mail service between Saltillo, Coahuila, and San Antonio. The Canary Islanders passed through Frio County en route to San Antonio in 1731. Gen. Juan de Ugalde in the eighteenth century, Antonio López de Santa Anna in 1836, and Adrián Woll in 1842 are thought to have made camp near the Presidio Crossing in northeastern Frio County. The crossing was so named because of the numerous cannonballs, swords, and sabers reportedly found there. It was still in use in 1990.
Lands along the Frio River, Leona River, and various creeks in the county were allocated through Republic of Texas headright land grants around 1840 (see LAND GRANTS). Few people settled in the county before the Civil War because Comanche mustangers frequented the region.
One of the first people to settle permanently in Frio County was Ben Duncan, who arrived in 1856, and one of the first to ranch the area was James Berry (ca. 1860). In 1860 eleven families of White settlers and two Blacks made up the population of forty-two; three families were living on the Leona River near the Frio-Zavala county line. Early settlers included Mexican War veterans Benjamin Slaughter, William A. A. Wallace, and James W. Winters.
Frio County was formed by the Texas legislature from parts of Atascosa, Bexar, and Uvalde counties on February 1, 1858, but was not organized until May 22, 1871. In the interim the county remained under the jurisdiction of Bexar County. In accordance with the 1871 legislative mandate the county seat was named Frio and located on the William Eastwood Rancho near the Presidio Road Crossing. This site was chosen because of the promise of irrigated farming offered by the Frio River, as well as the townsite's proximity to the Presidio Road. Elections for the county's first justices of the peace were held at the rancho between July 17 and 20, 1871.
The decade between 1870 and 1880 was a period of rapid development. The county population rose dramatically from a reported 309 in 1870 to 2,130 in 1880. The fourteen farmers reported as operating in the Siestadera-Bigfoot area of northeastern Frio County in 1870 were actually stock raisers of cattle or sheep; farmers raised small vegetable gardens and some corn production for domestic consumption. Frio City developed as a "cowboy capital" and outpost cultural center of Southwest Texas during the 1870s; ranchers in the area controlled huge numbers of cattle on expansive landholdings. Other settlements developed at Bigfoot, Moore Hollow, Brummet, and Tehuacana in the northeastern part of the county; Bennett Settlement and Bishop Hollow in the southwestern part of the county; and Todos Santos in the western part of the county. Although the county was expanding rapidly, the frequency of Comanche raids led to the establishment in 1876 of Ranger Camp, commanded by Maj. John Bones, on Elm Creek three miles southwest of Frio City. The last Indian disturbance in the county occurred in 1877.
In 1871 the county opened its first road, which began at Frio City and crossed Seco Creek on its way to Castroville. Previously the Old Presidio Road and the Fort Ewell Road, little more than prairie trails, were the only roads in the county. Between 1876 and 1880 new roads led to markets at Laredo, San Antonio, and Pleasanton.
Fencing of range and pastureland and the arrival of the International-Great Northern Railroad in the early 1880s fostered the growth of what were to become Frio County's major townships, changed its political make-up, structurally molded its transportation system, greatly altered its cattle industry, and added impetus to its embryonic farming industry. Established at fifteen mile intervals along the I-GN, the communities of Moore, Pearsall, and Dilley rapidly expanded beyond their original railroad depots and cattle-holding pens.
An attempt to choose a county seat closer to the center of the county than Frio City was defeated in September 1877. Six years later county voters approved making Pearsall the county seat by a vote of 227 to 81. The first term of the county commissioners' court held in Pearsall began on August 27, 1883. During the summer of 1883 a general exodus from Frio City to Pearsall left the former with only five homes and two businesses. It was soon a ghost town. Roads from Pearsall were constructed north and south along the railroad, to Bigfoot, Orelia, Loma Vista, and Tehuacana. Roads were added from Dilley and Bigfoot. Roads from Moore connected with Bigfoot and Tehuacana. Iron bridges were constructed across rivers and creeks beginning in 1887; by 1892 as many as ten iron bridges had been built in the county's road system.
With the advent of fencing in the 1870s, large portions of rangeland were enclosed with barbed wire, improved breeds of beef cattle were introduced, and new and improved feed crops were grown to augment the range forage for the more valuable range livestock. Ranchers shipped their cattle by rail. Notable early ranch brands include the Heart, the T Diamond, the ZH, and the UL Bar.
The railroads provided better markets for produce, and farming became more viable; experienced farmers arrived looking for farms as small as 160 acres. The land in the north central part of the county, formerly part of Henri Castro's grant, was divided into tracts of 160, 320, and 640 acres. The sale of the Frio County school lands during the 1890s threw open more land for farming.
Between 1880 and 1900 the population of the county grew from 2,130 to 4,200, improved acreage quadrupled from 8,000 acres to 33,105 acres, acreage devoted to cotton production increased from 543 acres to 13,764 acres, and honey production jumped from an annual production of 1,930 pounds in 1880 to 35,400 pounds in 1900. The population increased from 4,200 in 1900 to 8,895 in 1910; large numbers of people moved to the county from San Antonio. Of the total county population of 8,895 reported in 1910, 2,397 were of Mexican descent.
Between 1900 and 1910 the amount of acreage devoted to cotton production more than tripled to 52,057. It was the custom of local farmers at this time to employ Mexican citizens from the Laredo area to pick the cotton crop. A substantial rise in the number of tenant farmers in the county, from eighty-four in 1900 to 275 by 1920, is reflected in the substantial acreage devoted to cotton in the latter year (55,349 acres, its highest total in Frio County history) and to the rapid and wide-spread subdivision of large ranches into smaller units. Farms in Frio County shrank from an average of 2,124 acres in 1900 to 807 acres in 1920. By 1930, 26.7 percent of the farms were operated by owners and 71.8 percent by tenants.
In 1880 there were a reported 46,961 sheep in Frio County, but by 1890 the number had dropped to 15,330. Low prices caused this industry to decline, and since 1883 little of the range land of Frio County has been used for sheep; by 1920 only 1,806 sheep were raised in the county.
Irrigation, an integral part of present farming in Frio County, began with the passage of a general law by the Texas legislature in 1875 that offered a bonus of land to companies that would build irrigation systems. This legislation prompted the San Antonio-based Leona Irrigation, Manufacturing and Canal Company to construct a dam across the Leona River and several miles of ditches at Bennett Settlement in southwestern Frio County. The dam was destroyed by a flood and never replaced, however, and attempts at irrigated farming were delayed until 1905, when the first artesian well in the county was brought in on the Schreiner and Halff Farm, four miles southwest of Pearsall. Wells were soon dug along the Frio and Leona River valleys. In 1913 it was reported that about 2,000 acres were irrigated by artesian water in Frio County.
Underground water in Frio County is obtained from the Cook Mountain stratum, the Mount Selman stratum, and the Carrizo Sands stratum. The Bennett well at Derby was drilled in 1917 and produced 1,000 gallons a minute natural flow and 2,000 gallons a minute with a pump. The first shallow wells used for irrigation were put in north of Pearsall in 1914; large concrete tanks were constructed to store the well water. Onions and spinach were the principal irrigated crops at this time. In 1930 Frio County reported 1,100 acres under irrigation. By 1971 over 54,000 acres were under irrigation. In 1950 county farmers began to use overhead sprinkler systems in an effort to conserve underground water supplies.
In 1900 Frio County had 394 farms; by 1910 it had 918 farms and 100,122 acres of improved land. Livestock in 1910 totaled 34,213 cattle, 6,414 horses and mules, 5,666 sheep, and 2,911 goats. The major crops were cotton, hay and forage crops, and corn. Several thousand acres was planted with citrus and nut trees.
The earliest settlers in the county had encountered a luxuriant growth of sage grass. The wide-spread use of the prairie lands as pasture for cattle raising greatly reduced the grasses and precipitated the proliferation of cactus and brush. In order to sustain herds during times of drought many ranchers permitted their cattle to eat the water-rich prickly pear cactus, the thorns of which unfortunately gave the cattle soremouth. A pear-burner patented by Bigfoot resident John Bunyan Blackwell gained wide-spread use, and a plant to manufacture it was opened. A further result of grassland depletion and erosion was accumulations of silt, which caused small lakes and streams throughout the region to dry up. By 1930 ranchers grazed beef steers, since the encroaching brush had made the land less suitable for breeding purposes.
In 1929 most farm laborers in Frio County were Mexican migrant workers, who harvested cotton, spinach, and onions on a contract basis. Monthly laborers were paid from twenty-five to forty dollars, with houses furnished. Ranches ranged in size from 1,000 to 65,000 acres and averaged about 5,000 acres. Beef cattle were predominantly high-grade Herefords, and most of the dairy cows were purebred Jerseys or Holsteins. Ranches were smaller and fenced into pastures. Steers were sold as feeders on the Fort Worth and Kansas City markets. Angora goats, whose diet included the abundant huajillo and black chaparral, accounted for 10,481 of the 16,796 goats raised in the county in 1930. Truck crops were grown where irrigation water was available. The fruit-growing industry at this time was in the experimental stage.
Cotton remained the county's chief agricultural crop, with 52,018 acres under cultivation, or 62 percent of all cropland harvested in the county in 1930. The boll weevil infestation and the general economic collapse during the Great Depression reduced the cotton-farming to only 857 acres by 1940. In 1920 nineteen gins were operating in Frio County, but by 1942 no cotton was ginned there. During the depression many Frio County farmers and ranchers were heavily mortgaged to the Federal Land Bank and joint stock land banks. During this period the Moore National Bank and the Pearsall National Bank closed. Federal agencies established under Franklin Roosevelt provided many county farmers and ranchers with the credit and financing to allow them to improve their lands.
The Rural Electrification Administration set up electric coops to provide electric service to farms and ranches. The Medina Electric Co-op was formed under the provisions of this law in 1939 and in 1941 initiated service in Frio County. About 1963 the coop built a 75,000-kilowatt steam generating station just north of Pearsall.
As early as 1930 N. H. Hunt, A&M county agent for Frio County from 1934 to 1958, promoted the cultivation of peanuts as a substitute for cotton. By 1970 peanuts were Frio County's largest money crop; income from peanut culture was $5,776,900 and that from cattle was $3,276,000. Peanut production in 1982 amounted to 50,230,224 pounds, making Frio County the largest producer of peanuts in Texas at that time.
In 1949 peanut production covered 19,780 acres, and watermelons 7,042. In 1950, 20 percent of the county's total acreage supported 600 farms; corn was cultivated on 10,426 acres. By 1951 farmers were practicing diversification and double cropping on mechanized farms. Tractors increased in number from 206 in 1940 to 656 in 1950. Other agricultural machinery, such as the squeeze chute and the labor-saving peanut combine, which was developed by a Frio County farmer, helped reduce the cost of farming and ranching in the county. Frio County was one of the leading honey-producing counties in Texas in 1950, when 640,237 pounds was marketed. The native huajillo, whitebrush, and catclaw, as well as the cultivated citrus, were sources of nectar.
By 1970 small farms were no longer prevalent in Frio County. The use of expensive farm machinery had forced average farm acreage to expand to meet the payments necessary to operate profitable farms. The 73,884 acres of harvested cropland included 30,076 planted in sorghum, 17,596 in peanuts, and 10,208 in melons and vegetables. In 1982 the county produced more than 23,262 tons of watermelons; Frio County was thus the top producer in Texas at that time.
Interstate Highway 81, also known as the Pan-American Highway, became the first paved road in Frio County in 1926. Two years later a highway from Dilley to Eagle Pass was completed. In 1941 the state legislature supplied the funds to construct Farm roads 1582, 1465, 1581, and 1583. The road from Pearsall to Charlotte was completed in 1946. By 1953 seventy-six miles of farm roads had been paved in the county. In 1968 that portion of Interstate Highway 35 that paralleled Highway 81 and the Missouri Pacific was completed.
The county's first school, according to records taken in February of 1873, was housed in the county courthouse. Freemasons provided school benches for a public school at Frio Town in 1876. In 1878 the county commissioners set aside land to provide a permanent school fund, making Frio County one of the few counties in Texas with such a fund. By the end of 1878 at least twelve schools had been established in the county. Professor B. C. Hendricks and his wife established the first private school in the county at Frio Town around 1880 and the county's only school of higher education, Hendrick College, in Pearsall around 1886. The county commissioners established ten school districts in May 1884. In 1891 Pearsall became the first independently incorporated school district in the county; by 1892 Frio County had twenty-three schools in eleven common-school districts, a majority of which were consolidated with the Dilley and Pearsall districts in 1949 and 1950. The percentage of high school and college educated adults over twenty-five rose from 7 percent in 1950 to 11 percent in 1960. In 1982 Frio County had three elementary, two middle, and two high schools in two school districts; 204 teachers taught an average daily student body of 3,147, 83 percent of whom were Spanish surnamed. That same year a reported 50 percent of all adults twenty-five or older in the county had attained a high school (40 percent) or college education (10 percent).
The religious needs of the pioneer settlers of Frio County were served by circuit riders such as Rev. William Monk, John W. DeVilbiss, W. C. Newton, and the "fighting parson," Andrew J. Potter. In June 1880 several men journeyed to Frio City and organized the Rio Grande Baptist Association, the county's first religious organization. In 1982 Frio County had twenty-five churches, mostly Catholic, Southern Baptist, and United Methodist, and an estimated total membership of 8,271.
In almost every presidential election from 1872 through 1968, Frio County voters overwhelmingly favored the Democratic candidates. There are a few exceptions. In 1892, the Populist candidate, James Weaver, wasonly narrowly defeated by Democrat Grover Cleveland 300 to 290. In 1928 Republican Herbert Hoover defeated Democratic candidate Alfred Smith 673 to 258; in 1952 Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson 1,011 to 983; and in 1956 Stevenson narrowly defeated Eisenhower 886 to 825. In 1972 Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat George McGovern 1,904 to 1,588. The county’s voters thereafter supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election for 1976 through 2000. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Oil reserves in Frio County were first exploited around 1930 by the Amerada Petroleum Corporation; by 1936 Amerada had more than 85,000 acres leased for oil exploration. Oil production was 2,334 barrels in 1942, 448,499 barrels in 1948, and by 1952, when over 100 wells operated in both the Pearsall and Bigfoot fields, it had reached 1,505,740 barrels. In 1966 Frio County had more than 600 producing oil and gas wells. Annual oil and natural gas production in the early 1980s averaged around three million barrels and 1.75 million cubic feet respectively.
By 1989 the Bigfoot field in northeast Frio County had produced twenty-nine million barrels of oil, and Pearsall field in west central Frio County had produced sixty million barrels; these two fields were among the most productive oilfields in the San Antonio Oil and Gas District. In 1989 agribusiness and the oil business remained the dominant economic enterprises in the county. Farmers and ranchers of Frio County made $41,705,000 in 1989. The leading products were peanuts, $17,465,000; beef cattle, $9,848,000; vegetables (mainly Irish potatoes and spinach), $5,076,000; cotton, $2,100,000; and hogs, $1,133,000. Hunting grossed $1,740,000. The cash receipts for beef dropped dramatically in 1989 from the three previous years because of drought. Since 1990 the oil industry in Frio County has been successful because of new oil-extraction technology that permits horizontal drilling to considerable depths.
Despite a small decline in the late twentieth century, Frio County has seen an overall growth in population since 1940. Between 1940 and 1980 the number of residents increased from 9,207 to 13,785. During the 1980s, however, the area's population showed a modest drop, and in 1990 the number of inhabitants was 13,472. More than two-thirds of the population (72.4 percent) was of Hispanic descent, with Blacks, Whites, and American Indians accounting for most of the remainder.
The U.S. Census counted 18,531 people living in Frio County in 2014; about 78 percent were Hispanic, 16.1 percent Anglo, and 3.9 percent African American. Of those twenty-five and older, 56 percent had graduated from high school and 8 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, oilfield services, and hunting leases were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 537 farms and ranches covering 603,119 acres, 67 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 25 percent to crops, and 6 percent to woodlands. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $70,966,000; livestock sales accounted for $38,933,000 of the total. Peanuts, potatoes, spinach, cucumbers, watermelons, beef cattle and goats were the chief agricultural products. More than 620,189 barrels of oil, and 805,503 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 145,829,486 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1934.
Pearsall (population, 9,681) is the county’s seat of government; other communities include Dilley (4,075). Bigfoot (496), Moore (509), and North Pearsall (673). County attractions include hunting, the Big Foot Wallace Museum, and the annual Potato Festival, held in June.