Gray County is located in the central part of the Panhandle and the eastern edge of the High Plains. Its center point is at 35°25' north latitude and 100°49' west longitude. Lefors is located near the center of the county, and Pampa, the county seat, is about twelve miles away in the northwestern corner. Pampa is approximately sixty miles northeast of Amarillo on U.S. Highway 60. The county occupies 934 square miles of level prairie and rolling river breaks. The county's sandy loam and black waxy soils support a variety of native grasses as well as abundant wheat, corn, grain sorghum, and hay crops. The timber in the riverbottoms includes cottonwoods, hackberries, elms, and walnuts as well as the ever-present mesquite. The county has huge reservoirs of oil and natural gas. Gray County is basically made up of two distinct parts: the flat plains in the west and north, and the Red River breaks in the east, center, and southeast. Gray County is at the head of the North Fork of the Red River; numerous intermittent and flowing creeks can be found in the eastern part of the county. McClellan Creek flows northeastward across the southern part of the county toward the North Fork, and the North Fork itself flows across the central part. Cantonment Creek flows southward and empties into the North Fork in the northeastern corner of the county. The elevation ranges from 2,500 to 3,300 feet above sea level, the average annual rainfall is 20.14 inches, and the growing season averages 195 days a year. The average minimum temperature is 23° F in January, and the average maximum is 94° in July.
Gray County, formed in 1876 out of the Bexar District, was named for Peter W. Gray, a lawyer and politician of the Republic of Texas and Civil War eras. The county's prehistoric Plains Apache inhabitants gave way to the Apaches, who in turn were displaced by the Comanches and Kiowas. These peoples dominated the Panhandle until they were crushed in the Red River War of 1874 and removed to Indian Territory. With Gray County for settlement, ranchers began to reach the region as early as 1877. In 1878 a well-known local rancher, Perry LeFors, established a small ranch on Cantonment Creek. Other small ranching operations developed in the eastern part of the county. In 1882 the Francklyn Land and Cattle Company purchased a huge tract of land that included the western part of Gray County. The company failed in 1886 and was reorganized as the White Deer Lands (formally the White Deer Lands Trust of British bondholders), which operated the huge Diamond F Ranch. For the rest of the nineteenth century Gray County remained the domain of cattle ranchers. The population, 56 in 1880, rose only to 203 in 1890 and 480 by 1900. A ranching economy with little need for manpower occupied the area. By the turn of the century the county's stable stock-farming population felt a growing need for self-government. As a result, in 1902 the county was organized with Lefors as the county seat. Lefors, a tiny ranching town, remained the county seat until 1928, when Pampa's oil-induced growth led to its becoming the county seat.
Railroads entered Gray County from two different points in two different eras. A Santa Fe subsidiary, the Southern Kansas Railway Company, building from Kansas to Amarillo in 1887 and 1888, crossed the northwest corner of the county as it progressed from Canadian to Panhandle. This line allowed settlers in Gray County to ship cattle more easily and economically and allowed for greater ease of travel, but did not bring an influx of settlers with it. Fifteen years later, as farmers began to arrive in the region, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas Railroad, an affiliate of the Chicago and Rock Island, built a line westward from Oklahoma to Amarillo. This line crossed far southern Gray County, and the new settlements of McLean and Alanreed were founded on the tracks as they moved westward during 1901 and 1902.
By the turn of the century, farmers began to appear in the county. White Deer Lands began to sell its huge holdings in 1902, and a land rush to the area of Carson and Gray counties began. The county population grew to 3,405 by 1910 and 4,663 by 1920. The newly arriving farmers settled in the western and northern parts of the county, planting wheat, corn, and grain sorghums on fertile, newly broken lands. Farming and ranching dominated the county's economy for a short time, and then major petroleum discoveries greatly altered the county. Oil and gas exploration began in the county during the early 1920s. A major discovery well five miles south of Pampa, the H. F. Wilcox Oil and Gas Company's Worley-McReynolds well, drilled in 1926, led to more developments around Lefors. Between 1925 and 1928 increasing amounts of oil came out of the county's three oilfields (the Lefors, Bowers, and south Pampa fields). Production mushroomed in 1929, and the county became and remained a substantial oil producer. Almost 1,369,000 barrels of petroleum were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 672,307,787 barrels had been produced in the area since 1925. A by-product of the local oil economy is a substantial petrochemical industry that produces carbon black and other synthetic materials. The population of the county expanded as the oil industry grew. From 4,663 in 1920 the number of residents leaped to 22,090 by 1930, then leveled off to 23,911 in 1940 and 24,728 in 1950. Growth in the petrochemical industry in the 1950s led to a peak county population of 31,535 in 1960; the population then declined to 26,949 in 1970, 26,386 in 1980, 23,967 in 1990, 22,744 in 2000, and 23,044 in 2014. Pampa, the chief beneficiary of the oil industry, emerged as a major oil town. It became county seat in 1928.
The voters of Gray County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1904 through 1948. The only exception was 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith. After 1952, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower carried the county over Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the area began to heavily favor Republican candidates, who won a majority of the county’s votes in every presidential election from 1952 to 2004.
The transportation network grew with the county. State Highway 33 (now U.S. Highway 60) had been built between Oklahoma and Amarillo before 1927. This road linked Canadian, Miami, Pampa, and Panhandle to Amarillo and greatly facilitated Pampa's development. A network of farm and oilfield roads emerged during the 1940s and 1950s; in the 1960s Interstate Highway 40 was built across the far southern part of the county. A slight increase in rail construction also occurred in the late 1920s. During 1920 the Santa Fe extended a subsidiary line, chartered as the Clinton-Oklahoma Western Railroad Company of Texas, from Cheyenne, Oklahoma, to Pampa, where it linked up with the Santa Fe mainline. By the 1980s the great bulk of the county's population lived in urban areas served by this highway and rail system.
The modern economy of the county depends upon a mix of oil, petrochemicals, farming, and ranching. In 2002 the county had 351 farms and ranches covering 452,820 acres, 63 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 35 percent to pasture. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $94,867,000; livestock sales accounted for $87,340,000 of the total. Cattle, wheat, sorghum, hay, corn, and soybeans were the chief agricultural products.
Pampa, the county’s largest town and its seat of government, had 18,566 residents in 2014. Other communities include McLean (population, 794), Lefors (508), Alanreed (48), and Bowers City (26).
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Gray County Bicentennial Observance, 1776–1976: Souvenir Program (Pampa, Texas: Gray County Bicentennial Committee, 1976). Elleta Nolte, For the Reason We Climb Mountains-Gray County, 1902–1982 (Pampa, Texas: Gray County Historical Commission, 1982). S. G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads (Houston: St. Clair, 1941; rpt., New York: Arno, 1981).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Donald R. Abbe,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 10, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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