Hale County is on the Llano Estacado in northwest Texas, bounded on the east by Floyd County, on the south by Lubbock County, on the west by Lamb County, and on the north by Swisher and Castro counties. Its center point is at 34°05' north latitude and 101°50' west longitude, about forty miles north of Lubbock. The county was named for John C. Hale, who died at the battle of San Jacinto. Hale County covers 979 square miles of flat terrain, with fertile sandy and loamy soils and many playas; the elevation ranges from 3,200 to 3,600 feet above sea level. There is a considerable supply of underground water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer. Running Water Draw cuts southeastward across the county through Plainview, and Black Water Draw touches the southwestern part of the county. Hale County's average annual rainfall is 19.34 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 26° F, and the average maximum in July is 93°; the growing season lasts 211 days. Hale County produces an average annual agricultural income of $160 million, 80 percent of which comes from cotton, corn, soybeans, sorghums, wheat, and vegetables; the remainder derives from beef cattle, swine, and sheep. In 1982 the county had 468,000 acres of irrigated land. Petroleum production in 1990 was more than 1,941,000 barrels; by January 1991 more than 148,177,000 barrels of oil had been pumped from Hale County lands since its discovery in 1946. Food processing and the manufacture of farm equipment generated $46,700,000 in 1991. The county's road network includes U.S. Highway 87 (Interstate 27), which runs north to south, and U.S. Highway 70, which runs west to east. The Santa Fe and the Fort Worth and Denver rail lines cross the county.
Important evidence of early man was discovered in 1941 within the city limits of Plainview, where a fossil bed yielded the skeletons of a hundred bison and more than two dozen flint tools, including a distinctive projectile point used with a spear or atlatl; this type of point has been called the Plainview point since its discovery. Radiocarbon dating of articles found in the excavation demonstrated that human beings lived in the area about 9,000 years ago. Comanches hunted in the area from the early eighteenth century to the 1870s, preying on the large herds of buffalo that roamed the plains. By 1876, when Hale County was marked off from Bexar County, both the Comanches and the buffalo had disappeared. The wealth of the isolated country was not immediately obvious, although there was some money to be made from the bone business and from taming mustangs. The first cattle were brought into the area in 1881, when Illinois brothers named Morrison established the Cross L Ranch, which covered twenty square miles at the corners of Hale, Lamb, Castro, and Swisher counties (the Morrisons later sold the spread to C. C. Slaughter). The first permanent settler in the county was Horatio Graves, a Methodist minister and farmer, who purchased four sections and moved into the area in 1883; he experimented with farming by growing garden and feed crops. Within the next two years other settlers, including A. E. Adams, A. N. Jones, D. L. Shepley, and F. M. and L. T. Lester, moved into the county with their families. Once a month Graves carried the mail for local ranchers and other settlers from Estacado to a post office he established in 1884. His home became the center of the community during the early years of settlement; church services and school classes were held there. In 1886 another early settler, Z. T. Maxwell, located his homestead at the site of two hackberry groves on the old military trail established by Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie. The town of Plainview later grew around Maxwell's settlement. After establishing Hale County in 1876 the Texas legislature attached it successively to Baylor, Donley, and Crosby counties for administrative purposes. The county was organized in 1888, with Plainview as county seat. In 1890 the census counted 721 residents.
Drought and grasshopper plagues helped to make the early 1890s difficult for settlers, most of whom had purchased school lands from the state. Under the program, school lands were sold for two dollars an acre at 5 percent interest; purchasers had forty years to pay (see LAND APPROPRIATIONS FOR EDUCATION). These terms had seemed generous to the legislators who established them, but many farmers in Hale County felt squeezed. Hurt by natural disasters, facing high costs, and with no rail access to markets for their crops, many had been forced into cattle raising, which was not practical on the single sections they were allowed to purchase under the state program. Unable to meet their payments, many abandoned their lands. The Four-Section Act of 1895 helped to solve this problem, however, and during the late 1890s hundreds of new settlers moved into the county to snap up available school land. By 1900 there were 259 farms and ranches in the county (125 of them larger than 1,000 acres), and the population had increased to 1,680. Cattle ranching was at the center of the area's economy; that year, the agricultural census counted more than 20,700 cattle in the county, but only 1,325 acres was devoted to the cultivation of corn, the most important crop at the time. Farming became more important to the area after 1907, when county residents raised $75,000 to help induce the Santa Fe Railway to build a branch through Hale County. One pioneer reported that the arrival of the railroad brought a "day of rejoicing never to be forgotten." By 1910 the county had 731 farms encompassing almost 379,700 acres; more than 126,500 acres was classified as "improved" by the agricultural census, and cropland had expanded significantly: sorghum was planted on almost 14,400 acres, corn on 5,800, and wheat on 2,800.
In 1911 the county's first motor-driven irrigation well was drilled, and the prospect of a steady water supply attracted eastern capital to the area. The Texas Land and Development Company purchased about 60,000 acres around Plainview in 1913 and invested about $2 million developing farm tracts, laying out a pleasure park, and planting fruit trees, grapevines, and shade trees; the company also established a 630-acre experimental farm staffed by a team of agricultural experts. By selling land to farmers in tracts of forty, eighty, and 160 acres, the company played an important role in Hale County's development. By 1920 the county had 1,031 farms, encompassing 576,000 acres; almost 168,000 acres was devoted to the cultivation of cereal crops, especially sorghum, and cotton had begun to become important to the county. The agricultural census reported more than 49,000 fruit trees (mostly apple, peach, and plum) in Hale County that year. The poultry industry was also rapidly developing. Almost 102,000 chickens were reported in Hale County in 1920, and local farmers sold almost 200,000 dozen eggs that year. Though the relative importance of ranching to the local economy was declining, the number of cattle in the area increased between 1900 and 1920, when almost 26,000 cattle were reported on local ranches. Sheep ranching also grew rapidly during this period. Only 160 sheep were counted on area ranches in 1910, but by 1920 there were 17,611. As the county's economy expanded, so did its population. The census counted 7,566 residents in 1910 and 10,104 in 1920. Agricultural development in the county intensified during the cotton boom of the 1920s. Cotton was planted on 98 acres in Hale County in 1910, 6,600 in 1920, and almost 64,900 in 1929. Meanwhile, the production of such other crops as wheat and corn also expanded, though sorghum production declined. The cotton boom brought thousands of new residents to the area; the county population almost doubled during the 1920s, rising to 20,189 by 1930.
But the county's economic expansion, which had continued almost uninterrupted since the late 1890s, came to an end during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cropland harvested in Hale County dropped from 385,939 acres in 1929 to 332,936 in 1939, and the introduction of mechanized agriculture and government crop restrictions worked against some farmers. Almost a hundred local farmers lost their lands during the depression, and by 1939 the number of farms and ranches in the area had declined to 1,628. The county lost almost 7 percent of its population during the depression.
In the 1940s the county began a period of extended economic expansion that lasted into the 1960s, partly because of the discovery of oil in 1946. Production of crude neared 1,890,000 barrels in 1948 and exceeded 2,478,000 barrels in 1956. The county's economic expansion after the depression was also promoted by the growth of manufacturing. In 1947 Hale County had only eighteen manufacturing establishments, employing 425 workers. By 1963 there were forty-four manufacturers in the county, employing 790 workers; and in 1982 there were forty-eight manufacturing businesses in Hale County, employing 2,100. After the population decline of the 1930s, the number of residents increased steadily during the 1940s and 1950s, but fluctuated afterward, partly in response to alterations in the petroleum industry; oil production dropped from 1950s highs to only 1,518,000 barrels in 1960, for example, before rising again to almost 6,552,000 barrels in 1974 and almost 9,163,000 barrels in 1978; in 1982 it was 4,469,000 barrels. Meanwhile, the United States census counted 18,813 people in the county in 1940, 28,086 in 1950, 36,798 in 1960, 34,137 in 1970, 37,592 in 1980, and 34,671 in 1990.
Voters in Hale County consistently voted for Democratic candidates at the state and national level until the 1950s, when the county began to lean toward the Republican party. A majority of the county's voters voted Republican in seven of the eleven presidential races between 1952 and 1992. In 1986 Hale County was one of sixty-two counties in the state still legally dry.
By the 1980s agricultural production in the county was well diversified. With an average annual income of some $123 million, Hale County was one of the leading farming counties in the state. According to the agricultural census for 1982, the county's farmers that year produced 11,116,163 bushels of corn, 3,262,800 of soybeans, 2,652,276 of sorghum, and 1,721,700 of wheat. The county ranked among the leading areas of the state for cotton production; in 1982, 84,992 bales of cotton were ginned at the thirty-one gins in the county. Vegetables were grown on 3,085 acres that year. Livestock included 4,950 beef cattle, 12,728 hogs, and 4,221 sheep. Agribusinesses are strong in the county: irrigation-pump companies, feedlots, the Jimmy Dean Meat Packing plant, farm-equipment companies, and other businesses help to diversify the local economy. In the mid-1980s the county also had seven banks with total assets of more than $300 million.
Hale County's largest communities include Plainview, the county seat (population, 21,305), Abernathy (2,816, partly in Lubbock County), Hale Center (2,165), Petersburg (1,169), and Seth Ward (2,068). Other communities include Cotton Center, County Line, Edmonson, Finney, Halfway, and Happy Union. As of 2014, 34,720 people lived in the county. Of those, 35.5 percent were Anglo, 5.9 percent African American, and 58 percent Hispanic. The Llano Estacado Museum and the Pioneer Classic golf tournament, which is held in Plainview each November, are two of the area's tourist attractions.