Hardeman County is on U.S. Highway 287 west of Wichita Falls in the Rolling Plains region of northwest Texas. The county is bordered on the north by Oklahoma, on the east by Wilbarger County, on the south by Foard County, and on the west by Cottle and Childress counties. Its center is at 34°15' north latitude and 99°45' west longitude. Quanah is the county seat and the largest town. In addition to U.S. 287 the county's transportation needs are also served by State Highway 6 and the Burlington Northern and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads. Hardeman County embraces 688 square miles of grassy, rolling prairies. The elevation ranges from 1,300 to 1,700 feet. The northern two-thirds is drained by the Red River, which forms the northern boundary, and the southern part is drained by the Pease River. Soils range from red to brown, with loamy surface layers and clayey or loamy subsoils. Between 31 and 40 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The vegetation is typical of the Rolling Prairies, with tall to medium-tall grasses and mesquite or shinnery oak trees. The climate is generally dry, with cool winters and hot summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 24° F to an average high of 52°, and in July from 72° to 98°. The average annual rainfall is 23 inches, the average annual snowfall is 7 inches, and the growing season averages 220 days a year, with the last freeze in late March and the first freeze in early November.
Lipan Apaches dominated the region in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Later the semisedentary Wichita Indians settled along the Red River. After 1700 the Comanches and Kiowas also migrated from the north to hunt buffalo and other game. The county was formed in 1858 from Fannin County and named for early Matagorda legislators Bailey and Thomas Jones Hardeman. Because of its isolation and the continued threat of Indian attack, however, the area remained unsettled during the Civil War and Reconstruction. After the Civil War a few buffalo hunters and ranchers moved to the region, but it was still only very sparsely settled when the county was organized in 1884. In the 1870s and 1880s rustling was among the principal industries, as thieves headed for Indian Territory crossed Hardeman County to reach the Red River. From 1881 to 1884 Wilbarger County administered Hardeman County's legal affairs, though its handful of settlers had few administrative needs. The 1880 population of Hardeman and Foard counties together totaled only fifty, but population increases in Hardeman County and adjacent regions justified organization in 1884 and a change in county lines some years later. Margaret, first called Argurita, was the original county seat. In 1885 the Fort Worth and Denver Railway made a survey through the area, and the site of Quanah was laid out. Since Margaret was across the Pease River from other settlements and from the railroad, an election held in 1890 made Quanah the county seat. As it was decided that a voter could establish residence by having his laundry done in a town for six weeks, all the railroad crews are said to have become citizens in time to vote for Quanah. In 1891 Foard County was formed from Hardeman, Cottle, King, and Knox counties, a division that left Margaret in Foard County.
From 1875 to 1890 Hardeman County was principally a ranching area. In early years, before the construction of the railroad, cattlemen of the R2 Ranch, which covered thirty-five square miles of Hardeman County, and other ranchers drove their herds to Dodge City, Kansas. Cowboys picked up the Western (or Dodge City) Trail at Doan's Crossing of the Red River, near Vernon. After the completion of the railroad in 1887, Quanah emerged as an important shipping point for the surrounding area. By 1890 there were some 25,000 cattle on the county's ranches. The arrival of the railroad brought other dramatic changes in the area. Lured by the promise of abundant, inexpensive land, large numbers of new settlers began pouring in during the late 1880s. Between 1880 and 1890 the population of Hardeman county grew nearly a hundredfold, from forty-nine to 3,904. Many of the settlers were farmers, who began to till and fence the land. In the eastern part of the county they were planting wheat by 1889 and producing oats and wheat in substantial amounts by 1890.
Higher than average rainfall, good weather, and soaring commodities prices induced some farmers to plow immense stretches of raw prairie for planting. But in 1892 prices fell dramatically, and the following year the entire crop failed. For much of the rest of the decade, Hardeman County farmers struggled. Between 1890 and 1900 the population fell from 3,904 to 3,634, as many discouraged farmers moved away. The number of farms also dropped during the same period, from 373 to 262. The economy, however, began to recover at the turn of the century, in part because of the introduction of large-scale cotton culture. In 1890 only 314 acres was planted in cotton; by 1910 the total was nearly 35,000. In 1910, Hardeman County farmers ginned 8,139 bales; in 1914, at the peak of early cotton boom, more than 30,000 bales were ginned.
After 1900 the population also began growing rapidly again. In 1903 the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway was built to Quanah from Oklahoma City, giving the county direct access to St. Louis and points east, and in 1910 the Quanah, Acme and Pacific Railroad opened a rail link with the West. The construction of the railroads fostered more new settlement, particularly in the western part of the county. Between 1900 and 1910 the population rose from 3,634 to 11,213. The number of farms also grew dramatically, from 262 in 1900 to 1,068 in 1910. Because of the rapidly growing population, land prices showed a marked increase, and many new farmers found it impossible to afford land. The number of tenants and sharecroppers grew rapidly, particularly in the 1920s, and by 1930 nearly two out of every three farmers-946 of 1,388-were working someone else's land. In contrast to many other areas of the state the overwhelming majority of the tenants were white, but the practice nonetheless had serious results in the 1930s.
During the early years of the century grain and cotton were the principal agricultural products in Hardeman County, but from 1910 to 1920 there was a pronounced shift from corn and oats to wheat. In 1920 county farmers raised 871,134 bushels of wheat, making the county one of the leaders in the state in wheat culture. Cotton also continued to be grown in large amounts. In 1926 more than 50,000 bales were ginned in the county, and production levels continued to be high through the end of the 1920s. Droughts, boll weevil infestations, and falling prices, however, combined to drive down cotton production in the 1930s. Although the amount of land planted in cotton continued to be quite high-as much as 144,994 acres in 1930-both yields and profits dropped significantly, especially after 1932. In 1930 Hardeman County farmers produced only 26,573 bales, half the peak figure of the late 1920s; and by 1936 the number of bales ginned had fallen to 4,301. As a result of poor crop yields and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to financially strapped farmers, many of those who made a living from the land, particularly tenants, found themselves in a precarious position. Numerous farmers were forced to give up their livelihood and seek work elsewhere. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms in the county fell by almost a third, and by 1940 only slightly more than half the number of tenants of a decade before-566 of 946-were still on the land. The population of the county as a whole dropped from 14,532 in 1930 to 11,073 in 1940.
The economy began to recover during World War II, partly as a result of the discovery of oil in 1944, which helped many cash-poor farmers to settle long-standing debts. Cotton farming continued to decline after the war, and by the 1960s only six gins were in operation, in contrast to the high of sixteen in the early 1930s. Subsequently wheat was the leading crop. The yield reported by the agricultural census of 1982, 1,915,320 bushels, placed Hardeman County near the top of wheat-producing counties in the state. Much of the western part of the county is ranching country, with cattle the leading revenue producer, followed by sheep, goats, and horses. Gypsum deposits were discovered in Hardeman County in 1890, and production of plaster began in 1903. Production of gypsum products became a leading industry in Quanah. Oil production in 1990 was 2,991,016 barrels. Between 1944 and January 1, 1990, total production was 46,854,172 barrels. In 1982, 96 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 40 percent of the land under cultivation and 8 percent irrigated. In 1982, Hardeman County ranked 160th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 78 percent coming from crops, mainly wheat, cotton, oats, peanuts, and hay; watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also grown in sizable quantities. The leading livestock product was cattle. The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was 132. In 1980, 22 percent of workers were self-employed, 18 percent were employed in professional or related services, 20 percent in manufacturing, 18 percent in wholesale and retail trade, 18 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining, and 8 percent in other counties; there were 923 retired workers. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $52,684,000.
The first schools in Hardeman County were founded in the 1880s. In the early 1980s the county had two school districts, with two elementary, one middle, and two high schools. The average daily attendance in 1981–82 was 1,150, with expenditures per pupil of $2,581. Sixty-seven percent of the sixty-five high school graduates planned to attend college. In 1983, 73 percent of the school graduates were white, 16 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, 0.3 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent American Indian.
The first churches in the county were established shortly after its organization. In the mid-1980s the county had twenty-two churches, with an estimated combined membership of 5,000. The largest denominations were Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ. Politically, Hardeman County has generally remained true to the Democratic party in statewide and national elections. After the presidential election of 1952 the county went Republican only twice, in 1972 and 1984. During this same period the county voted Republican in only one gubernatorial election (1986), and then by the narrow margin of 708 votes to 690. In United States Senate races, Republicans received the majority only in 1972 and 1984. In the 1982 primary 98 percent voted Democratic and 2 percent Republican, with a total of 1,367 votes cast.
The population of Hardeman County fell steadily after the eve of World War II, as residents gradually moved away to find jobs. The number of residents in the county was 11,073 in 1940, 10,185 in 1950, 8,275 in 1960, 6,795 in 1970, 6,368 in 1980, 5,283 in 1990, and 3,982 in 2014. In 2014 more than half of the population lived in Quanah (population, 2,531). Other communities include Chillicothe, Acme, Goodlett, North Groesbeck, Punkin Center, and Medicine Mound. In 2014, 70.2 percent of the population was Anglo, 6.3 percent African American, and 21.5 percent Hispanic. The largest ancestry groups are English, Irish, German, and Hispanic. Copper Breaks State Park and Lake Pauline provide recreation. Among the leading attractions are the Medicine Mounds, four cone-shaped hills rising 350 feet above the surrounding plain, that were once held by the Comanches to have magical powers.