Hardin County, in the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas, is part of the larger East Texas Timberlands region. The county's center is sixty-eight miles northeast of Houston, twenty-three miles northwest of Beaumont, and fifty-four miles from the Gulf of Mexico (at 30°20' N, 94°23' W). Although pine and hardwood forests dominate the county's 897 square miles, grasses, native legumes, and dense undergrowths of brush and vines also thrive. Among numerous mammalian species, cougars and bears are sometimes sighted in the forests. Only a small section, in the southwestern corner of the county, is prairie. Pine Island and Little Pine Island bayous join Village and Cypress creeks to drain the area into the Neches River, which forms the eastern county line. Surface soils consist of a sandy loam, and the subsoil is red clay. Quicksand pits are found within forested areas. The elevation rises from thirty to 200 feet; the terrain is level in the west and undulating in the east. The average annual rainfall is fifty-three inches. The average low temperature is 42° in January, and the average high is 93° in July. The growing season lasts 246 days. In addition to timber, oil and gas, sand, gravel, and salt domes are found within the county.
Seeking the healing powers of the mud and mineral waters of a two-acre pond known to them as Medicine Lake, East Texas Indians began to visit the Sour Lake area of Hardin County long before the region became a part of the Atascosito District of Spanish and Mexican Texas. Empresario Lorenzo de Zavala received the territory as part of his colonization grant of 1829 but made little headway in persuading potential immigrants to settle there. Although a small community called Providence developed around 1830 a few miles north of the site of present Kountze, further efforts at colonization did not begin until 1834 and 1835. During those years the Mexican government made more than fifty land grants within the future Hardin County. Additional towns developed to serve the rural population and to attract weary travelers. Before the end of 1835 Stephen Jackson had founded a settlement at Sour Lake; by 1850 it was recognized as a health resort. Concord (now Loeb), a port town on Pine Island Bayou, developed soon after the Sour Lake settlement began. Saratoga, another health resort with medicinal springs, was also settled before the Civil War.
After the revolution of 1836 the area was split between the jurisdictions of Liberty and Jefferson counties. By 1858 the region's population had increased sufficiently to warrant establishment of its own county government. In response, the state legislature established Hardin County, drawing territory from both the parent counties, early in that year. Legislators specified that the county's name honor the Hardin family of Liberty and instructed that the county seat, to be located within five miles of the center, also bear that name. After the election of Hampton J. Herrington as chief justice (i.e., county judge), the first session of the county court convened outdoors under an enormous dogwood tree. A log courthouse was completed in 1859 and followed later by a frame structure. Hardin remained the county seat until the mid-1880s. In 1881 the Sabine and East Texas Railroad bypassed that community in favor of its own newly established town, Kountze, two miles east of Hardin. Agitation soon developed for removal of county government to the new site. In the resulting election a majority of voters favored Hardin, but a courthouse fire in August 1886 reopened the issue. A second vote settled the matter permanently in favor of Kountze. After meeting in other structures, county officers accepted the 1904 offer of town founders Herman and Augustus Kountze of land for a courthouse site. The resulting domed courthouse was replaced by a $1.5 million, three-story, split-level structure in 1959.
Life in antebellum Texas was difficult for Hardin County settlers, many of whom had come from the lower South. No manufacturing took place in the county at that time. Farmers raised corn, sweet potatoes, hogs, milk cows, other cattle, sheep, and horses, to produce a self-sufficient, subsistence economy, rather than a cash-crop agricultural one. Although 14 percent of the county's 1,353 inhabitants were slaves in 1860, cotton was never an important factor in the local economy. Slavery was not a point of debate in county elections; both slaveholders and respected nonslaveholders were chosen for local positions of power between 1858 and 1865. However, the district sided with hard-line Southerners over questions of national concern. Residents strongly favored Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge over the Southern Unionist John Bell in 1860, and 73 percent of the voters favored secession the following year. Though a number of county men joined the Confederate Army, a minority hid in the Big Thicket until the end of the war.
Like other Texas counties, Hardin County experienced outside political interference during Reconstruction. Provisional governor Andrew J. Hamilton and military governor J. J. Reynolds both appointed local nonslaveowners of Southern birth to administer county affairs in 1865 and 1869. However, residents chose former slaveholders as leaders when allowed to vote in regular elections. The county may have attempted to disfranchise Blacks at an early date, for the moderate Hamilton received 100 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race against Republican Edmund J. Davis in 1869. However, a 32 percent vote for the Republican party in the presidential election of 1872 probably indicates that African Americans exercised some political power by that time.
The 1870s brought a period of growth and change that lasted until the Great Depression. Only the practice of subsistence agriculture remained somewhat constant. Although the number of farms increased more than 250 percent between 1870 and 1929, individual farmers continued to raise the same kinds of crops and livestock previously relied upon to supply the basic necessities of life. Livestock raising, considered more profitable than agriculture as early as 1867, increased in importance at the end of the period. Limited manufacturing began by 1870, only to disappear until the newly developed lumber industry slowly stimulated the industrial economy after 1880. As early as 1878, loggers floated timber cut from the county's hardwood, longleaf, and loblolly pine forests down local streams to the Neches River and Beaumont. By 1881 at least two lumber-processing mills were operating in the county.
The lumber business provided the incentive needed to bring railroad transportation to Hardin County. The Sabine and East Texas Railroad arrived in 1881. It entered the county at its southeastern corner, then extended through the north central section before crossing the county line. The Gulf, Beaumont and Kansas City came in 1894. This road, part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe system, runs through the eastern part of the county. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, also a component of the AT&SF, crossed northern Hardin County from west to east in 1901–02. The Beaumont, Sour Lake and Western, the last railroad to arrive, built east-to-west through southern Hardin County between 1904 and 1908. The arrival of the railroads stimulated the lumber industry to further growth. Although the original boom slowed after 1887, the lumber business remained the only important industry in Hardin County until after 1900. In 1925, five large processing plants produced a total of 840,000,000 board feet of lumber. Oil production joined lumber as a significant industry after 1901 and has remained important. Although two companies established small refineries at Sour Lake in 1896 and 1898, the real development of the Hardin County oil industry began with the discovery of oil at Saratoga (1901) and Batson (1903) and the successful development of the Sour Lake oilfield, also in 1903. In that year the Sour Lake field alone produced 7,000,000 barrels. By 1904 a pipeline system connected the three fields to Beaumont. The Texas Company (now Texaco) struck its first productive well at Sour Lake.
Changes in transportation and industry themselves brought change to Hardin County. The population more than doubled between 1870 (1,460 inhabitants) and 1900 (5,049), then grew by 157 percent between 1900 and 1930 (to 13,936). The newcomers brought different modes of living that sometimes made long-standing residents uncomfortable. By 1887 small numbers of Germans, French, Irish, Italians, and Mexican Americans had also settled within the county, adding their customs to the cultural mix. During this sixty-year period, the Black population grew from a low of 13 percent in 1880 to a high of 20 percent in 1910. The increase in population led to the development of an embryonic school system. In 1870 six schools were scattered throughout the county. By 1887 the county claimed a more organized system that maintained two school buildings, employed twenty-two teachers, and admitted 690 pupils that year. However, an average of only 427 students attended class regularly, and the school term lasted only fifty-two days. Yet in 1900 only 7 percent of adult males of voting age were illiterate. By 1920 the percentage had risen to 12.9. Further change came with the arrival of electricity and the automobile. Electrical power reached the towns first, beginning at Silsbee in 1909. By 1925 Saratoga, Kountze, Sour Lake, and Batson were also electrified, each powered by its own generating plant. Many of these facilities were later absorbed by the Gulf States Utilities Company, which still served a part of Hardin County in the 1980s, when the Sam Houston Electrical Co-op, begun in 1939, powered the rest of the county. Rural electrical service developed more slowly; as late as 1946 buildings in the Batson Prairie area were without power. By the 1920s the presence of the automobile was reinforcing the area's need for good roads, though the need was met slowly. Only 9 percent of the population registered cars or trucks in 1923 (2,115 vehicles), and in 1925 the county had only 40.7 miles of road completed or in progress, including one through highway. Serious efforts at road development lay in the future.
Hardin County residents reacted politically to the changes of the 1870–1930 era on two levels. On local issues the lumber and petroleum companies often sided against the general populace, creating a division that lasted well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Farmers gave 20 percent of the county's vote to the People's (Populist) party in the national election of 1892.
The Great Depression reinforced Hardin County's condition as a rural, basically underdeveloped region. Although the overall population grew only 14 percent, from 13,936 in 1930 to 15,875 in 1940, the number of farms almost doubled, perhaps indicating an increased reliance on the land. Yet the farmers were less self-sufficient than their predecessors. The total number of cattle on farms fell 51 percent between 1930 and 1940, and the number of milk cows had decreased sharply by 1950. Manufacturing fell from twenty-seven establishments in 1920 to fifteen in 1930 and ten in 1940. The unemployment rate increased accordingly. In 1935, 694 persons were on relief, and in 1940, 10 percent of the local workforce was seeking employment. Another 7 percent held emergency jobs sponsored by the federal government. In spite of economic hardships, the lumber industry remained a significant factor in the Hardin County economy. Six of the ten industrial companies in business in 1940 were lumber or timber concerns, while three large plants employed over 100 persons each.
Hard times in Hardin County lasted well past the end of World War II. In 1950 at least 20 percent of local families had incomes below $2,000, and 48 percent of the houses lacked running water. The Black population of 3,079 had only barely surpassed its 1920 level, while the total population numbered only 19,535. Industry was beginning to recover, yet the thirty-two manufacturing establishments operating in 1954 employed 16 percent fewer employees than had the twenty-seven companies in business in 1920. Nevertheless, manufacturing accounted for at least 50 percent of the jobs in Hardin County in 1950. The depression also delayed road construction, which was equally slow in recovering momentum. In 1936 only U.S. Highway 69 had been completed, running from southeast to northwest across the county. By 1945 U.S. 96 was surfaced from Beaumont to Silsbee. A network of state highways and farm roads gradually developed between 1945 and 1957. These included State highways 105, running northwest to southeast; 326, running north to south; and 327, running from Kountze eastward.
Between 1960 and 1980 Hardin County saw changes equal in importance to those caused by railroads and industry during the boom of 1870–1930. The population grew 65 percent, from 24,629 in 1960 to 29,996 in 1970 and 40,721 in 1980. Of the 1980 total 23 percent were of Irish, 13 percent of German, and 11 percent of French descent. However, the Black population grew by only 3 percent between 1960 and 1980. In response to the general population increase and better times, the number of housing units within the county increased by 50 percent between 1970 and 1980. Agriculture changed drastically. The number of farms fell to 331 in 1982, while average farm value increased from $22,476 in 1959 to $204,798 in 1982. The importance of farm animals fell; cattle were the only livestock raised in significant numbers after 1959. The production of corn also fell significantly; the 1982 harvest was only 1,133 bushels. Instead, soybeans, hay, and fruits were considered primary crops. Oil production and lumber remained important parts of the manufacturing establishment, but by 1980 the retail trade was challenging their dominance of the county economy. Educational levels of Hardin County residents rose dramatically during the period. In 1950 only 17 percent of males and 18 percent of females over twenty-four years of age had completed high school, but the figures had risen to 38 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in 1970. By 1980, 56.6 percent of the total residents over twenty-four years of age had finished high school. In 1982 the county supported five school districts, employed 583 teachers, and had an average daily student attendance of 9,237. Citizens were also much more mobile than they had been at any other time in the county's past. In 1974, 12,704 vehicles were registered in the county. The number had risen to 38,862-almost a vehicle for every resident-by 1982. Local politics remained volatile, with business interests that pay 85 percent of the county's taxes often siding against the rest of the community on a variety of issues. In 1990 Hardin County had a population of 41,320. More than 85 percent of the county was forested, and timber remained the most important agricultural product. In 2003, over 23,874,000 cubic feet of pinewood, and over 3,588,000 cubic feet of hardwood, were harvested in the county.
The county’s voters supported the Democratic candidate in almost every presidential election from 1872 through 1992; the only exceptions occurred in 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county, and in 1984, when Ronald Reagan did. The area began to swing more decisively toward the Republicans in 1996, when Robert Dole defeated Bill Clinton there. Republican George W. Bush carried the county by comfortable margins in 2000 and 2004.
In 2014 the U.S. Census reported 55,621 people living in Hardin County; about 87.1 percent were Anglo, 5.8 percent African American, and 5.2 percent Hispanic. Of residents twenty-five and older 80 percent had graduated from high school and 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century paper manufacturing, wood processing, oil and gas operations, food processing plants and minerals were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 517 farms and ranches covering 68,512 acres, 40 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 31 percent to woodlands, and 27 percent to crops. Timber was the chief agricultural product, but beef cattle and crops of rice and blueberries also produced income for the area. More than 1,945,500 barrels of oil, and 11,176,605 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 437,858,292 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1893.Kourtze (population, 2,204) is the county’s seat of government; other communities include Lumberton (12,743), Silsbee (7,038), Saratoga (1,000), Sour Lake (1,899), Village Mills (200), and Pinewood Estates (1,769). The Big Thicket National Preserve provides recreational opportunities for county residents and tourists.