Hopkins County, in northeast Texas, is bordered on the north by the South Sulphur River. The county seat, Sulphur Springs, is on Interstate Highway 30, eighty-two miles northeast of Dallas. The approximate center of the county is at 33°10' north latitude, 95°40' west longitude. Hopkins County has an area of 789 square miles, divided between Blackland Prairie in its northern half and southwestern quarter and the claypan of the post oak belt in its southeastern quarter. The Blackland Prairie consists primarily of deep, loamy, moderately well-drained soils. There is little timber, except along the streams, where hardwoods are found. The soils of the claypan area differ mainly in their greater ability to absorb and release moisture. In this area of the county numerous hardwoods, as well as evergreens and pines, grow profusely. The terrain of Hopkins County is level to rolling, and its elevations range from 350 to 650 feet above mean sea level. The higher elevations form a divide east-to-west along what is roughly the center of the county. North of the divide the small streams flow north, and south of the divide, south. The county's major interior stream, White Oak Creek, traverses the east-west center of the county, heading slightly to the northeast. The major lakes-Sulphur Springs (which covers about 1,134 acres), Century (613 acres), and Coleman (49 acres)-are man-made impoundments. The county has deposits of oil, gas, glauconite, phosphorite, lignite, industrial sand, and clay used to produce firebrick. The climate is humid and subtropical, with an average rainfall of 45 inches a year. Temperatures range from an average low of 32° F in January to an average high of 95° F in August. The growing season averages 238 days a year.
The area that became Hopkins County was originally occupied by the Caddo Indians, who were later displaced by the Cherokees. Troops dispatched by the Republic of Texas under the command of Gen. Kelsey H. Douglass defeated the Cherokees in 1839. This event encouraged settlers, now relatively free from Indian attacks, to move into what is now Hopkins County. A grave marker near the first White settlement, Sulphur Bluff, indicates that settlers were in the area by 1837. Hopkins County was created from parts of Lamar and Nacogdoches counties in March 1846 by the first Texas state legislature. It was named for the David Hopkins family of pioneers. The county seat was established at Tarrant, about five miles north of Sulphur Springs, and remained there until 1870, when the state legislature officially made Sulphur Springs the seat of county government. The territory of the original 1846 Hopkins County was subsequently reduced several times. In 1870 a part of its southwestern corner was given to Rains County, and land north of the South Sulphur River was given to Delta County. In 1871 a small tip of Hopkins County's northeastern corner was given to Lamar County. Hopkins County was settled mainly by southerners; it had a population of 2,623 by 1850. Slavery and cotton culture did not play a dominant role in the county before the Civil War. The census of 1850 enumerated 154 slaves in Hopkins County, less than 6 percent of the total population; that same year no cotton was reported planted in the county. The county population increased threefold during the 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War the census of 1860 reported 7,875 inhabitants, of which just under 1,000 were Black. Corn and wheat were the main crops, and cattle and sheep ranching were also important, with almost 22,000 head of cattle and more than 36,000 sheep in the county that year.
In 1861 the citizens of Hopkins County voted overwhelmingly for secession (797 to 315), and when the Civil War began, county residents rallied behind the war effort. Six companies were raised for Confederate service in 1861 alone. During Reconstruction Hopkins County became part of the Fifth Military District. Ku Klux Klan activity in the area, along with the murders and robberies committed by Benjamin Bickerstaff, Bob Lee, and other outlaws, led to the dispatching of two companies of the Sixth Cavalry under the command of captains Adna R. Chaffee and T. M. Tolman to Sulphur Springs. While Chaffee successfully pursued Bickerstaff and Lee through northeastern Texas, Tolman imposed strict discipline on Sulphur Springs, earning the enmity of the inhabitants and eventually receiving a reprimand from the military authorities. Hopkins County was a Democratic party stronghold during Reconstruction, and its voters continued to support Democratic presidential candidates through 1992, with the exception of the elections of 1972, 1984, and 1988. During and after the war the population of Hopkins County grew. Its Black population more than doubled during the war, to 2,101 in 1864, as slaveholders from other areas moved their slaves to Hopkins County to evade Union forces. After the war, an influx of settlers from the damaged states of the Deep South raised the county population to 12,651 by 1870. The county continued to grow in population for the rest of the century, reaching 20,572 inhabitants by 1890 and just under 28,000 by 1900. Blacks remained a steady 14 percent of the population through the turn of the century.
The development of the county was aided by improved transportation. In 1872 stage connections were established between Sulphur Springs and the Texas and Pacific Railway at Mineola in Wood County. The East Line and Red River Railroad reached Hopkins County in 1876, providing connections to Jefferson and Greenville, and the St. Louis, Arkansas and Texas Railway built through the county in 1887, connecting it with Sherman. After 1900 the county population continued to grow, reaching a high of 34,792 in 1920. At the same time the proportion of Blacks in the county declined to less than 10 percent of the population by the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, the county remained agricultural and rural with many small towns. The largest town, Sulphur Springs, reported a population of 5,558 in 1920. Along with the growth in population, the number of farms almost doubled in the 1890s, reaching 4,578 in 1900; farms reached an all-time high of 5,445 in 1920. While corn remained an important crop, Hopkins County farmers increasingly turned to cotton as their major cash crop. By 1890 acreage devoted to cotton surpassed that used for corn, and by 1920 more than twice as many acres were planted in cotton as were planted in corn. Farmers diversified to some extent, adding grain crops, vegetables, and orchards. Records from 1925 show 730 railroad cars of peaches, berries, and potatoes and 300 cars of poultry and dairy by-products being shipped from the county. But cotton continued to dominate the county economy. In 1930, the peak census year for cotton production, more than two-thirds of all improved acreage in the county was used for cotton production. Along with an increased dependence on uncertain cotton prices went the dramatic growth of farm tenancy in the county. While in 1880 almost 72 percent of Hopkins County farmers owned their farms, by 1920 the proportion of owners had dropped to 40 percent. In 1930, with the onset of the Great Depression, the number of tenants increased to almost 75 percent of county farmers.
Hopkins County was affected by the depression in much the same way as the rest of the nation. The number of farms in the county fell from 5,005 in 1930 to 4,324 in 1940, a decrease of 13.6 percent. In this period farm value fell from just over $13 million to just under $11 million. Many of the tenant farmers left the land, and by 1940 tenantry had declined to less than 50 percent of the farmers in the county. Unemployment, recorded at 1.5 percent in 1930, rose to 15 percent by 1940. As late as 1935, relief figures for Hopkins County showed 2,626 workers on some sort of relief program. The county, however, had begun a project in 1929 that was to have far-reaching effects on its economy. That year voters approved a bond package to finance paved roads throughout the county in an attempt to secure a milk-processing plant for Sulphur Springs. In 1935 most of the work was completed, and in 1937 the Carnation Milk Company opened a processing plant. This plant paved the way for large-scale dairy farming and in the 1980s continued to have a huge impact on the economy of Hopkins County (see DAIRY INDUSTRY). There had been dairy farming in Hopkins County since at least 1900, but it had made little overall economic impact. The absence of good roads and of markets for fresh milk forced farmers to sell sour cream as a by-product. With the availability of paved roads and the opening of the processing plant in Sulphur Springs, dairy farming quickly surpassed all other types of farming in the county in importance and income. During the period from 1936, when prospects for a market improved, to 1949, some 200 class-A dairies were established in the county. The number of cattle grew from 25,086 in 1930 to 34,920 in 1940, an increase of 39 percent. Meanwhile, cotton production decreased from 42,000 bales in 1925 to 6,733 bales in 1940, a decrease of 83.9 percent. The Texas Agricultural Extension Service released figures in 1950 stating that on a cow-per-acre basis, Hopkins had become the leading county in milk production in the state.
The building of paved roads not only revitalized the county economy by shifting the focus of farming from cotton to dairy, but also caused a major change in small towns and villages. The rural farmer no longer had to purchase goods from a local village but could, with modern cars and roads, drive to a larger town to resupply. Thus the small towns grew smaller as their businesses declined, while the population of Sulphur Springs increased. Relatively stable at about 5,000 residents from 1910 to 1930, the Sulphur Springs population increased steadily from 1940 to 1990, when a population of 14,062 was reported. Overall Hopkins County population figures declined to roughly 30,000 in the 1920s and 1930s, then declined further to a low of 18,594 in 1960. Thereafter the county showed moderate and steady growth, with a population of 28,833 reported in 1990. As of 2014, the population of Hopkins County was 35,921; of these 74.4 percent were Anglo, 16.1 Hispanic, and 7.4 percent African American. While at that time numerous small unincorporated towns and villages remained in the county, most were only community centers with few or no businesses. As of 2014 towns included: Sulphur Springs (population 15,690), Como (697), Cumby (771), and Tira (301). Public road mileage in Hopkins County grew from 100 miles of paved road in 1939 to 1,334 miles of roads in 1984. The county is crossed from virtually all directions by state and federal highways. Interstate Highway 30, the major road between Dallas and Texarkana, passes through the center of Hopkins County; tourism, largely as a result of this highway, produced expenditures in the county in excess of $1 million in 1984. In 1990 Hopkins County was the leading dairy county in the state, with almost 500 dairies producing nearly 17 percent of the state total. At that time the county was also a leader in cattle production. Important crops included silage, hay, wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans. The county offered visitors fishing and hunting opportunities, and Sulphur Springs hosted a series of annual festivals, including a dairy festival in May.