Howard County, on the High Plains of West Texas eighty miles west of Abilene, is bordered by Glasscock, Martin, Dawson, Borden, Scurry, and Sterling counties. It lies at the eastern tip of the Permian Basin and at the foot of the escarpment marking the beginning of the Edwards Plateau, which extends 200 miles to the south. To the north is the Caprock, the edge of the Llano Estacado. The center of the county is at 32°18' north latitude and101°25' west longitude. Big Spring is the county seat and largest community. Interstate Highway 20 bisects the county from east to west, and U.S. Highway 87 runs northwest to southeast. State highways 33, 176, and 350 are other important roads. The county comprises 901 square miles and is drained by the North Concho River and Morgan and Wild Horse creeks. The soils range from light to very dark loams, with some deep clayey subsoils. Some areas also have considerable accumulations of lime in the subsoils. In the south central part of the county are outcroppings of limestone bedrock. Elevations range from 2,200 to 2,550 feet. The average annual rainfall is 15.88 inches. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 29° F to an average high of 57° and in July from 71° to 95°. The growing season lasts 217 days, with the last freeze in early April and the first in early November. Dust storms and high winds are common in the early spring and summer. The vegetation is typical of the High Plains region, with buffalo grass and blue grama predominating. Between 41 and 50 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. Most of the county's annual income is derived from agriculture, with approximately 90 percent of receipts from cotton, wheat, and sorghum culture. Leading natural resources include oil and gas, sand, gravel, and stone.
From an early period Big Spring, on Sulphur Draw, had been a favored watering place for Skidi Pawnees and Quahadi Comanches, who fought for its possession and for the herds of buffalo and antelope that wintered there. The spring, now dry, long provided the only reliable source of water within 100 miles. The first Europeans to traverse the future county were probably a Spanish expedition of 1768. Capt. Randolph B. Marcy of the United States Army described the area in 1849, but it remained unsettled until after the Civil War. The first known settler to have come to the region was William Travis Roberts, who moved from Georgetown, Texas, in 1870 and settled at Moss Spring, twelve miles southeast of Big Spring. When the spring site was bought by Will Wardell and Frank Biler, Roberts moved his headquarters a mile and a half up the draw, dug the first well in the county, and built a dugout to live in. Until the coming of the Texas and Pacific in 1881, Brownwood was the supply point for settlers and mail was brought from Fort Concho. Other early cattlemen included F. G. Oxsheer, C. C. Slaughter, and B. F. Wolcott. The Wolcott Ranch is said to have installed the first of many windmills in the county. Other early settlers were L. F. McKay, who installed the pumping equipment for the railroad and remained to become a citizen of the county, and the Earl of Aylesford, who bought 37,000 acres of land in the county in 1883 and built the first permanent structure in Big Spring. Dave Rhoton is credited with starting the local sheep business in 1887 by building a wool-storage structure at his headquarters in Iatan, Mitchell County.
Howard County was formed from Bexar County on August 21, 1876, and named for Volney Erskine Howard, a United States congressman from Texas in the 1840s and 1850s. It was attached to Mitchell County in 1881 for legal administration, then organized in 1882. Big Spring was designated as county seat. For a time Howard County was responsible for the legal administration of Lynn, Terry, Yoakum, Dawson, Cochran, Gaines, Andrews, Borden, and Martin counties.
Construction of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1881 benefited Howard County and particularly Big Spring, where a railroad-maintenance shop provided a stable payroll. The arrival of the railroad also spurred the growth of Big Spring into a major trading center. The town became an important shipping point for livestock and produce, and a supply point for an area extending from Lovington, New Mexico, to the Big Lake country in Reagan County and northward to ranches in the Post and Lubbock area. Initially ranchers were the chief beneficiaries from rail transport, which gave them markets for cattle and sheep, but the railroad also brought in large number of new farmers. In 1881 the railroad commissioned J. B. D. Boydstun to establish an agricultural experiment farm. He planted fruit trees, tomatoes, and melons and tried cotton in 1883. His first modest cotton crop had to be shipped to Sweetwater for ginning. Encouraged by Boydstun's successes and offers of inexpensive land, numerous new settlers moved to Howard County to try farming. During the 1880s and 1890s the population grew rapidly. In 1880 the entire county had a population of only fifty; by 1900 the number of residents had increased to 2,525. Among the county's notable residents in its early years was Harvey Wallace Caylor, who in 1893 moved to Big Spring, where he painted portraits and western scenes and wrote for western magazines.
Numerous homesteaders wishing to benefit from the state's Four-Section Act filed for land in 1901. Many ranchers, however, concerned that the influx of new settlers would lead to a loss of rangeland, ordered their cowboys to file for land and then purchased their shares. But despite such maneuvers the number of farms increased to 130 by 1900 and 819 by 1910. The rise of farming eventually brought to an end the glory years of the great ranches. C. C. Slaughter's Long S Ranch, second in size only to the XIT Ranch in West Texas, at one time included a large part of Howard, Dawson, Borden, and Marion counties. But droughts, falling prices for cattle, and rising land costs forced many cattlemen to sell out. By 1919 Slaughter's holdings were down to 500,000 acres and the great ranch era was ending.
Corn was the most important early crop in the area; the county's farmers produced 102,740 bushels in 1910. But increasingly after the turn of the century cotton took center stage. In 1900 Howard County farmers produced 2,848 bales of cotton; by 1916 production had grown to 4,647 bales; and by 1926 the figure reached 28,014, making the county one of the region's leaders in cotton culture.
During the 1920s a new sector of the economy opened-oil. Small surface pools of crude were noted in the area as early as 1880, but the first test drilling in 1886 was disappointing. In 1919 and 1920 S. E. J. Cox set off a speculative boom after he encouraged investors to put up money for land. His efforts, however, resulted in no producing wells, and in 1923 Cox, along with his famous employer, the polar explorer Dr. Frederick A. Cook, were convicted of oil-land fraud. In 1925, however, oil was discovered in the Howard-Glasscock field; on April 18, 1926, the well Otis Chalk No. 1 came in, and the real boom was on. The discovery ushered in a new phase in Howard County history. Wildcatters, speculators, and others lured by the prospect of easy money flooded the county. Between 1920 and 1930 the population grew more than threefold, from 6,962 to 22,888, and the county had unprecedented prosperity.
The 1920s also saw impressive gains in agriculture. The amount of farmland under cultivation grew rapidly during the decade, and the number of the farms nearly tripled, from 422 to 1,194. But with the rapid rise in farming also came a dramatic growth in the number of tenant farmers. Already by 1920 more than one in every three farmers in the county (167 of 422) were tenants; and by 1930 three out every four (808 of 1,194) were working someone else's land. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, these tenant farmers were hit particularly hard. Falling prices, droughts, and boll weevil infestations combined to drive down cotton production. With banks unwilling or unable to extend credit, many tenants were forced off the land. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of tenants in Howard County fell from 808 to 395.
Although Howard County, like other Texas counties, suffered during the depression, oil partly mollified the situation. The increased demand for oil during World War II helped to spur the recovery of the economy, as did the establishment of Big Spring Army Air Force Bombardier School. The base, which was closed after the war, reopened in 1952 during the Korean War as Webb Air Force Base and continued to operate until it was closed for good in the 1970s.
From World War II to the 1990s, Howard County continued to be a major farming and oil-producing area. Crops, principally dry-land cotton, wheat, and sorghum, provide the largest share of agricultural receipts; beef cattle and sheep are also important sources of income. Other significant industries include oil and gas production, petrochemicals, and clothing and other light manufacturing. Major employers include Howard College in Big Spring, Big Spring Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and a federal prison.
Howard County's first school opened in 1882. In the early 1990s the county had three school districts with nine elementary, three middle, and three high schools. The first churches in the county were founded in the 1880s, and in the early 1990s the county had sixty-eight churches with a combined membership of more than 28,000. The largest denominations were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist. Early newspapers included the Pantagraph (1883), the Enterprise (1898), the Daily Adventure (1899), and the Big Spring News (1903). The Big Spring Herald, founded in 1904, was still being published in the early 1990s and had an average daily circulation of more than 10,000. Howard County voters have generally followed statewide voting trends. Democrats dominated the county during its first eighty years of existence, but subsequently Republicans made strong inroads, particularly in presidential and statewide races. Between 1972 and 1992 Republican presidential candidates received a majority in every election except that of 1976, when Jimmy Carter won by a small margin; Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidates have also fared well. Democrats nevertheless continued to hold most county offices, and as late as 1982, 94 percent of those who went to the polls in the primary election voted Democratic.
After World War II the population of Howard County increased from 26,722 in 1950 to 40,139 in 1960; the largest rise was in the number of Mexican Americans, whose presence steadily mounted after 1950. But despite the continuing influx of Hispanics, the county population declined, as numerous younger residents moved to larger cities. In 2014 the population was 35,651. Of those, 52 percent were Anglo, 7 percent African American, and 39.4 percent Hispanic. The largest communities in 2014 were Big Spring (28,339), Coahoma (846), and Forsan (223). Area attractions include Big Spring State Recreation Area, Comanche Trail Park, Moss Creek Reservoir, and the annual rodeo and rattlesnake roundup.