Lee County, in the Claypan area of southeast Central Texas east of Austin, is bordered by Bastrop, Williamson, Milam, Burleson, Washington, and Fayette counties. Giddings, the largest town and county seat, is sixty miles east of Austin. The county's geographic center lies at approximately 30°17' north latitude and 96°54' west longitude. U.S. Highway 77 is the major north-south road in the county, and U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 21 are the principal east-west routes. Lee County is also served by two railroads, the Austin Area Terminal Railroad and the Union Pacific. The county embraces 631 square miles and has an elevation range of 270 to 970 feet. It is divided into three basic soil regions. In the northwest, light-colored loamy or sandy soils lie over mottled or reddish clayey or loamy subsoils. In the central strip, light-colored loams overlie gray to black clayey soils and deep reddish-brown, clayey subsoils. The remainder of the county has light-colored soils with sandy surfaces and mottled, clayey subsoils. The central part of Lee County is in the Blackland Prairies region, where oak, pecan, elm, and mesquite trees and thick grasses grow in the stream basins. The rest of the county is in the Post Oak Savannah vegetation region, characterized by tall grasses, post oak, and blackjack oak. Scattered thickets of wild plum, black and red haw, yaupon, and wild persimmon occur. Dewberries, huckleberries, and blackberries as well as mustang, fox, and muscadine grapes grow in the county. The climate is humid and subtropical. The average annual temperature is 69° F. Temperatures range from an average low of 37° in January to an average high of 96° in July. The average annual precipitation is thirty-six inches; the heaviest rain occurs from May through September. Most of the county is drained by the three branches of Yegua Creek-East Yegua, Middle Yegua, and West Yegua creeks-and their tributaries, including Allen, Brushy, Pin Oak, Bluff, and Elm creeks. Much of the southern third of the county is drained by Knobbs, Rabbs, and Nails creeks. In the mid-nineteenth century early settlers found buffalo, deer, bears, mountain lions, and various kinds of small game including wild turkeys, but all of these except deer and small game were hunted to extinction by the early 1900s. The heavily timbered river and creek bottoms once harbored a large number of small furbearing mammals that were trapped commercially. Alligators were still found in some creeks until the 1940s.
The region has been the site of human habitation since at least 4500 B.C. and possibly even earlier than that. The earliest known historical inhabitants of the future county, the Tonkawa Indians, were hunter-gatherers who followed the buffalo on foot and sometimes set fire to the prairie to aid them in their hunts. The Tonkawas were generally friendly toward European settlers, but many fell prey to European diseases and to raids by the Comanches and Cherokees. Those who survived were removed by the United States government in 1855 to the Brazos Indian Reservation.
The area was probably first explored by Europeans around 1691, when Domingo Terán de los Ríos sought a direct route between San Antonio de Béxar and the newly founded Spanish missions in East Texas. The route he laid out, a camino real later known as the Old San Antonio Road, passed through the site of present Lincoln in what is now central Lee County. In the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish also established the San Xavier missions along the San Gabriel River in what is now Milam County, and the area was extensively explored during the colonial period. During the era of Mexican rule the Lee County area was part of the Milam District, a region extending from El Paso to the Navasota River. After Texas gained independence, the region was a part of the five adjacent counties, Bastrop, Burleson, Fayette, Milam, and Washington.
The first known white settler was James Gotier, who settled on Rabbs Creek in southern Lee County in 1835. Before being killed by Indians in 1837, he laid out a pioneer trail known as Gotier's Trace, which is believed to have led from his cabin on Rabbs Creek to San Felipe and Bastrop, thus linking the lower and upper Austin colonies. Settlement in the area, however, remained sparse until after the Texas Revolution. Then immigrants from the Southern states began moving in. Though population figures for the area that later became Lee County are unavailable for the antebellum period, statistics for the surrounding counties suggest that the population grew fairly rapidly between 1850 and 1860. Before the Civil War there was also a sizable Black population, as many of the new settlers brought their slaves with them. In later antebellum Texas, in addition to the Anglo and Black populations, there was a large influx of Germans into Bastrop County, some of whom settled in the Lee County area. In 1854 a large group of Wends bought a league of land along Rabbs Creek in southern Lee County and settled in and around Serbin. The agricultural economy of the region was varied and reflected its geographical and ethnic diversity. Wheat and corn were the two major cash crops, and cattle ranching was widespread throughout the county before 1860. Cotton growing was introduced in the 1850s, but the amount of acreage devoted to it remained small.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction the Lee County area was politically divided. As voting records demonstrate, residents of the area were sharply at odds on the secession issue. Although Bastrop and Fayette counties both voted against secession by small margins, Burleson and Washington counties voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. Among those speaking out against secession was Titus H. Mundine of Lexington, a leader of the Constitutional Union party, who as a representative to the Texas legislature voted against secession. When the war broke out the majority of the residents in the region supported the Confederacy, and a number of companies were raised in the area. Company H of the Second Texas Infantry was organized in Burleson County, which included Lexington and the surrounding region. Many other Lee County men served in Company E of the Fifth Texas Infantry, the "Dixie Blues," who were recruited in Washington County.
Although no battles took place in this area during the Civil War, the war and its aftermath depressed the local economy. Not until the early 1870s did the economy begin to recover. In 1871 the new town of Giddings was founded, in what was then Washington County. Discussion began about the need for a new county so that residents would not have to travel so far to the county seat. A meeting of citizens from western Burleson and Washington counties and northeastern Bastrop and Fayette counties, held in January 1873, resulted in a resolution calling for the establishment of a new county to be named in honor of Robert E. Lee. The legislature passed the bill by April 1874. A boundary dispute, however, began over the western segment of Burleson County, which lawmakers had originally intended to include in a new county called Franklin County, to be formed just north of Lee County. When the Franklin County bill was indefinitely postponed, questions arose about what to do with the territory. Senator Seth Shepard introduced a bill to make the disputed area part of Lee County. The measure passed quickly and became law on May 2, 1874.
The new county included portions of Burleson, Washington, Bastrop, and Fayette counties and was bounded on the east by East Yegua Creek and on the southeast by Cedar Creek. The two leading contenders for county seat were Giddings and Lexington. An election was held in 1874 after a heated and bitter campaign. Although Lexington was the older town and was surrounded by better farmland, Giddings won, primarily because it was a railroad town. A two-story courthouse with a mansard roof was completed in 1878. After the first courthouse burned in 1897, a new Romanesque Revival structure, designed by famed San Antonio courthouse architect James Riely Gordon, was built in 1899.
The county prospered between 1874 and 1900. The United States census of 1880, the first to include Lee County, reported a total population of 8,937. In 1890 the population was 11,952; by 1900 it was 14,593. The number of African Americans grew even more rapidly, from 1,956 in 1880 to 3,102 in 1890 and to 4,343 in 1900. Large numbers of Germans and Czechs, as well as smaller numbers of Moravians and Danes, moved into the county during the 1880s and 1890s. The 1890 census reported nearly 1,500 people of foreign birth living in the county. Though many of the new immigrants came directly from Europe, a sizable number moved to the area from the surrounding counties because of the availability of inexpensive land. Mexican immigration began to reach significant levels just after 1900. By 1930 Hispanics in the county numbered 469.
The last decades of the nineteenth century were a period of general economic growth. Farms in the county increased from 1,095 in 1880 to 1,699 in 1890 and 2,266 in 1900. Their total acreage grew from 187,331 in 1880 to more than 300,000 in 1900, and their total value from $947,405 in 1880 to $2,305,450 in 1900. Lee County agriculture was fairly diversified, in contrast to that of many other Texas counties in this period. Although cotton ranked first in total acreage, substantial land was also dedicated to the production of corn, oats, and other grains. In 1890 cotton was grown on 31,561 acres, corn on 18,749, and oats on 945.
After 1900, however, cotton became increasingly important as a cash crop, and by the 1920s more than half of all cropland was used for cotton production. In 1930, during the peak period of the cotton boom, cotton was raised on 57,446 of the roughly 110,000 acres of cropland in the county. By the late 1920s, however, cotton culture began to fall on hard times. Overproduction, soil depletion, the boll weevil, and the effects of the Great Depression combined to depose King Cotton. During the depression years production fell dramatically, and by 1940 corn had replaced cotton as the leading cash crop in the county. After World War II the cropland in Lee County decreased steadily, and in 1969 county farmers harvested only 31,715 acres. In 1989 roughly 16 percent of the county's farmland was under production. Hay, peanuts, oats, corn, wheat, and sorghum were the leading cash crops.
Though cash crops declined, cattle ranching, swine raising, and poultry production became an increasingly important part of the county's agricultural economy. With the coming of the railroads in the 1870s cattle ranching and hog production boomed; by 1890 there were 18,420 cattle and 19,027 hogs in the county. Similarly, poultry production expanded, reaching a high point around 1910, when the number of chickens and turkeys in the county was 248,705. Livestock production declined sharply during the 1930s and 1940s, but by 1950 it was again a major part of the county's economy, and in 1969 county ranchers owned a record 58,774 cattle and 19,775 swine. By the early 1980s, 92 percent of Lee County agricultural receipts were from livestock and livestock products.
The growth of the agricultural economy in the late nineteenth century was aided by improvements in the transportation network. The Houston and Texas Central Railway extended its lines from Brenham through Giddings to Austin in 1871, and Giddings became a major shipping point for county farmers and businesses. In 1890 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, later consolidated with the Southern Pacific, was constructed across the south central half of the county to connect with the Houston and Texas Central at Giddings. Roads were generally poor throughout Lee County until the 1930s, when extensive improvements, including the paving of all major roads, took place.
The first industry in the county was a chair-making business founded by William Jackson in the 1840s in the community of Blue, near Lexington. The business, which was carried on by Jackson's sons and grandsons, continued to operate until 1970. The construction of railroads in the late 1800s encouraged the establishment of a number of other small industries around 1900. An oil mill was built in Giddings in 1900, a creamery in 1908, and an ice factory and electricity-generating company in 1911. In 1912 the Giddings Produce Company was founded and began shipping plucked turkeys. Manufacturing, nonetheless, played only a small part in the county's economy. The number of manufacturing establishments reached a high of sixty-six in 1900, when sixty employees were reported. By 1940, in part due to the effects of the depression, the number of factories had dropped to three and the employees to seven. Several new industries were founded after World War II, including two furniture factories and a boat-building company.
After 1960 the oil and gas industry grew in the area. In 1982, 14,894,878,000 cubic feet of well gas, 816,198 barrels of condensate, 9,984,813 barrels of crude oil, and 31,380,100,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas were produced. But despite the gains in the industrial sector, in 1980 only 13 percent of the county's labor force were employed in manufacturing; 16 percent were self-employed, 18 percent were employed in professional or related services, 19 percent in wholesale or retail trade, and 19 percent in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, or mining; the remaining 15 percent were employed outside the county.
Politically, Lee County remained largely Democratic for 100 years after Reconstruction, although a third party took the 1920 presidential election and the Republicans won in the elections of 1940 and 1956. The county changed to Republican presidential candidates in the 1970s; it supported only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter (in 1976), between 1972 and 2004.
In 1982 the county supported thirty churches with an estimated combined membership of 7,154. The largest denominations were Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist. In the mid-1980s Lee County had three school districts and three elementary, two middle, and three high schools. In 1950 only 4.5 percent of the county's residents over the age of twenty-five had completed four years of high school. By 1980 the number had grown to 43.5 percent. Twenty-eight percent of the 159 high school graduates in 1982 planned to attend college. The composition of the school body reflected the growing ethnic diversity of the county's population. In 1982–83, 71 percent of the students were White, 20 percent Black, 9 percent Hispanic, 0.1 percent Asian, and 0.1 percent American Indian. In 1990 whites comprised 78.2 percent of the population, Blacks 13.8 percent, Hispanics 11 percent, American Indians .1 percent, and Asians .1 percent.
Between 1970 and 1980 Lee County experienced its first growth in population in fifty years. By 1982 the estimated population was 11,693, nearly matching its highest figure of 14,593 in 1900. The greatest increase was in the county's towns, which by 1989 included roughly half of the population. In 1990 the county population was 12,854.
The U.S. Census counted 16,742 people living in Lee County in 2014; about 64.1 percent were Anglo, 23.2 percent Hispanic, and 11.2 percent African American. Of residents twenty-five and older, 72 percent had graduated from high school and 13 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agriculture, lignite coal operations, and various manufacturing businesses were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 1,848 farms and ranches covering 366,367 acres, 49 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 30 percent to crops, and 16 percent to woodlands. About 25,000 acres were irrigated. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $22,947,000; livestock sales accounted for $18,677,000 of the total. Beef cattle, nurseries, hay, poultry, peanuts horses and goats, and corn were the chief agricultural products.
Giddings (population, 5,155) is the county’s largest city and seat of government; Lexington (1,149), Dime Box (381), Lincoln (336), Fedor, Hills, Leo, Loebau, Manheim, Northrup, Serbin, Tanglewood, and The Knobbs are the principal other communities. Tourists hunt and fish, visit the Wendish Museum in Serbin, and help celebrate the Geburstag festival in Giddings. A weekly newspaper, the Times and News, is published weekly in Giddings.