Limestone County is in Central Texas about thirty miles due east of Waco. Mexia, its largest community, is approximately eighty miles south of Dallas. Groesbeck, the county seat, is near the county's center, at approximately 31°31' north latitude and 96°35' west longitude. The county comprises 931 square miles principally in the Blackland Prairies region. In the southeastern section loamy soils overlie mottled gray and red or yellow, cracking, clayey subsoils; in the central section the soils are slightly acidic and loamy at the surface, with cracking clayey subsoils; and surfaces in the northwestern section are dark, calcareous, mostly cracking, clayey soils. The nearly level to undulating terrain and light-colored, medium to slightly acid soils of the Claypan area and Cross Timbers are also found in the county. The vegetation includes mesquite, blackjack oak, pecan, bois d'arc, and elm trees as well as Indian grass and Texas winter grass in the northern area; the Post Oak Savannah vegetation of the southern area has tall grasses, Post oak, and blackjack oak. The natural resources of the county are clays, including kaolin and ceramic clays, limestone, industrial sand, glauconite, lignite coal, oil, and gas. The level to rolling prairie ranges from 375 to 665 feet above sea level. The land, on the divide between the Brazos and Trinity rivers, is drained by the Navasota River and its tributaries, which split the county in two. Bodies of water include Lake Mexia, Springfield Lake, and Lake Limestone. The average annual precipitation is almost thirty-eight inches, and the temperatures range from an average low of 37° F in January to an average high of 96° in July. The average growing season lasts 255 days.
The area that became Limestone County was home to the Tawakoni, or Tehuacana, and Waco Indians. These were primarily agrarian people friendly to the whites who settled there. Tehuacana, in northeastern Limestone County, is on an old Indian village site. The Tawakonis were expert hunters and noted traders as well. Their enemies were the Apaches and Comanches, who often raided the Tawakoni settlements. Limestone County was part of the Haden Edwards and Robert Leftwich empresario grants made by the Coahuila and Texas legislature in 1825. This legislation began settlement of the area and the struggle between the government of Mexico and the American settlers for dominance. The government tried to restrict colonization through legislation, but settlers continued to come to Texas. Numerous individuals, both Mexican and Anglo, claimed land grants in the area before 1836. Among these were Silas M. Parker, Moses Herrin, Elisha Anglin, Luther T. M. Plummer, David Faulkenberry, Joshua Hadley, and Samuel Frost, who came together as a group from Illinois in 1833 to establish a permanent settlement for their families. Fort Parker, near the Navasota River in what is now central Limestone County, was the earliest actual settlement in the vicinity. While most of the men were out in the fields early on May 19, 1836, a large band of Comanches and their Kiowa allies approached the fort. After a short conversation under a flag of truce, the Indians attacked and killed most of the inhabitants. Several prisoners were taken, including Mrs. Rachel Plummer, who later wrote an account of her captivity, and nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, who spent the next twenty-four years with the Comanches and married Peta Nocona. Their son, Quanah Parker, was a chief of the tribe. The other eighteen survivors wandered for six days, hiding in the riverbottoms, until they reached Fort Houston, from where a rescue party was sent back to survey the scene. After this raid further settlement was delayed until a treaty with the Indians was signed in 1844 at the instigation of Sam Houston.
In the mid-1840s new settlements were established at Springfield and Tehuacana Hills. On April 11, 1846, Limestone County was formed from Robertson County, and a week later Springfield was established as the county seat. This town had a population of 120 when it was incorporated in 1848. In 1873, however, when the courthouse burned and the Houston and Texas Central Railway bypassed the town, an election was ordered and Groesbeck became the county seat. The organization of the county was completed on August 18, 1846, with the election of county officials. Limestone County originally included all the land between the Brazos and Trinity rivers on the east and west, and the land north of Robertson County to Navarro County. In 1848 part of northern and western Limestone County was taken to form McLennan and Falls counties, and in 1850 part of the eastern section was taken to form part of Freestone County. The boundaries were changed to their present form on November 2, 1866.
Early settlers of the area, including Logan Stroud, the Anglins (Abram, Elisha, John, Moses, and William), John Baker, Seth Bates, William Burns, George W. Cox, Samuel Nelson, Forest Phifer, John D. Smith, and Alfonso Steele, were self-sufficient farmers. They cultivated corn and wheat and raised cattle and hogs. Wild game was plentiful as well. The area began to develop slowly. Travelers and prospective settlers used the Springfield Road, the main route from Houston to North Texas. New roads were surveyed and built, and soon a stage line was established. By 1850 the population was 2,608–1,990 Whites and 618 Black enslaved people. In that same year the county had 279 farms, valued at $102,640; wheat, corn, hay and forage, sweet potatoes, cattle, swine, and sheep were the principal products. In 1860 the only businesses were wagon and cart making, saddlery, harness making, and blacksmithing, with eleven people employed. Farms numbered 447, with a value of $663,457. The population was 4,537. Of these, 3,464 were White, 1,072 were slaves, and one was a free Black female.
Limestone County was traditionally dominated by the Democratic party. In 1860, Southern Democrats received 482 votes, and the Constitutional Union party received 40. The secession returns for the county in 1861 were even more decisive. Ninety-eight percent, that is, 525 of the 534 voters, approved. Many of these men joined the Confederate Army. Lochlin Johnson Farrar raised the first Confederate company from the county in 1861. Other companies were raised by captains D. M. Prendergast, B. R. Tyrus, and W. P. Brown.
After the Civil War the majority of Whites in Limestone County strongly opposed congressional Reconstruction. Many race-related murders took place in the county during the 1870s. In 1871 a man reportedly made public denouncements of the State Police and the local Republican officials. When officers attempted to arrest him, a riot broke out between the mob protecting him and the police. This incident and others were tentatively resolved, but bad feeling remained. The situation became so strained that the governor declared the county under martial law. Though the election went on as scheduled in the county, the state board rejected the returns because of reported violence. In spite of these incidents, however, the Republican party had gained a small foothold. Ralph Long, a twenty-five-year-old Black man from Tennessee, became the boss of that party in Limestone County.
Meanwhile, the Houston and Texas Central came to Limestone County in late 1869, terminating where Kosse is now located. This line ran thirty-five miles north to south through the county. Another large railroad, the Trinity and Brazos Valley, laid track in 1903 from Cleburne to Mexia. Several towns were established on these routes, and the population of the county increased from the 1860 total to 8,581 in 1870 and 16,246 in 1880. Thornton, located about nine miles southwest of Groesbeck, grew up by the railroad. Edward Coke Chambers founded the Thornton Institute in the 1870s, and graduates from his school easily obtained teaching positions in the rural communities of Texas. The institute faded out after Chambers left in 1889. Another early school, Central Institute, was a military boarding school in Honest Ridge, a small town about five miles west of Mexia. The first commandant was Maj. Thomas Dickson; later the institute was headed by J. M. Park. This facility closed in 1881. Most education of the period was conducted in such institutes or private schools. Free public education in Limestone County began with the enactment of the law of 1876 that provided for the community school system. In November 1888 the first public school district in the county, Shady Grove Community School, was founded. By 1894 such school districts were proliferating. Before the Civil War the Cumberland Presbyterian Church had organized and maintained three colleges in Texas: Chappell Hill College at Daingerfield, Larissa College at Larissa Springs, and Ewing College at La Grange. After the war these were combined and named Trinity University, which was established at Tehuacana. The state legislature granted the charter on August 13, 1870. Much later, the college was moved to Waxahachie and the property in Tehuacana was offered for sale. Westminster College, from Westminster in Collin County, reopened at Tehuacana in the fall of 1902 and became a junior college in 1916.
In 1890 the population of Limestone County was 21,678–17,217 Whites and 4,459 African Americans. Manufacturing and business establishments in the county numbered fifty-two. Cattle numbered 46,404, swine 26,027. The county had 2,876 farms. Cotton production totaled 27,274 bales. Production of another prominent crop, sweet potatoes, was 93,916 bushels. In 1900 the population was 32,573; manufacturing and business establishments reached an all-time high of ninety-seven, and the county continued to grow agriculturally as well. Although there were fewer cattle, the number of swine produced reached a high of 34,068. The number of farms rose to 4,665, and sorghum was becoming another important crop, with 2,477 tons produced that year. By 1904 the county had a cottonseed oil mill, gins, a rock-crushing plant at Roberta, and several sawmills. Pottery was made at Oletha. In addition the county maintained five independent school districts, Mexia, Tehuacana, Groesbeck, Thornton, and Kosse.
Gas was discovered in 1913. Drilling tests were performed near Mexia after the discovery at Spindletop, additional test wells were drilled, and in November 1920 oil was discovered. Thousands of people moved into the area. The population reached its peak in 1930, when the county had 39,497 residents, 27,442 Whites and 10,933 Blacks. By 1930 the number of farms was 6,081, and cotton production reached its height with 64,956 bales. The number of businesses had fallen to eighteen, however. The oilfields brought wealth to the area. At this time one of the two Black high schools in the county, Woodland, was near an oil center and consequently was able to offer vocational and industrial training to male and female students. The board of trustees was Black also. The other Black high school, at Mexia, was a four-year institution, classified and accredited with the Texas Department of Education. In 1950 high school graduates among residents of the county aged twenty-five and over was approximately 17 percent. This figure had risen to 42 percent by 1980.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s the county went into a decline. Because many tenant farmers left the land and moved to the cities in search of jobs, the population and agricultural production declined. Between 1930 and 1940 the population dropped from 39,497 to 33,781, the number of farms dropped from 6,081 to 3,427, and the number of businesses dropped from eighteen to nine. Yet, the number of cattle and swine rose, and more wheat, hay, and forage were produced. The Work Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps helped ease unemployment. The WPA constructed several buildings in the county, and the CCC built Fort Parker State Recreation Area and Springfield Lake dam. Nevertheless, the general decline continued. The population dropped to 18,100 by 1970; the year before, farms had numbered 1,434 and cotton production had totaled 2,608 bales. The number of milk cows declined from 7,627 in 1930 to 549 in 1969, and the number of fowl dropped from 159,961 in 1930 to 6,942 in 1969. Businesses fluctuated, then rose during the same period. In 1947 there were twelve businesses, and in 1967 there were seventeen. By 1980 the decline had stopped. In 1970 most residents were employed in the retail trade, manufacturing, and services. By 1980 jobs had been added in construction, transportation, and public utilities. The retail trade was by far the largest employer in 1988, with more than 1,000 employees, as compared to 550 employed in professional or related services. By 1969 the number of cattle raised in the county had risen to more than 74,000, but the number of swine had dropped to 3,150. The main crops on the 1,434 farms were wheat, hay and forage, corn, cotton, and peaches.
Throughout the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, the Democratic party dominated the vote in Limestone County. Except for the presidential elections of 1972 and 1984, the senatorial elections of 1984 and 1990, and the gubernatorial election of 1986, the returns were strictly Democratic through 1992. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians established churches early in the county's history, but the major denominations at the end of the twentieth century were Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ. Limestone County has no metropolitan area; Mexia, with 7,313 residents in 2014, is the largest town. It is an agribusiness and trade center with a hospital, the only radio station in the county, a newspaper called the Mexia Daily News, the Limestone County Airport, and the Gibbs Memorial Library. Near Mexia is the Joseph E. Johnston Reunion Grounds, United Confederate Veterans. Groesbeck, the second largest town and the county seat, had 4,223 residents in 2014. With varied manufacturing, agribusiness, power generation, and mining, the town is still a focus of the county. It has a hospital, nursing homes, the Maffett Memorial Library, The Groesbeck Journal, Fort Parker State Recreation Area, and the Limestone County Historical Museum. Groesbeck also hosts several special county events, including the Red Stocking Follies and the Arts and Crafts Fest in March, the Youth Stock Show in April, the Fiddle Festival in May, and the County Fair. At Tehuacana are Texas Hall at the old Trinity University campus and Booker T. Washington Emancipation Proclamation Park. Recreation and tourism are important in the economic life of the county. However, the area is still predominantly ranch and farm country. Overgrazing and water erosion are environmental problems. The population of Limestone County was 23,524 in 2014. Of those, 60.5 percent were Anglo, 18 percent African American, and 20.4 percent Hispanic. The other main communities besides Groesbeck and Mexia were Coolidge (931), Thornton, (517), Kosse (460), and Tehuacana (272).