Mason County is located in Central Texas, just south of the geographic center of the state. The county's center lies at approximately 30°45' north latitude and 99°11' west longitude, just over ninety-five miles northwest of Austin. The county covers an area of 935 square miles in the region commonly called the Hill Country; its elevation ranges from 1,300 to 2,200 feet. The western part of the county lies on the edge of the Edwards Plateau and is characterized by generally flat terrain surfaced by shallow, stony clays and loams. The eastern part of the county, in the Llano basin, is characterized by rolling to steep terrain surfaced by deeper sandy and clayey loams. The primary natural resources are derived from the limestone and granite formations underlying these areas and include quarried stone, crushed rock and gravel, sand, and lime. Mineral resources include granitic quartz, feldspar, iron, lead, manganese, and topaz, but none appears in significant amounts. The county flora comprises an assortment of grasses, scrub brush, creosote bush, and cacti, with open stands of various hardwoods, primarily live oak, mesquite, and Ashe juniper. Native pecan trees can be found along the banks of creeks and rivers. The county's abundant wildlife, particularly deer, wild turkey, dove, and quail, has made it a popular hunting and fishing area. The Llano River, which flows west to east through the center of the county, drains the majority of Mason County. Other rivers include the James River, which enters the Llano from the south, and the San Saba River, which crosses the extreme northwestern corner of the county. There are also a number of spring-fed creeks. The western edge of the county overlies the Edwards-Trinity (Plateau) aquifer, and portions of the county overlie the Hickory Sandstone and Ellenburger-San Saba aquifers. Rainfall averages approximately 25 inches a year, temperatures range from an average high of 97° F in July to an average low of 37° in January, and the growing season lasts approximately 217 days.
For centuries the countryside surrounding the Llano River served as summer hunting grounds for a number of roving Indian peoples, primarily the Lipan Apaches. The Comanches moved down from the Panhandle during the eighteenth century and drove the Apaches south. The Spanish made some grants during the late 1700s for land along the Llano River, but no permanent settlements were established in Spanish or Mexican Texas.
In the mid-1840s the overflow of German colonists from Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, under the direction of John O. Meusebach, began to move into what became Mason County, risking the dangers of the wilderness for the opportunity to own larger tracts of land. The establishment of Fort Mason in 1851 and the resulting greater protection against Indian attacks encouraged more rapid settlement of the county by Germans, Irish, and English. Mason County was originally part of the Bexar District. When Gillespie County was marked off in 1848, most of the future Mason County was included within its boundaries. On January 22, 1858, Mason County, named for Fort Mason, was established by an act of the state legislature. George W. Todd organized the county on August 2 of that year. The act required that a county seat be established within two miles of the fort, and on May 20, 1861, voters chose the town of Mason for this purpose. The original boundaries of the county have remained virtually unchanged over the years. Mason County grew slowly at first due to the danger of Indian attacks (despite the presence of Fort Mason), and also because of the onset of the Civil War shortly after the county was organized. Most early settlers were farmers, and agriculture centered around providing basic necessities. In 1860 the chief crops were Indian corn and sweet potatoes. Cattle raising was the most profitable business in Mason County from an early date, and ranchers began to stock the open ranges before the Civil War.
In February 1861 the county voted almost solidly against secession-2 for, 75 against. A large proportion of the population was made up of German immigrants who were for the most part against slavery and did not wish to secede from a country they had only recently come to, or to be drawn into another war. The county had few slaveowners-the 1860 census reports only eighteen slaves out of a population of 630. German sentiments against secession caused a certain amount of tension between German and American settlers. In March 1861 Fort Mason was surrendered to the Confederate authorities, but it remained virtually unmanned throughout the war, and Indian attacks were consequently particularly severe during this period. During the war many county men were away in the army, and the herds ran wild, easy prey for rustlers and Indians. Beef prices dropped so low that many cattle were killed for their hides.
Fort Mason was reoccupied by federal troops in 1866, but by 1868 it was permanently abandoned. The danger of Indian attacks had subsided, although there were sporadic raids as late as 1872. The county was finally able to build a courthouse and jail in Mason in 1869. The population increased dramatically in the ensuing decades, from 678 in 1870 to 2,655 in 1880 and 5,180 in 1890. Soon after the war, the cattle industry in the county began in earnest. Between 1860 and 1870 the number of cattle increased from 6,780 to 17,114. Cattle roamed the open ranges and were herded together during spring round-ups to be taken to market, in the early years to Louisiana and New Mexico and later to Kansas and the eastern markets. Many big drives to the north started in Mason County. By 1871 or 1872 ranchers began to fence the ranges, first with native stone and later with barbed wire. The fencing was prompted by disputes with sheepherders and trouble with rustlers. Fence-cutting wars followed this move, and wire-cutting became a prison offense. The so-called Mason County War occurred between 1875 and 1877. It began as a feud over cattle rustling but grew into a conflict between the German and American elements in the community. In 1877 a fire destroyed the courthouse and all early county records, including those pertaining to the feud.
It is believed that Catholic missionaries traveled through the area before the county was organized. The early German settlers, however, were mostly Methodists, and held services informally in each other's homes. In 1852 Rev. Charles A. Grote, a traveling minister of the German Methodist Episcopal Church, provided some of the first Protestant preaching in the area. In 1856 he helped organize the first Methodist congregation in the county. From 1860 to the turn of the century, big camp meetings were often held by Protestants. Until 1872 the county remained largely Catholic or Methodist. During the 1870s Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, and various other Protestant churches were organized. Early schooling was conducted informally in individual homes. In 1854 Gillespie County started a school precinct to serve the area that later became Mason County. Art, Hilda, Koockville, and Mason organized some of the earliest schools in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Most of the county's schools were established between 1870 and the early 1900s. Stage and mail routes had passed through Mason since the establishment of the fort. The first post offices in the county were established in Mason and Hedwigs Hill in 1858. The number of post offices increased slowly through the early 1900s. The county's first newspaper, the Mason News-Item, later the Mason County News, began in 1877.
Cattle raising continued to be the chief industry in Mason County. The animals were primarily beef cattle: in the 1890 census, only 5,008 out of 48,687 cattle were reported to be for dairy purposes. During the 1870s ranchers made several unsuccessful attempts to improve the cattle stock by introducing Brahman bulls and later Durhams into the county. In 1882 or 1883 W. E. Wheeler is thought to have brought the first Hereford cattle into the county. These were a big success, and ranchers began to build up their registered stock. Mason County eventually became well known for its Herefords. A number of droughts plagued the county between the 1870s and early 1900s, and in 1886 drought, coupled with a severe winter, paralyzed agriculture and industry. The county court provided assistance to needy county residents, and in May 1887 the county petitioned for state aid. Beginning in the 1890s farmers and ranchers made further efforts to improve farming implements and practices. Bounties on wolves, wildcats, and mountain lions helped rid the county of predators. In 1913 the county hired an agricultural agent. Later, this work was associated with Texas A&M College.
Beginning in 1882 the county made provisions for countywide road work. By 1886 there was also talk of a railroad, a rumor that was repeated for several decades. Although periodic attempts were made and several railroads were actually planned on paper, none of the projects came to fruition. There were no industries or manufactures to speak of in Mason County until the 1880s; even then, the 1880 census reported only two. Industry reached a peak in 1900, when twenty-nine establishments were in operation, but most of these were owner-operated businesses, and only thirteen salaried employees were listed for the same year. The county averaged only two to four manufacturing establishments at any given time. In the early 1880s manganese was discovered in Mason County, and the Wakefield Company established the Spiller mines twelve miles northeast of Mason. Some iron ore was discovered in 1886, and the following year there was considerable prospecting for coal, as well as interest in gold, silver, and other minerals. The period from 1887 to 1900 saw considerable activity and interest in mineral development. Though some people had dreams of turning the county into an industrial center, development was hampered by lack of a railroad, and most of the minerals were not present in workable quantities.
In 1890 a movement began to form a new county out of parts of Mason, McCulloch, San Saba, and Llano counties. It was to be called Mineral County, and Pontotoc was to be the county seat. But the next year, Mason County citizens sent a petition to the Texas legislature that effectively blocked the move. The Panic of 1893 caused severe economic problems in the county, especially since tariffs on wool were repealed about the same time. Mason County had been solidly Democratic since Reconstruction, but during this period and for some time afterward, many Democrats joined the People's party.
World War I caused a renewal of the German-American friction left after the Mason County War. The county had been settled largely by German immigrants, and Germans still made up 70 to 80 percent of its foreign-born residents. Many still had contacts in Germany, and some who had immigrated as children had never become citizens and were subjected to governmental investigations. Hostile feelings toward anything German caused a decline in German language and culture in the county. On October 3, 1918, a resolution was drawn up by the Mason County Council of Defense to abandon the use of the German language in the county. The war increased interest in the county's mineral resources, however. Foreign manganese supplies were cut off, and a boom in the domestic industry resulted. A large bat cave sixteen miles southwest of Mason provided quantities of guano, a source of nitrates for ammunition. An interest in oil developed in 1919, and the first oil and gas lease was taken out that year. Although the mineral industry in Mason County never grew to significant proportions, copper, iron, manganese, and other minerals continued to be mined there. Since the 1950s rockhounds have searched the county for a rare form of topaz found there, as well as fluorite, quartz, feldspar, and other stones (see MINERAL RESOURCES AND MINING).
The years between 1900 and 1939 saw much activity in road and bridge construction. In 1919 construction was begun on the portion of the Puget Sound-to-the-Gulf Highway that extended from Mason to the Gillespie county line. By 1923 this highway was considered one of the best roads in the state, and it put Mason County in touch with the world despite its lack of a railroad. In 1930 another effort was made to get a railroad through the county, as plans were made to extend the Gulf and Western line from San Antonio through Fredericksburg and Mason, but because of delays and the poor economic conditions caused by the Great Depression, the line was never built. Although by 1932 Mason County was feeling the effects of the depression, various federal projects funded through the WPA and other agencies greatly aided highway development, and regular bus and truck service through the county improved economic conditions and decreased the need for a railroad. The first telephone in the county was installed in Mason in 1902, and within six years there were rural lines throughout Mason County. The 1920s saw the introduction of radios into the county. Although utilities had been slow to develop, during the 1930s there was increased work on rural electrification. Another severe drought in the early 1950s spurred further development of public utilities, especially public water systems.
As the county became more settled, there was a trend away from large ranches to smaller ones with improved breeds of cattle. In 1880 the census listed 310 farms in the county; in 1900 there were 773, and by 1940 there were 906. Improved farm methods and machinery aided the development of crop raising. In August 1946 a group of ranchers organized a local soil-conservation board to fight problems with overgrazing, undesirable brush, and wind and water erosion. By 1958, 80 percent of the county's landowners were cooperating with the program. Cotton had been a fairly important crop between 1890 and 1930. Production peaked in 1920, with 4,689 bales reported in the census, but by 1940 only 383 bales were listed, and by 1982 Mason County was not even mentioned as a cotton producer. Corn, which peaked in 1900 at 209,700 bushels, also declined in importance, as did sweet potatoes and other vegetables, while grain and forage crops such as sorghums, oats, and barley increased. Between 1910 and 1950, Mason County produced a variety of fruits and nuts, particularly peaches and pecans. With the development of supermarkets and larger agricultural producers in the 1950s, however, these crops became less important to small farmers. The peach harvest was 25,429 bushels in 1910, but only 133 bushels in 1959. Peanut culture became important in the 1950s and later; production grew from 4,974,483 pounds in 1950 to 15,390,938 pounds in 1982.
Stock raising continued to be the main agricultural business in Mason County. The number of cattle peaked in 1900 at 64,003, declined slightly, and remained fairly steady thereafter, averaging from 40,000 to 50,000. Swine raising peaked at 17,888 animals in 1950, but the 1982 census reported only 7,496. Poultry production and dairy products were once significant, but the numbers of chickens, turkeys, and dairy cattle dropped greatly after the 1960s. Wool became a big industry as early as the 1880s, and mohair joined it in the 1920s. The number of sheep and goats in the county increased during World War II and after, with 108,638 sheep reported in 1950 and 111,930 goats reported in 1959. In the 1980s the numbers declined, although sheep and goat ranching remained an important business. The number of manufacturing establishments in Mason County remained low through the 1980s, averaging from two to four after 1940 and peaking in 1977, when eight businesses, mostly in the food industry, were listed in the census. All of these combined employed fewer than nineteen workers. The income generated from manufacturing has played a relatively insignificant part in the county economy.
In 1946 all rural schools in Mason County were consolidated with the Mason schools. This and the increased development of farm roads reduced the rural population and concentrated it in the county seat, causing rural community life to dwindle. With paved roads, ranchers could live in Mason and still drive daily out to their ranches. The 1929 Texas Almanac lists the population of Mason as 2,000, or approximately 36 percent of the county population. In 1958 it was listed as 2,456, or 65 percent of the county population. The education level improved after the schools were consolidated. In 1950, 18 percent of the adult population had finished high school. This number rose to 33 percent by 1960 and to 50 percent by 1980. Population reached its peak in the county in 1910 at 5,683; it declined thereafter, to 4,945 in 1950 and 3,356 in 1970. Mason County has been predominantly white. The largest number of Blacks in the county was recorded in 1940 at 100, or approximately 2 percent of the population; most of the time the percentage has been much lower. In 1980 only eleven African Americans were reported living in the county; in 1990, only six. Hispanics have been the only other significant ethnic group; Mexicans and Mexican Americans have constituted a small but steady percentage of immigrants into the county. By 1940 the number of foreign-born Germans, which had always been the largest immigrant group, was surpassed for the first time by the number of Mexicans. Although their numbers have remained fairly stable, Hispanics have made up an increasingly larger percentage of the total population since the 1930s, as the county population has dropped to an average of 3,500. The 1930 census reported 400 Hispanics, or approximately 8 percent of the population. In 1980 the number was 598, 16 percent of the total population; in 1990 it was 671, or 19.6 percent. Early Mason residents were known for marriage within the county and strong attachment to their land; the population was therefore relatively stable. The median age, forty years in 1980, was much older than the national average, and the county had a low birth and high death rate.
Politically, the county was fairly solidly Democratic from Reconstruction into the 1960s, although voters supported Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the county began to support more Republicans for national office; only one Democratic presidential candidate, James E. Carter (1976), won between 1968 and 1992, although Democrats still carried most of the state races. In 1978 Mason County supported a Republican, William Clements, for governor, and subsequently the county generally voted Republican for major offices, though the majority of voters were registered as Democrats. Voting is usually fairly close between the two parties, however.
Mason County has long been a favorite area for hunting, especially for deer and wild turkey, and fishing. In the 1950s the county led the state in the annual bag of deer, accounting for 10 percent of the state's kill. The many historical sites, such as the Fort Mason Museum and the nearby bat caves, as well as the annual county fair and rodeo and other livestock and agricultural shows, also draw tourists to the county. In 2014 the county population was 4,071. Of those, 75.1 percent were Anglo, 1 percent African American, and 23.1 percent Hispanic. Mason (population, 2,234), the county seat, continued to be the educational, economic, social, and governmental center of the county. The public schools, newspaper, hospital, and airport were located in or near the county seat.