McCulloch County is 250 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico in Central Texas and is bounded by Coleman, Brown, San Saba, Mason, Menard, and Concho counties. The Colorado River separates McCulloch County from Coleman and Brown counties. Brady, the county seat and largest town, is 120 miles northwest of Austin on U.S. highways 87, 190, and 377. The center of the county lies at 31°11' north latitude and 99°21' west longitude, three miles north of Brady. The geographical center of Texas is located in northeastern McCulloch County at 31°21' north latitude and 99°14' west longitude, sixteen miles northeast of Brady. The present county comprises 1,071 square miles of the Edwards Plateau; elevations range from 1,350 to 2,000 feet above sea level. Traversing the county from east to west, the Brady Mountains form a ridge which is broken by Salt, Cow, and Onion gaps. The surface of the land varies from rolling to hilly, sloping northward to the Colorado River and southward to the San Saba River. The county is supplied with underground water that can be tapped at widely varying depths. Soils, varying from deep black loam in the valleys to dark and light sand in the uplands, produce corn, grain sorghums, barley, wheat, peanuts, cotton, berries, peaches, pecans, and other fruit. Sheep, goats, beef and dairy cattle, hogs, and turkeys are also produced commercially. The chief timbers are cedar and post oak in the hills and live oak, mesquite, and pecan along the streams. Wildlife in the county has included buffalo, antelope, prairie dogs, wolves, and coyotes; more common in recent years are deer, beaver, fox, weasel, raccoon, and skunk, as well as a variety of birds, fish, and reptiles. Mineral resources include coal, brick clay, sand, and gravel. The area has a somewhat dry, subtropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 70° to 96° F in July and from 31° to 59° in January. The annual rainfall in the county averages 25 inches, and the growing season averages 226 days.
The Central Texas region, including McCulloch County, has supported human habitation for several thousand years. Archeologists judge some of the artifacts found in the area to be from the Archaic Period (ca. 5000 B.C. to A.D. 500); other pieces are more recent, dating from 1200 to 1500. Indians in the region have included the Tonkawas, the Comanches, and the Lipan Apaches. José Mares, a Spanish explorer, found the Indians friendly when he passed through the area in 1787 and 1788, but settlers in the nineteenth century were less fortunate. James and Rezin P. Bowie and nine others were attacked by more than a hundred Tawakoni Indians near Calf Creek in November 1831. In 1847 John O. Meusebach met with Comanche chiefs near the site of present Camp San Saba and signed the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty with them, but the threat of attacks and raids by the Comanches and other tribes delayed settlement of the area until the 1870s, when most of the Indians were moved to reservations outside Texas.
The Sixth Legislature formed McCulloch County from the Bexar District in 1856 and named it in honor of Benjamin McCulloch. In the late 1850s a few families came to the Lost Creek area and to the sites of present Milburn and Camp San Saba, but the population remained too small for permanent organization of the county. In 1860 McCulloch County was attached to San Saba County for judicial purposes. Some officials were elected for McCulloch County in the 1860s, and evidence suggests that the Voca and Lost Creek communities were the center of county affairs during these years, but it was not until 1876 that all of the county offices were filled and a county seat was chosen. McCulloch County was not organized in time to have a representative at the secession convention of 1861, and its involvement in the Civil War was limited. Indians, not Yankees, presented the more immediate threat to people who had settled there by the 1860s. Confederate volunteers from McCulloch and other frontier counties were stationed at such outposts as Camp San Saba to protect settlers from Indians after federal troops withdrew from the area in 1861. The greatest impact that the Civil War and Reconstruction had on the development of McCulloch County was in providing incentive to families from other southern states to come west and start again.
Extensive settlement of McCulloch County began in the 1870s; most of the growth was from a dispersement of people already living in Texas and the southern United States rather than from an increase in immigration from other countries. The first census of the county, taken in 1870, listed the population as 173; by 1880 that number had grown to 1,533. Nearly 98 percent of the population had been born in the United States; nearly 62 percent were native Texans. Almost all residents were White; the census reported two Black residents in 1870 and twenty-two in 1880. Although the number of Black residents rose fairly steadily during the early twentieth century, from thirty-one in 1900 to 465 in 1930, it fell from 472 in 1940, to 319 in 1960, and to 219 by the early 1980s. Blacks represented between 3 and 3½ percent of the total population from the 1920s through the 1970s, but less than 2½ percent in the 1980s.
Small community schools such as Lost Creek, Brown, Camp San Saba, and Round Mountain provided the basic educational structure of the county until the district system was established in 1884. Extensive schooling for children was a luxury that came second to helping on the family farm. In 1895 the county superintendent of schools reported a need for longer school terms, greater interest on the part of trustees and patrons, and better libraries. Improvements in the system came slowly: in 1940 only 12 percent of the population over age twenty-five had completed high school; as late as 1980 that figure was still under 50 percent. In the early days few communities had their own preacher; itinerant ministers went from place to place, sometimes staying two or three months in a town and teaching school to help earn their keep. Methodist circuit riders were in the Lost Creek area as early as the 1860s. As the population of the county increased, so did the number and kinds of religious services available to residents. When communities grew big enough to have more than one denomination, the groups often borrowed meeting facilities until they could build their own. By the 1890s Brady had Methodist, Christian, Presbyterian, and Catholic congregations. Most communities in outlying areas had a small church of some sort that doubled as a schoolhouse and served as the center of social life for those people who could not go all the way to Brady. When cars came into general use, some of these churches closed as their members began attending services in Brady. In the 1980s McCulloch County had thirty-two churches with an estimated combined membership of 5,149; Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Church of Christ were the largest denominations.
The county's early economy was based almost entirely on agriculture. No manufacturing establishments were built before the 1880s. Settlers grew some corn, wheat, oats, and cotton, but stock raising was the primary occupation. The census of 1880 reported 12,437 sheep, 12,264 cattle, and 1,144 hogs on the county's eighty-seven farms. Early communities such as Dugout, Waldrip, Calf Creek, and Voca grew up as social and business centers for widely scattered ranching operations. By 1890 the population of McCulloch County had more than doubled, rising to 3,217. As the county became more crowded, the fencing of open range caused minor difficulties. Local histories record several fence-cutting incidents, but in general the transition to enclosed pastures and farms was made with relatively little violence. The situation was further relieved when the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway came to McCulloch County in 1903, eliminating the need for extended cattle drives and giving area farmers and ranchers easier access to markets. The poultry industry grew rapidly from 1890 through the 1930s. Brady's annual turkey trot drew national attention in the 1920s and was featured on newsreels in theaters around the country. McCulloch County billed itself as "The Turkey Center of the Universe." The wool and mohair industry began to thrive in the 1920s and 1930s as well, and cattle production remained high. Cotton became a major crop in McCulloch County around 1900. In 1890 the 1,931 acres that had been planted in cotton yielded 763 bales and represented less than 2 percent of the county's improved acreage; in 1910 farmers planted 65,229 acres, or 54 percent of the improved land, in cotton, growing enough for 13,593 bales. Production peaked at 23,968 bales in 1920, although the amount of land given to cotton continued to increase until the 1930s. Lower yields combined with the onset of the Great Depression convinced farmers to devote more of their resources to livestock and to diversify their crops. Although cotton continued in importance, crops such as hay, wheat, peanuts, and sorghum began to take larger shares of the available farmland.
Between 1900 and 1910 the population of McCulloch County rose from 3,960 to 13,405, resulting in rapid growth for towns and a substantial increase in the number of farms. The population of Brady jumped from 690 to 2,669; Mercury, Placid, Rochelle, and Melvin were established along the railroad. The total amount of land in farms decreased by a little more than 100,000 acres, but the number of individual farms nearly tripled, rising from 531 in 1900 to 1,545 in 1910. Farm tenancy and sharecropping, which had accounted for the operation of less than a quarter of the county's farms in the 1880s and 1890s, increased steadily until the 1930s, peaking at just under 60 percent. The depression forced some people, many of them tenants, to give up their farms and move away, beginning a forty-year decline in the county's population. Although some small farmers managed to keep their land, the trend was toward larger farming and ranching operations; the average size of a farm rose from just over 400 acres in 1930 to nearly 750 acres in 1950 and to more than 1,300 acres in the early 1980s. In 1982 fewer than 14 percent of the county's 520 farms were operated by tenants or sharecroppers. In the late 1930s Brady's newly elected mayor, Harry L. Curtis, introduced a project to employ men on relief to expand the municipal airport and equip it with lights for night flying. With the increased probability of American involvement in the war in Europe, the War Department became interested in Brady as the site for a training school for young pilots. Brady was declared a National Defense Area, and a new airport facility, Curtis Field, was built on the Brownwood Highway in 1941. McCulloch County had one other military facility during World War II. Construction of a prisoner-of-war internment camp was begun two miles east of Brady in June 1943; the first prisoners began arriving in October of that year. The camp, which covered 360 acres and included about 200 buildings, had a capacity of 3,000. The prison population was made up "troublemakers" transferred from other camps in the United States; among them were members of Rommel's Afrika Corps, as well as members of the S.S. and the Gestapo (see GERMAN PRISONERS OF WAR). The camp was deactivated in May 1945. In 1946 the state of Texas made arrangements to lease the facility for use as a training school for delinquent Black girls (see CROCKETT STATE SCHOOL).
No history of McCulloch County would be complete without some mention of the floods that have threatened the area. Records kept for the Colorado River near Winchell on the McCulloch-Brown county line show that the river exceeded its twenty-six-foot bank fifty-six times between 1923 and 1988. The record flood occurred on September 19, 1932, when the river crested at 62.2 feet. Brady Creek in central McCulloch County exceeded its flood stage of eleven feet thirty-seven times between 1930 and 1988, with the record flood occurring on July 23, 1938, when the stream crested at 29.1 feet. Since the construction of Brady Lake in 1963, heavy rainfall has produced only minor street flooding along Brady Creek. The San Saba River exceeded its twenty-four-foot bank at least fifty-nine times between 1918 and 1988. The record flood occurred on July 23, 1938, when the river crested at 39.8 feet. A flood-control system consisting of forty-eight retaining structures was installed between 1954 and 1960; flooding on the San Saba was also partially controlled by the construction of Brady Lake in 1963.
Democratic presidential candidates won the county by substantial margins in the elections held between 1872 and 1924. Republican candidates carried the county only five times from 1928 to 1992: Herbert Hoover in 1928, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. In the early 1980s 95 percent of the land in the county was devoted to farms and ranches. Wheat, sorghum, hay, and oats were the primary crops and were grown on 18 percent of the farmland. Nearly 70 percent of agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being cattle, sheep, wool, goats, and mohair. Farm receipts represented 30 percent of the county's annual income in the early 1980s. In 1982, 68 percent of the county's 8,763 residents lived in Brady. Professional and related services, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, agriculture, and mining involved 70 percent of the work force in the 1980s; an additional 26 percent were self-employed, and 4 percent were employed outside the county. Industries with the highest employment included industrial sand production and textile mills. In 2014 the county had 8,199 inhabitants. Of those, 6\.2 percent were Anglo, 2.6 percent African American, and 31.3 percent Hispanic.