McLennan County is in east central Texas, 230 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, bordered by Hill, Limestone, Falls, Bell, Coryell, and Bosque counties. Waco, the county seat, is on the Brazos River at the intersection of Interstate Highway 35 and U.S Highway 84, ninety miles south of Dallas and 100 miles north of Austin. The county's center lies three miles west of Waco at 31°33' north latitude and 97°12' west longitude. Situated partially in the Grand Prairie and partially in the Blackland Prairie, McLennan County comprises 1,031 square miles of flat to rolling terrain at elevations ranging from 400 to 850 feet above sea level. The land in the western section of the county has varied terrain surfaced by shallow, stony soils that support mountain cedar and oak. The eastern section is generally low rolling to flat, with black, waxy soils made up of clay and sand loams that support mesquite, scrub brush, and grasses. The county is bisected from southwest to northeast by the Balcones Fault, and the rolling prairie along the fault line is broken by locally steep slopes. The county lies entirely within the Brazos River basin and is drained primarily by the South and Middle Bosque rivers in the west and by the Tehuacana and Aquilla creeks in the east; the Brazos River crosses the county from northwest to southeast. Wildlife in the area includes deer, coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, beaver, opossums, fox, raccoon, mink, skunks, and squirrels, as well as assorted birds, fish, and reptiles; prior to extensive settlement, the county's wildlife also included antelope, buffalo, bear, and wild hogs. Among the county's mineral resources are limestone, sand, gravel, oil, and gas. The climate is subtropical with an average minimum temperature of 37° F in January and an average high temperature of 97° F in July. The growing season averages 253 days annually, and the rainfall averages thirty-three inches.
The central Texas region, including McLennan County, has supported human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological evidence suggests that hunting and gathering peoples established themselves in the area as early as 11,000 years ago. Some of these may have been ancestors of the Tonkawa Indians, who appear to have been native to the region. The Wichita groups moved south from Oklahoma about 1700, and by the early 1800s some Caddo and Delaware Indians were in the area as well. Athanase de Mézières visited the Tawakoni village of Quiscat on the Brazos River in 1779, and Pedro Vial traveled through the area on an expedition in 1786. In 1824 the Indian village at Waco had 500 to 600 residents, but it was abandoned by the mid-1830s. McLennan County was part of the colonization grant obtained by Robert Leftwich from the Mexican government in 1825 and was later part of Robertson's colony. One of the first land grants made in the area of McLennan County was to Thomas Jefferson Chambers on April 26, 1832. Although several surveying expeditions ventured into the county district through the 1830s, permanent settlement was delayed until the 1840s by the threat of Indian raids. A temporary ranger station called Fort Fisher was built near the former Waco Indian village in February 1837, but it was abandoned in June of that year. The Republic of Texas tried to establish local government in the region in 1842 by establishing a judicial district known as Waco County, but later that year the Texas Supreme Court declared such counties unconstitutional. In 1844 and 1845 representatives of the republic held talks with several Indian groups at a site near the Torrey Trading Houses (see TEHUACANA CREEK COUNCILS). Following the annexation of Texas by the United States, settlement of the area proceeded rapidly. Plans for a permanent townsite at the former Waco Indian village were made in 1848, when Jacob Raphael de Cordova and several others became involved in a project to sell land in the area at a dollar an acre. The townsite was laid out in 1849, and George B. Erath, one of the surveyors for the project, suggested Waco Village as the name of the settlement, in honor of the previous inhabitants. The sale of town lots was very successful, and a small business district began to develop.
McLennan County was established by the Texas legislature on January 22, 1850, and named for Neil McLennan, one of the early settlers. The county government was organized in August 1850 with Waco as its county seat. The county originally included its present area, as well as the land to the northwest as far as the northern boundary of the Robertson colony; it was reduced to its present size in 1854, when Bosque County was established. Although McLennan County was organized too late to be included in the 1850 census, its population at that time has been estimated at several hundred. Rapid growth was possible because, within two years of the establishment of Waco Village, the frontier was pushed well to the northwest of the area. The Indians who had lived there were moved to a Texas reservation in 1854 and then to Oklahoma in 1859. Aside from Waco, the earliest communities in the county were at Bosqueville and Bold Springs (later called West). Most of the settlers who came to the county before the Civil War were Americans of English, Scottish, and Irish descent who moved from other parts of Texas or from the southern United States. Many of them were well-educated, well-to-do people with money to invest in the establishment of new towns, schools, and churches. The county was divided into school districts in 1854. Early public schools were located near the center of their district and generally carried the same name as the nearby settlement. Districts usually charged tuition to raise money to pay their teachers. Population growth made redistricting necessary in 1867 and again in 1884. Large-scale consolidation of common school districts into independent school districts took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Several private schools, such as the Bosqueville Male and Female College and the Trinity River High School (later Waco University) added to the educational opportunities in the county. Paul Quinn College moved to Waco from Austin in 1881. Waco was also chosen as the site of Baylor University when Waco University and Baylor University at Independence were consolidated in 1886. McLennan Community College was established at Waco in 1965. As in many Texas counties, extensive schooling was for many children a luxury that took second-place to helping on the family farm. As late as 1940 only 14 percent of the population over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. As the job market expanded during the next forty years, so did the percentage of residents who finished school. By 1960 more than 21 percent were high school graduates, and by 1980 the number represented nearly 60 percent of the population over twenty-five.
The Baptist and Methodist churches were among the earliest to be organized in the county. A Methodist church was built in Waco in 1850, and a Baptist church followed in 1851. Episcopal services were held in Waco as early as 1854, but the church was not formally organized until 1868. A Presbyterian church was organized in 1855. Few Catholics lived in McLennan County until after the Civil War, when German and Czech immigrants moved to the area; a Catholic church was built in Waco in 1870. Jewish ceremonies in Waco were celebrated in rented rooms or private homes prior to the establishment of a synagogue in 1871. In the early 1980s the county's 229 churches had an estimated combined membership of 133,771; Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist were the largest denominations. The 1860 census showed the county's free population to be 3,811; 270 of this number were slaveholders, who owned a total of 2,395 slaves. The land near the Brazos River lent itself well to the establishment of large cotton plantations, while the surrounding prairie land was used primarily for livestock. The 1860 production of the county's 379 farms included 2,300 bales of cotton, 187,800 bushels of corn, 39,200 bushels of wheat, 46,600 cattle, and 22,000 sheep.
Richard Coke represented McLennan County at the Secession Convention in January 1861, and voted for secession; McLennan County voters accepted the ordinance later that year by a margin of 586 to 191. Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming support of the county for secession, the mayor of Waco from 1862 to 1866 was a Unionist. Approximately 1,500 men from McLennan County served in the Confederate Army, including six generals: Jerome Bonaparte Robertson, Felix Huston Robertson, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, William H. Parsons, Allison Nelson, and Hiram Bronson Granbury. A company raised by Peter F. Ross served in the Sixth Texas Regiment, and the Lone Star Guards became Company E of the Fourth Texas Infantry of Hood's Texas Brigade. The city of Waco was occupied by federal troops for a short time in 1868, and as in many instances in the South, clashes between federal soldiers and local residents led to considerable ill-feeling. During the Reconstruction period, the district judge and the county commissioners arrested each other, the judge citing the commissioners for contempt, and the commissioners charging the judge with lunacy; all charges were dropped. Election returns for 1869 showed McLennan County voters choosing Edmund J. Davis for governor over Andrew J. Hamilton by a vote of 797 to 606, but in the Congressional election held two years later, the Democratic candidate, Dewitt C. Giddings, carried the county by a vote of 1,520 to 1,162. Waco lawyer Richard Coke was elected governor in 1873. The voters of McLennan County favored the Democratic candidate in virtually every presidential election from 1872 through 1968; the only exception occurred in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith. After 1972, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county over Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the area began to trend Republican. Though Democrat Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976, the area went Republican in every other presidential election from 1972 through 2004 .
Like most areas in the South, McLennan County suffered a severe economic decline immediately following the Civil War and throughout the Reconstruction period. Between 1863 and 1866 the county experienced a 73 percent loss in property tax receipts. A little more than 38 percent of the total property loss was in slaves; the rest came from declines in total farm acreage, farm value, and livestock value, each of which fell 45 to 70 percent by the time of the 1870 census. Recovery was slow because transportation was poor and the economy was so dependent on agriculture. After the war many former slaves remained in the area, some choosing to continue working for former owners, some finding employment in Waco, and still others establishing communities such as Downsville and Harrison. By 1870 the Black population in the county had increased to 4,627, slightly more than a third of the total number of residents. Over the course of the next several decades the number of Blacks in the county increased steadily, although the number of White immigrants was such that Blacks as a percentage of the total population fell from 29 percent in 1880 to 16 percent in 1960. The percentage remained constant through the 1980s. The McLennan County economy began to show signs of recovery by the late 1870s, mainly as a result of northern capital, improved transportation, and the influx of European immigrants. The completion of the Waco Suspension Bridge in 1870 provided a reliable means of crossing the Brazos River and made Waco a major center for trade. The Waco and Northwestern Railroad passed through Waco in 1872, laying track from Bremond to Ross and thereby giving McLennan County access to markets through the Houston and Texas Central.
The overall population of the county rose from 13,500 in 1870 to 26,037 by 1880, and the census reported 3,256 farms in 1880, up from 937 ten years earlier. Many of the county's large plantations were divided into small farms and leased to tenants in the years immediately following the Civil War; other farms were broken up and sold for taxes. Immigrants from other states, as well as European countries, were able to take advantage of the availability of land and start new farms of their own. Farm acreage in the county in 1880 totaled 405,115 acres, an increase of 300 percent over pre-war numbers. Production in 1880 included 197,520 bushels of wheat, 515,648 bushels of corn, and 12,777 bales of cotton; among the county's livestock were 30,000 cattle, 12,500 hogs, and 25,000 sheep. More railroads reached McLennan County in the 1880s, making Waco a principal junction. The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe completed its track between Temple and Fort Worth in 1881; the Texas and St. Louis connected Waco with Corsicana in 1881 and with Gatesville in 1882; also in 1882 the Missouri, Kansas and Texas laid track between Hillsboro and Taylor, and the Texas Central connected Ross and Albany; and finally, in 1889 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass laid track from Waco to Lott. The International and Great Northern Railroad laid track between Marlin and Waco in 1902 and between Waco and Fort Worth in 1903. An electric interurban line, which was completed between Waco and Dallas in 1913, provided convenient and inexpensive passenger service until improved highways in the 1940s put it out of business. With the railroads came new towns such as McGregor, Moody, Crawford, Lott, Bellmead, Hewitt, Riesel, Battle, Leroy, and Axtell; other towns, like West, Eddy, Mart, Hallsburg, and Elm Mott, were already in existence when the railroads built through and profited from the increased economic opportunity; still other communities, like Perry, Mastersville, and Elk were bypassed by the railroads and faded as their populations were drawn to more convenient locations. In 1890 the population of the county was 39,204; by the turn of the century it had risen to 59,772.
Cotton was the dominant feature of McLennan County agriculture from the 1880s to the 1950s. As the cotton market recovered after Reconstruction, farmers new to the McLennan County area began cultivating the black, waxy soil in the eastern sections and found that cotton grew well there. By 1890 the county had several hundred thousand dollars invested in cotton mills, cotton compresses, and cottonseed oil works; nearly every town on the railroad had at least one cotton gin to accommodate area farmers. In 1890 farmers planted cotton on more than 73,000 acres, nearly a quarter of the county's improved land, and produced 30,000 bales; in 1910 the 240,000 acres planted in cotton represented half of the county's improved acreage, and the crop yielded 69,000 bales. The Cotton Palace held an exhibition and carnival in 1894 intended to be an annual event. It burned in early 1895, but was reestablished in 1910; it continued until 1930, with a twenty-one year attendance of more than eight million. In the first quarter of the twentieth century many rural Blacks moved to Waco, attracted by the prospect of better schools and better paying jobs. Most settled in Black neighborhoods in east Waco. An educated Black middle class began to emerge during these years and was possibly perceived as a threat to the established White society. Several lynchings occurred in the county between 1905 and 1919, and the increased intolerance of Blacks, as well as Catholics and Jews, permitted the emergence of a strong Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s. Klan activities in McLennan County peaked in 1923 with a parade of 2,000 klansmen in Waco, but the organization soon began to lose popularity because of its violence. During the 1910s and 1920s, when large numbers of Mexican nationals immigrated to the United States, hundreds made their way to McLennan County in search of work. According to the census of 1900 only 100 McLennan County residents were natives of Mexico, but by 1930 Mexican Americans in the county numbered more than 4,100, or 4 percent of the total population. Some became tenant farmers or sharecroppers, while others became part of a migratory labor force that helped to sustain the county's cotton-dependent economy. Mexican Americans made up 4 percent of the county's population through the 1950s, but the percentage began to rise in the 1960s and 1970s, as more people immigrated to join family and friends already in the area. By 1987 the number of Mexican Americans in McLennan County had risen to 18,872, 10 percent of the county's population.
World War I brought Army Camp MacArthur and Rich Field to Waco in 1917, and the resulting growth in business and population shifted the urban/rural balance of the county. For the first time the number of people living in cities and towns was greater than the number of people living in the country. Waco's population doubled in the late 1910s, and support services grew rapidly to meet the demand of the larger population. Because many soldiers chose to live in Waco after the war, expansion continued in the peacetime economy. Although agriculture continued to dominate the county, industry was gaining a foothold. In addition to small manufacturers who were already prospering in the towns, several large businesses moved into the area to take advantage of the ready access to markets offered by Waco. The Barton Dyanshine factory, at one time the world's largest shoe polish manufacturer, was established in Waco in 1919 and remained until 1927, when it was moved to St. Louis. The Borden company, which bottled and distributed milk, and the Atlas Portland Cement Company, later a subsidiary of United States Steel, opened in Waco in 1929. The Great Depression of the 1930s, complicated by severe drought conditions in much of the area, slowed the county's growth considerably. Cotton prices fell from 18 cents a pound to 5 cents between 1928 and 1931. Some city residents moved to the country to find food; some rural residents moved to the city to find work. Waco's population increased by only 2½ percent between 1930 and 1940; the county as a whole grew by only 3 percent. The Work Projects Administration funded several construction projects, such as Tonkawa Park at Crawford and University High School in Waco. Highway and bridge building projects also provided work, although much of it was unskilled.
The United States entry into World War II brought an end to the depression and spurred McLennan County's industrial growth. During the course of the war the army established the Bluebonnet ordnance plant at McGregor and the Waco Army Airfield (later renamed James Connally Air Force Base) at Waco. The Army Air Corps also leased the municipal airport that Waco had started building near China Spring and turned the facility into the Blackland Army Air Field. New companies were established in the Waco area to help the war effort, and they, along with many existing industries and manufacturers, profited from government contracts. Between the beginning of the war and December 1944 the federal government spent $42 million on the construction and maintenance of facilities in McLennan County and $119 million for supply contracts with local businesses. The industrialization that took place in the 1940s and 1950s diversified the county's economic interests and prompted a change in the agricultural system. Many rural residents, most of them tenant farmers, gave up their farms and moved to the city in search of industry jobs. Much of the agricultural emphasis was shifted from small family farms to larger commercial establishments and from cotton to more diverse crops. Between the 1930s and the 1960s the number of farms fell sharply, and the average farm size rose from 88.7 acres to 259.3 acres. The number of tenant farmers, who had accounted for a sizeable portion of the farming operations in the county since Reconstruction days, began to decline. In 1930 tenants operated 4,752 farms, more than 70 percent of the farms in the county; by 1950 they numbered only 1,288, or one-third of the county's farmers. This trend continued well into the 1980s, with less than 10 percent of the county's 1,977 farms being operated by tenants in 1987.
In the years following World War II Waco and McLennan County experienced a resurgence of population growth, and the transition to a peacetime economy went fairly smoothly. In 1950 130,194 people resided in McLennan County; 65 percent of that total lived in Waco. The county, and especially Waco, experienced a serious setback in May 1953, when a tornado struck the downtown area. Several city blocks were flattened, leaving 144 people dead and 1,097 injured. Several hundred homes, cars, and businesses were damaged or completely destroyed, and many buildings had to be razed. The property damage amounted to $51 million. The 1960s found McLennan County facing several problems: the closure of the Connally Air Force Base in 1966 left many people out of work; integration of schools prompted "White flight" to suburban areas such as Hewitt, Woodway, Beverly Hills, and Robinson; and the decline of the railroad led to a corresponding decline in several small towns. The decade did bring improvements, however. Among these were several urban renewal projects, the construction of Interstate Highway 35, the establishment of McLennan Community College, the enlargement of Lake Waco, and the establishment of the Texas State Technical College-Waco. A new interest in local history prompted the reconstruction of Fort Fisher as the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and the renovation of the suspension bridge. In the early 1980s 76 percent of the land in the county was devoted to agriculture. Cotton, corn, oats, and wheat were the primary crops, accounting for 90 percent of the 310,000 acres harvested; other crops were sorghum, hay, potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelon. Nearly 60 percent of the county's agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being turkeys, cattle, milk, sheep, wool, angora goats, mohair, and hogs. Industries in the county surpassed agriculture in terms of income and number of people employed, but the two spheres were closely interrelated. Poultry processing, manufacture of prepared feeds, and dairy production were among the county's important businesses. Other large employers included professional and related services, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance, and real estate. McLennan County had 170,755 residents in 1980, a 15 percent increase over the 1970 population of 147,553, and the population in 1990 was 189,123.
In 2014 the census counted 243,441 people living in McLennan County. About 57.8 percent were Anglo, 24.8 percent were Hispanic, and 15 percent were African American. Almost 72 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 16 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, education, and a diversified manufacturing base were the key elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 2,571 farms and ranches covering 538,473 acres, 55 percent of which were devoted to crops and 37 percent to pasture. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $538,473, with livestock sales accounting for $39,330,000 of the total. Beef cattle, corn, wheat, hay, grain sorghum, soybeans, and dairy cattle were the chief agricultural products. Waco (population, 129,179) is the county’s seat of government and only sizeable city; other towns include Hewitt (14,118), Woodway (8,764), Robinson (11,507), West (2,851), Beverly Hills (2,011), Moody (1,400) China Spring (1,312), Gholson (1,092), and Crawford (742). Waco has a number of tourist attractions, including the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and the Dr. Pepper Museum; and President George W. Bush’s “western White House” on his ranch near Crawford has drawn international attention to the area .