Menard County, in Central Texas about 250 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, is bordered by Concho, McCulloch, Mason, Kimble, Sutton, Schleicher, and Tom Green counties. Menard, the county seat, is on the San Saba River at the intersection of U.S. Highway 83 and State Highway 29, about 130 miles northwest of San Antonio. The county's center is about three miles southwest of Menard at 30°54' north latitude and 99°50' west longitude. The county comprises 902 square miles of rolling terrain on the Edwards Plateau at elevations ranging from 1,700 to 2,400 feet above sea level. The dark, loamy soils are alkaline and support such vegetation as live oak, juniper, mesquite, and grasses. The county lies entirely within the Colorado River basin and is drained primarily by the San Saba River, which crosses the county from west to east. Wildlife in the area includes deer, turkey, javelina, squirrel, coyote, bobcat, beaver, opossum, badger, fox, raccoon, and skunk, as well as a variety of birds, fish, and reptiles. Among the county's mineral resources are dolomite, oil, and gas. The climate is subtropical, with an average minimum temperature in January of 32° F and an average high temperature in July of 97°. The growing season averages 220 days annually, and the rainfall averages about twenty-two inches.
Central Texas, including what is now Menard 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 10,000 years ago. Early Spanish explorers found the Apache Indians in Central and West Texas in the sixteenth century, and the Comanches began moving down from the north in the eighteenth century. The Spanish began exploring the San Saba valley in 1753 and 1754. In April 1757, Father Alonso Giraldo de Terreros founded Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, hoping to Christianize the Apache Indians. Though San Luis de las Amarillas Presidio, under the command of Diego Ortiz Parrilla, was established nearby to provide protection for the mission, in March 1758 the Comanche Indians and their allies burned the mission to the ground. In 1761, Felipe de Rábago y Terán, who replaced Ortiz Parrilla, improved the presidio by replacing wooden structures with stone ones. The Marqués de Rubí visited the site during his inspection of Spanish frontier settlements in 1766. Living conditions were poor at the presidio, and after the Indians succeeded in cutting the supply lines Rábago y Terán abandoned it without orders in 1768. The presidio was reoccupied for a short time in early 1770, but the Spanish soon abandoned it for good.
James and Rezin Bowieqqv traveled to the San Saba valley in the early 1830s to look for a silver mine that the Spanish had believed to be in the area. They were unsuccessful, but the legend of the Lost Bowie Mine, also known as the Lost San Saba Mine or the Los Almagres Mine, fed the imagination of treasure-seekers for the next 150 years. The Menard area was part of the Fisher-Miller Land Grant, made by the Republic of Texas in 1842, but few if any of the German immigrants who settled within the limits of the grant came so far west. Little settlement occurred until several years after the annexation of Texas to the United States. In 1852, in order to protect settlers from Indian attacks, the United States War Department established Camp San Saba, later known as Fort McKavett, near the head of the San Saba River. Menard County was formed from Bexar County by the state legislature in 1858 and named for Michel Branamour Menard, the founder of Galveston. Menardville and Camp San Saba attracted settlers who came west, but with the withdrawal of troops from Camp San Saba in 1859, the threat of Indians attacks delayed new settlement and caused many established residents to leave. The remaining residents attempted to organize the county government in 1866, but when the attempt failed the legislature placed Menard County under the jurisdiction of Mason County. When Fort McKavett was opened in 1868, people again moved into the area. Menard County residents finally elected their own officials in 1871.
Because the county was organized so late, no record shows how Menard residents voted on secession or in the 1870 gubernatorial election. In later years, however, Menard County voters were staunch Democrats in state politics, and in most of the presidential elections since 1872 they have preferred the Democratic candidate, the exceptions being Warren G. Harding in 1920, Herbert Hoover in 1928, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Richard M. Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
In 1870, Menard County had a population of 667, of whom 295 were white and 372 were black. The high percentage of black residents was probably due to the presence of the "buffalo soldiers" (see NINTH, and TENTH UNITED STATES CAVALRY) at Fort McKavett. By 1880 the county's population had risen to 1,239, but the number of black residents had fallen to thirty-seven. The population fell when Fort McKavett was closed in 1883, but by 1890 it had almost recovered, with 1,215 residents reported. Although the local economy was set back by the troop withdrawal, the community around Fort McKavett had about eighty residents in the 1890s; Menardville had 300 residents by the early 1890s and was the main commercial center for area ranches. Most of the people who moved to Menard County were native to the United States and came from another county in Texas or from one of the Southern states. Most of the immigrants came from England, Ireland, and Germany in the 1870s, and from Mexico in the 1880s and again in the 1930s.
Some of the earliest schools in Menard County were held under shade trees; others met in one-room buildings within walking distance of several families. Children who lived on isolated ranches sometimes had tutors or were sent to boarding schools. Menard County was exempt from instituting a district school system until the 1890s, but soon after the turn of the century the county had nine common-school districts. By the 1940s improved transportation made possible the large-scale consolidation of schools into a single independent school district. Until the mid-twentieth century, for many children in Menard County school took second place to duties on the family farm; as a result, dropout rates were high. As late as 1940, fewer than 13 percent of residents over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. Citizens began to place greater emphasis on education in the 1950s as job markets expanded. By 1960, 20 percent of the county's population over twenty-five had graduated from high school, and by 1980 graduates constituted nearly 45 percent.
For several years after the organization of Menard County, missionary priests and circuit riders provided the only religious services. The Catholic and Episcopal churches were probably the first to be represented in Menard County, but the Baptist Church, established in 1879, seems to have been the first to organize regular meetings. A Presbyterian church was established in 1886, a Methodist church in 1887, a Catholic church in 1899, a Christian church in 1914, and a Lutheran church in 1916. In the early 1980s the county had thirteen churches, with an estimated combined membership of 1,685; Southern Baptist and Catholic were the largest communions.
In 1890 more than three-quarters of the county's population lived on farms and ranches, and the dominant occupation was stock raising. Both cattle and sheep did well, their numbers increasing from 10,456 and 27,586 head, respectively, in 1880, to 33,690 and 90,363 head in 1890. The number of farms rose from thirty-six in 1880 to 158 by 1890, and their average size increased from 1,811 to 2,096 acres. Although most of the county's resources were devoted to stock raising, irrigated farms along the San Saba River provided the local market with such crops as cotton, corn, sorghum, oats, alfalfa, rye, and wheat.
In 1910 Menardville residents offered the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railroad Company several incentives to extend its track to their town: a right-of-way, the land for stock pens and depot, and $10,000 to build the depot. The track was completed, and in February 1911 the first train arrived. The railroad made outside markets easier to reach, and the town of Menard (as it was now called) boomed; by 1914 its reported population was 1,000. Another town, Callan, began as a result of the railroad's coming to Menard County; it was successful for a few years, but declined as other transportation methods improved.
For several years around the turn of the century, the cattle industry eclipsed sheep production in Menard County, with the number of cattle rising to more than 54,000 and the number of sheep falling to fewer than 19,500. By the 1920s, however, the wool industry was again of first importance, with the sheep population numbering more than 71,000 and cattle falling to less than 28,000 head. Wool production peaked in 1930, when 305,450 sheep produced more than 2.1 million pounds of wool. The mohair industry also came into prominence between 1910 and 1920. In the latter year the county had more than 35,700 goats and produced nearly 111,600 pounds of mohair.
By virtue of its rural environment and relatively small population, Menard County escaped many of the hardships suffered by more urban areas during the Great Depression of the 1930s; nevertheless, several relief programs were enacted. The highway department provided jobs by hiring local labor to clear the river channel in the early 1930s, the PTA offered free lunches for needy children in 1931, the Texas Relief Cannery was in operation in the summer of 1934, and the Drought Relief Program bought cattle and sheep from area ranchers in 1934.
Although farmers in Menard County had been early advocates of diversified crops, the expanding cotton market of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prompted them to devote more and more of their cropland to cotton. In 1890 farmers grew 63 bales of cotton on 101 acres, or 2½ percent of the county's improved land; in 1900, 2,129 acres, or 28 percent of the improved land, produced 928 bales; and in 1930, 7,687 acres, or 46 percent of the cropland harvested, produced 933 bales. The depression shifted the focus of local agriculture away from cotton and back to feed crops. In 1940 only 1,470 acres was planted in cotton. Oats, barley, sorghum, and hay became the primary crops, which together accounted for more than 60 percent of the county's cropland harvested.
Oil and gas production in Menard County began in the 1940s, although wildcatters had been drilling exploratory wells since 1919. The first attempted oil well, drilled in 1919, was dry. A gas deposit was tapped in 1929, but was plugged the same year for lack of a market. The gas well was redrilled in 1941 and produced about seven million cubic feet of gas. A small oilfield was discovered northeast of Fort McKavett in 1946 but abandoned the following year. Exploration continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but not until the 1960s were most of the important deposits in the county discovered. Production peaked in that decade with an average annual yield of more than 270,000 barrels. Of the county's forty oilfields, about twenty were still active in the 1980s, producing 132,000 to 185,000 barrels annually. In the 1980s about 94 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, but only about 2 percent of this was under cultivation. Wheat, hay, oats, and sorghum were the primary crops; others were sweet potatoes, watermelons, and pecans. About 96 percent of agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being sheep, wool, cattle, angora goats, and mohair. The number of animals on hand, although still large, was smaller than in previous years because ranchers found it more efficient to raise fewer animals of better breeds. The county had no significant manufacturing industries but received a considerable income from tourists, who were attracted by the hunting and fishing opportunities in the area and by the ruins of the Spanish presidio and Fort McKavett.
Menard County reached its highest population in 1940, with 4,521 residents reported. The population fell to 4,175 by 1950 and 2,964 by 1960, as people left the area to find jobs in larger cities. The number of farms in the county fell from a high of 431 in 1940 to 275 in 1959. The railroad discontinued passenger service to Menard in 1954 and abandoned the line completely in 1972. The population continued a slow decline through the 1980s, the number of residents falling to 2,646 in 1970 and 2,346 in 1980. In the early 1980s, 29 percent of county residents were of Hispanic descent, 24 percent were English, 20 percent were Irish, and 0.3 percent were black. In 2014 Menard had 1,461 residents, while the county's total population was estimated at 2,147. Of those, 62.6 percent were Anglo, 1.4 percent African American, and 35.4 percent Hispanic.