Mills County is in central Texas, bordered on the north by Comanche County, on the east by Hamilton County, on the south by San Saba and Lampasas counties, and on the west by Brown County. The center of the county lies at approximately 31°30' north latitude and 98°35' west longitude, 110 miles northwest of Austin. The county lies partly in the Grand Prairie region and partly in the western Cross Timbers. The county was named for John T. Mills, and its area covers 734 square miles of hills and plateaus that drain to the Colorado River, its western boundary. Elevations range from 1,100 to 1,700 feet above sea level. A range of hills, the Cowhouse Mountains, extends from southeast to northwest, and picturesque San Saba peak (1,712 feet), covered by cedars and large white rocks, is a local landmark. Pecan Bayou flows north to south across the western section. Soils are alluvial, black waxy, sandy, and loam; timber includes live oak, post oak, cottonwood, shinnery, and pecan. Temperatures in Mills range between an average minimum of 34° F in January to an average maximum of 87° F in July. The average annual rainfall is 27.52 inches, and the growing season lasts 230 days. The county's agricultural economy produces an income of $28 million annually, 90 percent of which is from sheep, beef cattle, goats, and hogs; crops of small grains, sorghums, and forage account for the remainder. Manufactures, chiefly of farm equipment, yield $2,200,000 annually. Fishing and hunting support a tourist industry on the Colorado River. Major roads are U.S. Highway 84/183 (west to east) and State Highway 16 (north to south).
In earlier times the region was a hunting ground for Apaches and Comanches, who fought over it until the mid-nineteenth century. Although the area was off the route of Spanish explorations, Pedro Vial did pass through the area in 1786 and 1789 while exploring a route from San Antonio to Santa Fe. The first White traveler was probably Capt. Henry S. Brown, who led a party across the Colorado River in 1828 to recover stock stolen by Indians. The first permanent settler, Dick Jenkins, established himself in the area in 1852; other early pioneers were D. S. and Sam Hanna, W. Lee Brooks, B. F. Gholson, John Williams, R. D. Forsythe, and Mr. and Mrs. Mose Jackson. A Methodist circuit rider held the first religious service in the cabin of Charles Mullin in 1857. The first settlers, like the Indians, subsisted primarily on hunting. A number of the early settlers were German immigrants who toiled, as one put it, in a "place that was a heaven for men and dogs-but hell for women and oxen." Life on the frontier was often precarious; Dick Jenkins and several other early pioneers were killed by Indians. In 1858 Mr. and Mrs. Mose Jackson and two of their children were killed by Indians at Jackson Springs, while two other children were carried into captivity. After a force of settlers routed the Indians at Salt Gap, their pursuers and a company of Texas Rangers recovered the captive Jackson children. In 1862 a band of twenty Comanches raiding for horses was pursued by settlers to the mouth of Pecan Bayou and put to flight after three Indians and one White, O. F. Lindsey, were killed. After Indians killed John Morris, a rancher, settlers pursued them and killed or wounded seven of the twenty-seven raiders. Few of the settlers joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War because their own frontier required protection against the depredations of Indians and outlaws.
During the Civil War and for decades thereafter Whites caused settlers more trouble than Indians, as cattle rustlers, horse thieves, murderers, army deserters, and other rogues infested the area. Vigilante committees were formed to deal with criminals, but then these groups degenerated into warring mobs committing criminal acts themselves. A reign of terror followed conflicts between vigilante groups, which broke out in Williams Ranch in 1869. Vigilantes drove out some bad characters, but killed other innocent men; lynchings and assassinations became commonplace. The turbulence lasted until 1897, when the Texas Rangers finally broke up a group of vigilantes who frequently gathered at Buzzard Roost. The first post office in what is now Mills County was established in Williams Ranch in 1877, and the place became a center for the area; between 1881 and 1884 250 people lived there. In 1885 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway built tracks into the region, stimulating settlement and demands for organization. In 1887 the Texas state legislature carved Mills County from lands formerly assigned to Brown, Comanche, Hamilton, and Lampasas counties. Goldthwaite became the county seat. In 1890 5,493 people lived in Mills County. By that time, the area's agricultural economy was already fairly well-established. The county had 680 farms and ranches, encompassing 142,299 acres, that year. Ranching was an important part of county life; almost 25,000 cattle and 23,000 sheep were reported. Crop farming was also well-established in the county by this time. Cotton had first been planted in the area in 1864; by 1890 7,000 acres in Mills County were planted in the fiber, 7,200 acres in corn, 3,500 acres in oats, and 2,800 acres in wheat. After 1890 cotton became increasingly important and soon supplanted cattle as the county's leading industry. Almost 22,000 acres were planted in cotton in 1900 and almost 46,000 in 1910. By that time there were 1,484 farms in Mills County, and the population had increased to 9,694.
Periodic droughts and the agricultural depression following World War I forced local farmers to cut their cotton acreage in the late 1910s, so that only 25,600 acres were planted in cotton in 1920. During the 1910s the area's population also began to steadily decline. By 1920 9,019 people lived in Mills County, and by 1930 only 8,293 people lived there. Farmers and ranchers began to diversify, and increasingly turned to raising sheep, goats, and poultry. By 1930, when about 32,000 acres were planted in cotton, there were 21,300 cattle, 68,000 goats (many of them raised for mohair), 78,000 sheep, and 67,000 chickens reported on county farms. In their search for new products, farmers also began to turn to pecans, fruit, and dairy products.
The area's economy was hit hard during the Great Depression of the 1930s, although federal relief projects helped to offset some of the worst effects. Cropland harvested in the county dropped from 89,343 acres in 1930 to 78,372 acres in 1940, and the number of farms declined 9 percent during the decade. By 1940 only 1,364 remained. Meanwhile, the population of the county continued to decline, dropping to 7,951 by 1940. The decline of cotton farming in the area continued during the 1940s and 1950s; by 1959 only 2,078 acres were devoted to the fiber. Land once tilled was turned over to pasturage for increasing numbers of mohair goats and sheep, and farm consolidations also continued. By 1959 cropland harvested had declined to 32,000 acres, and only 767 farms remained in the county. As a result, the area's population also continued to drop. It fell to 5,999 in 1950, 4,467 in 1960, and 4,212 in 1970. In the 1970s and early 1980s the county gained a number of manufacturing establishments. By 1982 eight manufacturers employed 100 workers. That year oil was discovered in the county, and 28,122 barrels were produced; by 1990, however, production had ceased altogether. The population of the county grew slightly after 1970 to reach 4,477 in 1980 and 4,531 in 1990. The voters of Mills County supported Democratic candidates in almost every presidential election between 1888 and 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when they supported Republican Herbert Hoover. In presidential elections between 1952 and 1992, however, the county has often supported Republican candidates, voting for Dwight D. Eisenhower 1952 and 1954, Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, and for George Bush in 1988. In 1992 a plurality of Mills County voters supported Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate. As of 2014, 4,870 people lived in Mills County. Of those, 80.3 percent were Anglo, 0.9 percent African American, and 17.5 percent Hispanic. Goldthwaite (population, 1,882), the county seat, contains the county's hospital, light manufacturing businesses, and serves as a livestock center. Other communities include Mullin (174), Priddy (215), Caradan, Center City, Regency, and Star (97). Goldthwaite hosts a bike rally in April and an old-timer's rodeo in May.