Montgomery County is on Interstate 45 forty miles north of downtown Houston in the East Texas Timberlands Region. The center of the county is at 30°18' north latitude and 95°23' west longitude, near the county seat of Conroe. The county is bounded on the north by Walker and San Jacinto counties, on the east by Liberty County, on the south by Harris County, and on the west by Waller and Grimes counties. Montgomery County covers 1,047 square miles of flat to gently rolling terrain, with elevations ranging from 150 to 300 feet. To the south and west soils are light-colored and loamy with deep, reddish, clayey to loamy subsoils. The remainder of the county has reddish soils with loamy surfaces and very deep, clayey subsoils. Vegetation is typical of the Piney Woods area, with thick stands of longleaf, shortleaf, and loblolly pines and hickory, maple, sweet and black gum, oak, and magnolia trees. Grasses include Virginia wildrye, blackseed needlegrass, and purpletop. Wildlife in the county includes eastern gray and fox squirrels, various species of bats and skunks, and small herbivores such as gophers, mice, rabbits, and armadillos, as well as raccoons, white-tailed deer, opossum, bobcat, coyote, and red and grey fox. Alligators, frogs, toads, and numerous species of snake, including the poisonous copperhead, cottonmouth, coral snakes, and rattlesnake, are found in abundance. A wide variety of birds-mockingbirds, cardinals, doves, quail, bluejays, and roadrunners, to name a few-are also native to the area. Natural resources include timber, lakes, gravel, and oil; the Conroe oilfield was once the third largest in the United States. The county's principal water source is the San Jacinto River basin drainage system, which includes Peach, Caney, Spring, and Bushy creeks. The Lake Conroe Reservoir, seven miles northwest of Conroe, drains an area of 445 square miles; its surface area covers 20,118 acres, and its storage capacity is 380,400 acre-feet. The climate is subtropical humid, with warm summers and mild winters. The average annual relative humidity is 73 percent, and the average rainfall is 47.44 inches. The average annual temperature is 68° F. Temperatures in January range from an average low of 39° to an average high of 61° F and in July range from 72° to 95° F. The growing season averages 270 days per year, with the last freeze in early March and the first freeze in late November.
The area that now comprises Montgomery County has long been the site of human habitation. Numerous artifacts from the Paleo-Indian (10,000–6,000 B.C.) and Archaic (6,000–200 B.C.) cultures have been found in the area, suggesting that it has been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years. When the first Europeans arrived the region it was dominated by various tribes of the Atakapan Indians, a predominantly hunting and gathering people whose range extended south and eastward to the Gulf Coast. In the early eighteenth century one of these tribes, the Arkokisas (Orcoquisacs) had campsites along Peach Creek and on the banks of the San Jacinto River. The Bidai Indians, another Atakapan tribe, also ranged across most of the future county, their territory extending as far north as the Old San Antonio Road. Most of these natives peoples eventually succumbed to European diseases, were killed by other Indian tribes, intermarried, or migrated elsewhere; by 1850 virtually no trace of them remained.
The earliest European explorer of what became Montgomery County was probably the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who evidently passed through the area in 1687. When news of French incursions reached Spanish authorities, they sent several expeditions to the region to reclaim it for Spain. During the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish made several attempts to establish settlements in the area and eventually set up three missions on the banks of Spring Creek within the current boundaries of Montgomery County, but the missions were abandoned in 1756 and no permanent Spanish settlements were made. The future Montgomery County area was included in the colonization contracts issued by Spanish and later Mexican authorities to empresario Stephen F. Austin, and during the early 1820s Anglo-American settlers began moving into the region. Forty-two families of Austin's colony obtained land titles from the Mexican government and settled in western Montgomery County. Among the earliest settlers was Andrew Montgomery, who established a trading post at the crossroads of the Loma del Toro and lower Coushatta traces. He was soon joined by relatives and others, and the settlement eventually grew into the town of Montgomery. During the early 1830s the population of the region increased rapidly, and in December, 1837 the Republic of Texas Congress established Montgomery County, which was named for its largest settlement. The new county was carved from Washington County, and its borders originally extended from the Brazos River on the west to the Trinity on the east, and from the Old San Antonio Road on north to the San Jacinto River on the south, an area which included future Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto, Madison, and Waller counties. The county's present boundaries were established after the establishment of Waller County in 1870.
The town of Montgomery, situated on the stagecoach line that ran from Huntsville to Houston, was made the first county seat and became the focal point for new immigrants to the area. The first courthouse, a two-room log structure built in 1838, was replaced in 1842 by a two-story building of hand-hewn lumber, and in 1855 a large Greek Revival-style brick courthouse was completed. The population grew quickly during the 1840s and 1850s, as large numbers of settlers, lured by the abundant land, moved to the area. In 1850 the population was 2,384, and by 1860 it reached 5,479. The vast majority of the new immigrants came from the Old South, many of them bringing their slaves with them. Already in 1850 there were 1,448 slaves in the county, and by 1860 their number increased to 2,416, or nearly half of the entire population. As many as two-thirds of the white families owned one of more slaves, and two of the state's largest slaveholders, George Goldthwaite and G. Wood, each of whom had more than 100 slaves, lived in the county. Montgomery County's economy in its early years was based on subsistence farming, but by the 1850s a thriving plantation economy, based largely on cotton production, had developed. By 1860 the county was producing more than 8,000 bales annually, most of which was hauled overland by horse-drawn wagons and ox carts to Houston and Galveston.
On the eve of the Civil War Montgomery County was in most ways typical of the counties of the region, decidedly Southern in character and outlook, with a rapidly developing plantation economy. Montgomery remained the largest town, but several other trading centers had emerged, including Danville, Bay's Chapel, Cincinnati, and Waverly. Methodist minister I. L. G. Strickland began preaching in Montgomery in the early 1840s, and in the early 1850s Baptists had organized the first church there. Several private schools also began operating during the 1850s, including the Montgomery Academy, which earned a reputation as one of the preeminent schools of the region. The Civil War and its aftermath brought profound changes to the county. Not surprisingly, given its large number of slaveholders, Montgomery County's citizens overwhelmingly supported the Southern cause, and nearly 80 percent (318 of 416) of those who went to the polls cast their votes in favor of secession. The county's men volunteered for the Confederate army in large numbers, a sizeable number of them serving in the Fourth Texas Regiment of Hood's Texas Brigade; others joined Terry's Texas Rangers (Eighth Texas Cavalry). Many of the early volunteers saw considerable action during the war, and as many three-fourths of them were killed or injured before war's end. For those who remained at home, there were other problems to deal with: lack of markets for goods, shortages, and wild fluctuations in Confederate currency. The end of the war brought wrenching changes in the county's economy. For many of Montgomery County's whites, the abolition of slavery meant devastating economic loss. Prior to the Civil War slaves had constituted nearly a half of all taxable property in the county, and their loss coupled with a decline in property values caused a profound disruption for most planters. The African-American population of Montgomery County fared even worse. Most Blacks left the farms owned by their former masters to seek better working and living conditions, but for the vast majority, the change brought only marginal improvement. Most ended up working as agricultural laborers or as share croppers, receiving one-third or one-half of the crop for their labors.
Montgomery County escaped much of the strife that many other Texas counties experienced during Reconstruction; no permanent federal garrison was stationed in the county and there was no Freedmen's Bureau. But citizens nevertheless chafed under local Republican rule, and there were isolated acts of violence and intimidation directed at African-American officials. By the early 1870s the local white elite had once more gained control of the county's affairs, and through the use of the White Primary, literacy tests, and threats managed to effectively disenfranchise the Black population until the 1960s. Like most of the counties in the state, Montgomery County experienced a prolonged post war agricultural depression. During the Civil War prices for cotton had skyrocketed, and landowners had planted ever increasing amounts of land in cotton in order to reap the benefits. After the war falling prices and the loss of cheap slave labor combined to severely depress the local economy. To make ends meet, many landowners opted to grow even more cotton, in the process badly depleting the soil. By the 1880s the soil in many areas of the county was so poor that cotton yields were as low as one-third to three-quarters of a bale per acre. Some farmers turned to livestock raising or other small grains, such corn and wheat, but cotton nevertheless remained the county's leading cash crop until the end of the century.
The county's economy began to recover in the 1870s and early 1880s with the construction of several railroads. In 1871 the International-Great Northern Railroad built across the county; in 1879 a narrow-gauge line known as the Houston, East and West Texas was constructed; and in 1880 the Houston and Texas Central built a branch line from Navasota to Montgomery and extended eastward to Conroe. The construction of the railroads touched off an intense controversy concerning the location of the county seat. The first railroad missed the town of Montgomery. Willis, a new town on the railroad was voted county seat in 1874, but the county seat was moved back to Montgomery in 1880, after the Houston and Texas Central was built through. In 1889, however, the county seat was moved to the fledgling community of Conroe, which was situated at the junction of the International-Great Northern and the newly built Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. The construction of the railroads also sparked a major period of expansion in the county. Numerous new towns grew up, and the population, which had risen only slightly since the Civil War, saw a marked increase. Despite the loss of considerable territory due to the splitting off of several new counties, between 1870 and 1880 the number of residents grew from 6,483 to 10,154, and over the next two decades the population increased to more than 17,000.
The construction of the railroads also marked the beginnings of the county's great lumbering boom. Commercial lumbering had begun in the county prior to the Civil War, but the lack of easy access to river or rail transportation severely hampered efforts to exploit the area's rich timber resources. With the arrival of the railroads, however, lumbering quickly developed into a major industry. By 1882 forty-five steam sawmills were in operation, and within a short time lumbering emerged as the county's largest source of income. The lumber boom gave rise to numerous new communities, including Bobville, Cowl Spur, Dobbin, Egypt, Fostoria, Honea, Karen, Keenan, Mostyn, Leonides, and Security, all of which developed as lumber shipping points or mill sites. The boom also helped to transform the county in other ways. As late as the early 1870s 80 percent of the county was still covered by thick pine forests. Over the next four decades much of the county was deforested, permanently altering the landscape and opening the way for a steady increase in livestock raising and farming.
The agricultural economy, which had been on the wane since the Civil War, began to recover in the 1880s. Spurring its growth was the introduction of tobacco, which began to be planted in large quantities in the 1890s. Much of the tobacco was a fine grade variety known as Vuelta Abajo, grown from seeds imported each year from Cuba. The center of the industry was Willis, which by 1895 had seven cigar factories. But high railroad shipping costs and the high initial investment and labor involved in curing and sweating the tobacco discouraged many farmers; between 1898 and 1901 the amount of land given over to tobacco production fell dramatically from more than 1,000 acres to only 70. The subsequent lifting of a United States tariff on Cuban tobacco, which had kept prices artificially high, finally ended the experiment, and within a few years virtually no tobacco was being grown in the county.
The agricultural economy stagnated at the turn of the century, but by 1910 it began to show slow but steady growth. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of farms in the county increased from 1,855 to 1,932, and the amount of improved acreage grew from 62,234 to 80,605. Although cotton and corn continued to be grown in considerable quantities, many farmers after 1910 turned to truck farming, growing fruits and vegetables for the ever-expanding cities on the coast. Farm production gradually increased after the turn of the century, and by the early 1920s agricultural receipts in some areas reached new highs. The period, however, also witnessed high land prices that forced many farmers into tenancy; already by 1910 nearly half of all farmers (898 of 1,855) were tenants, many of them barely making a living. The trend was particularly pronounced among Blacks, who made up more than half (540) of the tenant farmers. While tenancy rates fell somewhat during the relatively prosperous years of the 1920s, fully half of those farming in 1930 were still working someone else's land, and most had few resources to endure hard times.
Despite the upswing in farming, lumbering remained the county's primary industry after 1900. In 1914 the Delta Land and Timber Company built a mill in Conroe, which at the time was the most modern sawmill in the state and one of the largest in the South. The lumbering industry also gave rise to a number of related business, including box and cross tie factories, which flourished during the 1910s and early 1920s. Timbering remained the area's principal source of income during the early 1920s, but by the end of the decade it was in steep decline, largely because most of the best stands of timber had been cut. The lack of available timber forced many of the mills to close, and many smaller lumbering communities were abandoned. By the late 1920s large numbers of former lumber workers were leaving the county to seek work elsewhere. The countywide population, which had reached 17,334 in 1920, fell over the next decade and by 1930 had dropped to 14,588.
The decline in the timber industry came at an unfortunate moment for the county: by 1930 the effects of the Great Depression began to be felt, and within a short time the ranks of the jobless swelled enormously. Particularly hard hit were the county's farmers, who were forced to endure the combined effects of falling prices, soil depletion, and boll weevil infestations. Those with large landholdings were able to weather the hard times, but many of the county's legions of tenant farmers and share croppers were forced off the land. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms in the county fell sharply, from 1,773 to 1,385, and as many as a third of all tenants had to seek other work opportunities.
The county, however, experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune in 1932, when oil was discovered southeast of Conroe. Evidence of oil had been found in the county as early as 1901, when Santa Fe Railroad engineers drilled a water well and noted traces of oil. Natural gas was found southwest of Conroe in 1924, and several major oil companies acquired leases in the area. But initial tests were unsuccessful, and the companies lost interest. In August 1931, however, wildcatter George William Strake began drilling a test well 6½ miles southeast of Conroe and on December 13 of the same year hit oil; by June 1932 Strake had brought in a second, even larger well, which was spewing out more than 900 barrels daily. The discovery immediately triggered an tremendous oil boom. Within days thousands of fortune-seekers-wildcatters, financiers, roughnecks, and hangers-on-flooded the area. The population of Conroe, estimated at 2,500 in December 1931, mushroomed to more than 10,000 within a few months. At the beginning of 1933 more than 100 wells had been drilled, and more that 25,000 barrels per day were being produced; by the end of the year the number of producing wells had grown to 679, and the daily output was more than 52,000 barrels. Oil was subsequently discovered in several other areas of the county, and the combined oilfields of Montgomery County made it one the richest oil producing areas in the nation. Although the vast majority of Montgomery County residents did not benefit directly from the oil discovery, oil money contributed to a general prosperity that helped offset the worst effects of the depression. Proceeds from the oil also helped to remake the face of the county. Roads were graded and paved, new schools were built, and public buildings and monuments erected. Conroe experienced a construction boom as numerous new buildings-banks, offices, and homes-were erected with oil money. The population of the county, swelled by the boom, grew by nearly 10,000 between 1930 and 1940, increasing from 14,588 to 23,055.
The prosperity continued during the years of World War II. Oil refineries and a carbon black manufacturing plant were built, and efforts were intensified to produce as much oil as possible for the war effort. After the war oil production declined somewhat, but it has remained one of the county's leading sources of income; in 1990 alone more than 2.7 million barrels of oil were produced. More than 1,046,000 barrels of oil, and 12,615,888 cubic feet of gas- well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 755,123,441 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since 1931.
Since World War II the agricultural scene has changed. During the 1940s and 1950s many farmers turned to truck farming, but in recent years cattle and horse ranching have increasingly taken center stage. In the early 1990s the majority of nonlumber-related agricultural income came from livestock and livestock products, with smaller amounts from greenhouse and nursery products. Lumbering once again became a major industry; after the wholesale cutting of the 1920s many forests had been allowed to regrow, and by the early 1990s over three-fourths of the land was timbered. The Sam Houston National Forest covers much of the northeast and northwest portions of the county. The main impetus for growth in the last decades of the twentieth century came from the expansion of nearby metropolitan Houston. Many Montgomery County residents now worked in Houston, and the spread of the city's suburbs into the county led to a rapid rise in population. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of inhabitants grew by only slightly more than 2,000, from 24,504 to 26,839, but over the next thirty years it increased nearly seven-fold, rising to 49,479 in 1970, 128,487 in 1980, and 182,201 in 1990. The Woodlands, a suburban development with a population of 29,205 was the largest community, followed by Conroe (27,610), Pinehurst (3,284), Willis (2,764), and Oak Ridge North (2,454). Reflecting its suburban character, the county's population in 1990 was more than 90 percent White, with Hispanics (7.3 percent) and Blacks (4.3 percent) forming the largest minorities. Due to the influx of better educated middle class families from Houston and elsewhere, the county education level rose steadily during those years, and a substantial segment of the population came to have a college education. In the early 1990s the county had six public school districts. For a time Conroe High School was the largest high school in Texas. In the 1990s a number of private schools, most affiliated with religious denominations, opened. There were more than 100 churches in the county, with a combined membership of approaching 75,000; the largest denominations were Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist.
Politically Montgomery County has followed statewide voting trends. Democrats dominated the county for more than 100 years, and Democratic presidential candidates won nearly every election from the time of the Civil War until the early 1960s. In the late twentieth century however, Republicans began to make strong inroads, and Republican presidential candidates won most of the county’s votes in every election from 1968 to 2004, with the margins of victory growing steadily larger. Republican candidates in statewide races also fared well in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, sometimes outpolling their Democratic opponents by more than 2 to 1. The increasingly suburban character of the county as well as a growing conservatism of the electorate contributed to this trend.
In 2014 the census counted 518,947 people living in Montgomery County. About 69.4 percent were Anglo, 21.9 percent were Hispanic, and 4.7 percent were African American. Almost 82 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 25 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century lumber and oil production were important elements of the area’s economy; many residents commuted to work in Houston. In 2002 the county had 1,701 farms and ranches covering 197,892 acres, 36 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 29 percent to woodlands, and 29 percent to crops. In that year local farmers and ranchers earned $20,069,000, with crop sales accounting for $11,547,000 of that total. Greenhouse crops, cattle, horses, hay, poultry, and goats were the chief agricultural products. Almost 10,694,000 cubic feet of pinewood and almost 1,805,000 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Conroe (population, 63,322) is the county’s seat of government, and The Woodlands (99,040) is its largest town. Other communities include Willis (5,964), Pinehurst (4,922), New Caney (6,800), Panorama Village (2,263), Shenandoah (2,681), Patton Village (1,585), Woodbranch (1,357), and Cut and Shoot (1,075). Montgomery County has become a recreation destination for many Houston residents. The area, with its abundant lakes and forest, offers numerous opportunities for hunting, boating, fishing, and hiking. Among the most popular attractions are the Sam Houston National Forest, W. Goodrich Jones State Forest, Lake Conroe, and Lake Woodlands. Visitors in the area were also attracted by the shopping opportunities in Conroe, the annual county fair, and the Cajun Catfish Festival held in Conroe in October.