Nolan County is in west central Texas, bounded on the east by Taylor County, on the south by Coke and Runnels counties, on the west by Mitchell County, and on the north by Fisher County. The center of the county lies at 32°18' north latitude and 100°24' west longitude. Sweetwater, the county seat and largest population center, is forty-two miles west of Abilene, 125 miles southeast of Lubbock, and 130 miles northeast of Odessa. The county was named for Philip Nolan. It lies on the lower plains, with the western end of the Callahan Divide in the southern section of the county. The land is predominantly rolling uplands to the north, with plateaus traversed by valleys in the south; altitudes range from 2,000 to 2,700 feet above sea level. Streams in the northern part of the county, including Cottonwood, Bitter, Stink, and Sweetwater creeks, drain into the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. In the southern part of the county Silver, Wilson, Fish, and Oak creeks drain into the Colorado River. The loamy soils of the county are light to dark, with deep, clayey or loamy subsoils and lime accumulations. The county has very little timber; hackberry, scrubby post oak, cottonwood, and mesquite trees grow along the streams, and Rocky Mountain junipers or scrub cedars grow on the hillsides. Annual rainfall averages 22.19 inches, and the growing season averages 221 days. Temperatures range from an average minimum of 30° F in January to an average maximum of 96° F in July. The agricultural economy centers around cattle and livestock products, but 50 percent of the annual agricultural income is from crops, especially cotton, wheat, sorghum, and hay. Petroleum, natural gas, gypsum, rock, and sand and gravel are also produced in the county.
The area of Nolan County had no Anglo settlers until after the Civil War, when buffalo hunters came to the plains. The county was carved from the Young-Bexar territory by the Texas legislature in 1876 and attached to Shackelford County for administrative purposes. Knight's store on Sweetwater Creek was started in a dugout in 1877 to serve buffalo hunters operating in the area. The county's first post office was opened in 1879 in the village of Sweet Water, which was two words until the spelling was officially changed in 1918. The original name of the post office was Blue Goose, derived from a story that the first postmaster ate a blue crane that cowboys told him was a blue goose. By 1880 there were fifty-two ranches in the area, and the economy was dominated by the cattle industry. The agricultural census that year reported 24,515 cattle, 1,300 sheep, and only sixty-four acres devoted to growing corn, the county's most important crop at that time. The 1880 census reported 640 people living in the county. The county was organized after an election held on January 20, 1881, and in April the Nolan County Court declared that Sweetwater was to be the new permanent county seat. The townsite was on the Texas and Pacific Railway, which had built into the area that March. The first newspaper in Nolan County, the Sweetwater Advocate, was published in 1881. Though a blizzard in February 1885 destroyed much of the livestock in the area, settlers continued to move into Nolan County. By 1890 there were 144 ranches and farms, and the population had increased to 1,573. Ranching still dominated the local economy at that time, though sheep had come to outnumber cattle in the area, 38,000 to 13,000. Meanwhile, 563 acres were planted in corn, 900 acres in oats, and 490 acres in wheat. Hundreds of new settlers moved into the area during the 1890s and early 1900s, establishing towns as they arrived. Roscoe, which grew on the site of a proposed Texas and Pacific station called Vista, was incorporated in 1890, and the town's first shortlived newspaper, the Enterprise, was published in 1893, and replaced by the Roscoe Times in 1906. Blackwell, originally named Jamestown, was built around a station on the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway about 1906, and Maryneal was established about the same time. Further settlement was encouraged in 1908, when the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Shortline Railway was built to run fifty miles from Roscoe to Fluvanna. Between 1897 and 1908 fifteen post offices were established in Nolan County. Reflecting these trends, the population of the county rose to 2,611 by 1900 and to 11,999 by 1910.
During this period crop cultivation became central to the economy of the area. The number of farms increased to 293 by 1900 and to 1,160 by 1910. By 1910 over two-thirds of the land was being used for agriculture and 24.2 percent was in improved farm acreage. While about 16,000 cattle and 7,454 sheep were reported in 1910, 33,000 acres were planted in cotton that year, and 21,000 acres were devoted to sorghum. Cotton was by far the most important crop, accounting for almost 72 percent of the county's income derived from cultivation. Many of the new farmers were tenants: sharecropping increased from 20.5 percent of the county's farms in 1900 to 54.7 percent in 1910. Except for a brief recession after World War I, these trends continued between 1910 and 1930, as cotton cultivation continued to expand in the area, particularly during the 1920s. Though cattle and sheep ranching continued to be important to the local economy, the relative significance of ranching in the area continued to decline. By 1930, 80,000 acres in the county were planted in cotton. The number of farms rose from 1,015 in 1920 to 1,351 by 1925 and to 1,514 by 1930; meanwhile, the population increased from 10,868 in 1920 to 19,323 by 1930. The area's cotton economy was severely shaken during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The number of acres devoted to cotton plunged to 58,000 by 1934 and to 39,000 by 1939. Almost a third of the farmers left their land during the 1930s, and by 1940 only 948 farms remained in Nolan County. Tenant farmers fared the worst, particularly after 1935; the number of tenants in the area dropped from 665 in 1930 to 628 by 1935 and to 440 by 1940. The population dropped to 17,309 by 1940.
While World War II helped to revive the local agricultural economy during the 1940s, by the 1950s farm consolidations, the decline of farm tenancy, and an extended drought caused a drop in population from 19,323 in 1950 to 18,808 in 1960 and 16,220 by 1970. Though cotton production remained strong and expanded substantially during the 1970s, by 1978 the number of farms in the area had declined to 472. The population rose slightly during the 1970s to reach 17,359 by 1980 but began to decline again during the 1980s; in 1990 it stood at 16,594. Much of the economic progress in the county since the 1950s has been due to the oil and gas industry. Petroleum was discovered in 1939, but production was minimal at first: in 1948 only 3,353 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county. However, production of crude oil reached 8,315,000 barrels in 1956, 5,331,000 barrels in 1960, 4,900,000 barrels in 1974, 2,400,000 barrels in 1978, and 2,873,000 barrels in 1982. The value of petroleum produced in Nolan County increased between 1966 and 1984 from $5,243,000 to $92,415,782 and remained important in the 1990s, though both prices and production had declined since the mid-1980s. In 1990, 1,965,000 barrels of oil were produced, and by January 1, 1991, 172,176,000 barrels of crude had been taken from county lands since discovery in 1939.
Nolan County's citizens strongly supported Democratic tickets in national elections until the early 1950s, when Democratic strength in the county began to decline. The Democratic party carried 86 percent of the votes in the 1948 presidential election, but only 55 percent in 1956. Lyndon B. Johnson carried the county with 69 percent of the vote in 1964, but in 1968 the Democrats won only 47 percent of the vote. The Democratic vote faded to 27 percent in 1972, when the county supported Republican Richard Nixon, but rose to 62 percent in 1976, when they supported Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan carried the county in 1980 and 1984, but in 1988 voters supported Democrat Michael Dukakis. In 1992 a plurality supported Democrat Bill Clinton over Republican George Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot.
In 1982, 94 percent of the county was in farms and ranches; about 18 percent of the farmland was cultivated, and 4 percent was irrigated. Cattle, sheep, Angora goats, and hogs were the most important livestock for the economy. Cotton, sorghum, wheat, and hay were the most important crops grown, though local farmers also grew peaches, pecans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons. One of the major industries in Nolan County is United States Gypsum, which began operating near Sweetwater in 1924. About 23 percent of those employed in the county in the early 1980s worked in construction, 26 percent were in trade, 10 percent were in service jobs, and 19 percent were employed in state and local government. The Missouri Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads have lines in Nolan County. The Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railway, which once ran from Roscoe to Fluvanna, now runs only from Roscoe to Snyder, serving as a connecting line between the Katy and Santa Fe tracks. The county has an airport, Avenger Field, located in Sweetwater. The Sweetwater Reporter has been in continuous publication since 1909, and Roscoe's newspaper, the Roscoe Times (renamed the Roscoe Hard Times), has been in continuous publication since March 10, 1906. The Sweetwaterar Jaycee's World's Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up began in 1958, and is hosted annually at the Nolan County Coliseum in Newman Park. The Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater is a vocational training facility that began operation in 1970. Construction of the Roscoe Wind Farm (RWF) began in May 2007, and it opened in four phases from February 2008 to October 2009. The plant is located forty-five southwest of Abilene became the largest onshore wind farm in the world with 627 turbines supplied by Mitsubishi, Siemens AG, and General Electric. The facility is situated on 100,000 acres of land across Mitchell, Nolan and Scurry Counties, and is owned and operated by Germany-based E.ON Climate and Renewables (EC&R). As of 2014, the county's population was 15,093. Of those, 58.4 percent were Anglo, 5.3 percent African American, and 35.3 percent Hispanic. Communities in the county include Sweetwater (population, 10,652), the county seat; Roscoe (1,304); and Blackwell (310in Nolan County, partly in Coke County). Visitors and residents find recreation at Lake Sweetwater and at Oak Creek Lake. The largest tourist attraction in Nolan County remains the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-Up, which is held each March, and has been featured on ESPN.