Potter County, on the High Plains of the Panhandle, is bordered on the north by Moore County, on the east by Carson County, on the south by Randall County, and on the west by Oldham County. Its center point is at 35°25' north latitude and 101°53' west longitude. Amarillo, the county seat, is on the county's southern border, about 110 miles due north of Lubbock. The county was named for Robert Potter. It comprises 902 square miles of level to rolling terrain, with elevations ranging from 3,000 to 3,800 feet above sea level. Its soils are mainly chocolate and red loams with some sand and clay. The area slopes to the Canadian River, which flows easterly across the northern part of Potter County; Lake Meredith, formed when the Canadian was dammed in 1965, extends about eight miles into the northwestern section of the county. Prairie grasses cover much of the county, and mesquite, hackberry, juniper, and scrub oak grow in the breaks. Temperatures range from an average low of 23° F in January to an average high of 92° in July. Annual rainfall averages 20.28 inches. The growing season lasts 190 days.
Evidences of pre-Columbian man in what is now Potter County have been found in the Alibates Flint Quarries, which are believed to have been worked as early as 13,000 years ago, and in Pueblo dwelling sites discovered along the Canadian River. An Apachean culture occupied the Panhandle-Plains area in prehistoric times; the modern Apaches subsequently emerged but were pushed out of the region about 1700 by the Comanches. The area was probably crossed by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541, and Pedro Vial may well have traversed the region in 1786 as he searched for the most feasible route between Santa Fe and Natchitoches. The first known Anglo-American expedition through the area was led by Maj. Stephen H. Long, who followed the Canadian River east to its junction with the Arkansas in August 1820. During the California gold rush, gold seekers passed through the area following trails blazed by Josiah Gregg in 1840 and by Randolph B. Marcy in 1849. Lt. James W. Abert and Lt. Amiel W. Whipple crossed the area during their surveys of the Canadian valley in 1845 and 1853, respectively. Comanchero traders and New Mexican pastores camped at Tecovas Springs, where the remains of a plaza are still evident. In the 1870s buffalo hunting decimated the herds that once roamed the area and forced the Indians, who were dependent upon the buffalo, to leave. In 1876 the Texas legislature formed Potter County from the Bexar District, and ranchers soon found their way into the area.
Most of the first Caucasian residents were employees of cattlemen who took their herds into the county. In 1877 David T. Beals and W. H. Bates established their LX Ranch headquarters on Ranch Creek, near the north bank of the Canadian. The range of George W. Littlefield's LIT Ranch extended into the western portion of the county. In 1880 the census found twenty-eight people, two of whom were Black, living on the three ranches that had been established in the county by that time. The county had more than 14,000 cattle and 4,200 sheep that year; no crops were reported. In 1881 Henry B. Sanborn established the Frying Pan Ranch, with headquarters at Tecovas Springs. Warren W. Wetzel, the ranch bookkeeper and later Amarillo's first mayor, resided at the adobe headquarters. His wife Katherine was for nearly six years the only woman in the county.
Settlement of Potter County increased dramatically with the construction of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway across the Panhandle in 1887. A construction camp grew overnight into a tent and buffalo-hut settlement known as Ragtown. When Oldham County officials ordered an election held on August 30 for the purpose of organizing Potter County, several townsites vied to be county seat. William B. Plemons, the first county judge, had a prospective townsite near the head of Amarillo Creek. Two miles southeast was J. T. Berry's townsite of Oneida, in which Plemons soon merged his interest. Frank Lester, backed by Henry Sanborn, dubbed a third site Plains City, while Jesse Jenkins, a Tascosa saloon owner, promoted Ragtown under a new name, Odessa. To attract the support of the cowhands of the LX Ranch, who constituted the majority of the county's qualified voters, Berry promised each of them a business lot and residence lot in his town. The election returns favored Berry's townsite, which was renamed Amarillo. The railroad was completed into the town in October 1887, soon after the elections, and a post office was established there the next month. People from surrounding townsites began to move to the new county seat. The county's first newspaper, the Amarillo Champion, began publication in May 1888, and that same year a school was established in the town. Partly because of the efforts of Henry Sanborn, who had been establishing another townsite east of "Old Town" Amarillo, and partly because of flood dangers, most of the town was moved to a new, higher site by 1890. By that time cattle ranching had become firmly established in the area and dominated Potter County's economy and its culture. Twenty ranches, encompassing more than 511,000 acres, had been established in the county by 1890, and more than 44,000 cattle, but no sheep, were reported in the county that year. By 1900 there were seventy-nine ranches in the county, and the population had increased to 1,820.
The county's economy grew and diversified rapidly during the late 1890s and early 1900s as new railroads built into the area. In 1899 the Santa Fe line established a large divisional office in the town and built an eight-stall engine house, a blacksmith shop, and a machine shop there. By 1904 the Southern Kansas, the Pecos and Northern Texas, and the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas railroads had also built lines through the county. In 1908 the Santa Fe extended a branch line to Canyon, Lubbock, and Sweetwater. Amarillo, already the marketing center for ranchers in the Panhandle, South Plains, and eastern New Mexico, grew rapidly during this time. Railroad employees and construction workers moved into the area, followed by an influx of "sharks, grafters, pickpockets and bums" who hoped to take advantage of the boom. As old ranchlands in the Panhandle began to be subdivided into farmland, the town also became the terminus of excursion trains carrying hundreds of prospective farmers, who were met by the agents of land companies and taken out to view property. Amarillo grew from a population of 1,442 in 1900 to about 5,000 in 1906 and 9,957 in 1910. Farms were beginning to be established in the county, but cattle ranching remained by far the most important component of the county's agricultural economy. Though there were 162 farms and ranches in the county by 1910 (more than double the figure for 1900), that year only 500 acres was planted in corn, the county's most important crop at the time.
The subdivision of ranchlands in Potter County began in earnest after 1910, encouraged by the Santa Fe Railroad, which established agricultural demonstration centers in the area, hired agricultural agents to work with local farmers, and ran excursion trains from Chicago and elsewhere into Amarillo. By 1920 more than 16,000 acres in the county was planted in wheat, the county's most important crop, and another 7,400 was devoted to sorghum; by 1930 almost 24,500 acres was planted in wheat, and about 3,200 acres in sorghum. Meanwhile, cattle remained an important part of the local economy, and the area began to develop a dairy industry. More than 36,000 cattle were reported in Potter County in 1920, and about 28,500 in 1930. The number of farms and ranches in the county increased to 166 by 1920, to 284 by 1925, and to 322 by 1930.
The discovery of vast reserves of natural gas and petroleum in the region during this period fundamentally altered the local economy. A gas field discovered in 1918 about twenty-five miles northwest of Amarillo was soon found to be the largest one in the world. In 1926 enormous oil deposits were found in nearby Hutchinson County. Though very little oil was found in Potter County at this time, Amarillo quickly became the headquarters of such oil companies as Phillips Petroleum, Shamrock Oil and Gas, Magnolia Petroleum Company, and the Texas Company (Texaco), which built a large refinery just east of Amarillo. Helium production and zinc smelters also added to the local economy. As thousands of workers and others looking for opportunity flooded into the area, Amarillo's population jumped from about 15,500 in 1920 to 43,122 in 1930. New towns such as Bushland, Cliffside, Ady, Soncy, Pullman, and St. Francis sprouted up along the railroads. Largely because of the gas and oil boom, but also because of the expansion of farming in the area, the population of Potter County rose to 16,710 by 1920 and 46,080 by 1930.
The economy declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, as a number of oil companies were forced out of business. The area's farmers were particularly afflicted by the droughts and dust storms associated with the Dust Bowl. Cropland harvested in the county declined from 42,546 acres in 1930 to 38,037 acres by 1940, when only 302 farms and ranches remained there. Amarillo became the regional center for federal New Deal programs, however, which provided work and sustenance for many families; the Work Projects Administration, for example, helped to fund improvements of Amarillo streets and sewerage. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center was built west of Amarillo in the 1930s and opened in 1940. In spite of problems associated with the depression, the population of Potter County increased to 54,265 by 1940.
Agriculture revived during World War II. By 1945 there were 540 farms and ranches in the county. The local economy was also stimulated by the federal government's establishment of Amarillo Army Air Field and the Pantex Munitions Plant, which drew servicemen and new jobs to the area. Though the economy suffered when the airfield was closed in 1946, by 1950 there were 54,265 people living in the county. The establishment of Amarillo Air Force Base in 1951, combined with the continuing development of Panhandle mineral resources, helped to spur further growth, as Amarillo became one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States during the 1950s. Despite farm consolidations, the county's population rose to 115,580 by 1960. The closing of the air force base in 1968 was a severe blow to the local economy, however, and by 1970 the county's population had dropped to 90,511. During the 1970s the number of people living in the county began to increase again, however. The census counted 98,637 in 1980 and 97,874 in 1990.
Since , World War II Potter County's manufacturing income has been derived largely from helium, natural gas, oil, and sand and gravel; approximately 60 percent of the world's helium has been produced there. Though natural gas has been produced in the area since before 1920, petroleum production was insignificant until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The county produced more than 250,000 barrels of oil in 1974, more than 436,000 barrels in 1978, about 382,000 barrels in 1982, and just over 198,000 barrels in 1990. In 2000, about 295,000 barrels of oil were produced in the area, and by January 1, 2001, 9,160,319 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since discovery in 1925. The production of natural gas has also significantly contributed to the county’s economy. Almost 48,477,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas and 1,867,000,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas were produced in the county in 1982; in 2000, more than 24,879,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas was extracted.
In the early 1980s about 91 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 10 percent of the farmland under cultivation. Wheat and sorghum were the area's most important crops. Large cattle ranches occupy the greater portion of the county; livestock and livestock products accounted for about 51 percent of the county's agricultural income . There are more than 20,000 acres of irrigated land in Potter County, mainly in the southern sections. In 1982, 304,092 bushels of wheat and 269,555 bushels of sorghum were harvested there. Dairy products and poultry production also contribute to the farm income. By 1982 the county had 178 farms, 163 manufacturing plants, and 872 service industries.
The voters of Potter County supported Democratic candidates in virtually every presidential election between 1888 and 1948; the only exception occurred in 1928, when the county rejected Catholic Democrat Al Smith in favor of Republican Herbert Hoover. A majority of the county's electorate voted Republican in almost every election between 1952 and 2004, however. The only exception occurred in 1964, when Democrat and Texas son Lyndon B. Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in the county. In 1992 a plurality of the county's voters supported Republican George H. W. Bush over Democrat William J. Clinton. Third-party candidate Ross Perot.won almost 17 percent of the county’s voters in that election.
By the 1980s, most institutions and projects of the county are joint operations with the city of Amarillo. Among these are a child-welfare unit, a library, a cerebral palsy clinic, and Harrington Regional Medical Center. Amarillo College serves both Potter and Randall counties, and the Amarillo branch of Texas State Technical College serves most of Northwest and West Texas. The Amarillo Globe-News Company publishes the Amarillo News and Globe-Times. Interstate Highway 40 has greatly increased the cross-country flow through the area, and during the 1980s Interstate 27 was constructed through the county.
In 2014 the census counted 121,627 people living in Potter County. About 47.1 percent were Anglo, 36.7 percent were Hispanic, and 10.8 percent were African American. More than 81 percent of residents age twenty-five and over had completed four years of high school, and almost 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century the county, and particularly Amarillo, was the transportation and distribution hub for a large part of west Texas; manufacturing, gas production, petrochemicals, and agriculture continued to be important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 305 farms and ranches covering 521,824 acres, 86 percent of which were devoted to pasture and 13 percent to crops. That year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $19,490,000; livestock sales accounted for $18,175,000 of the total. Beef cattle raising and processing were the county’s chief agricultural activities, though crops such as corn and wheat were also grown there. More than 90 percent of the people in Potter County live in urban areas. Amarillo (population, 200,526, partly in Randall County) remains the seat of government and is by far the largest center of population. Other communities include Cliffside, Bishop Hills (195), and Bushland (1,485). The annual Tri State Fair attracts visitors to Potter County, as do Lake Meredith and the Alibates Flint Quarries. The county also benefits from the tourist trade at Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park, which stages the popular summer outdoor drama Texas.
Della Tyler Key, Inthe Cattle Country: History of Potter County, 1887–1966 (Amarillo: Tyler-Berkley, 1961; 2d ed., Wichita Falls: Nortex, 1972).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
H. Allen Anderson and John Leffler,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 18, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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