Rains County is in northeast Texas on the upper reaches of the Sabine River. It is bordered by Hunt, Hopkins, Wood, and Van Zandt counties. The county seat and largest town, Emory, is centrally located in the county at 32°50' north latitude and 95°50' west longitude and is sixty-four miles east of Dallas. The altitude of Rains County varies from 406 to 491 feet above sea level. The average maximum temperature is 95° F in July, and the average minimum is 31° in January. The county receives an average of 42.2 inches of rain per year and has a growing season of 242 days. With a total area of only 258.8 square miles, Rains County is one of the smallest counties in the state, and more than 10 percent of it has been under water since the construction of Lake Tawakoni and Lake Fork Reservoir. The soils are primarily a mixture of sand and clay. The Sabine River forms the southern border of the county, but most of the creeks drain northeast into the Lake Fork of the Sabine. Other watercourses in Rains County are Elm, Cedar, Garrett, Woodbury, Brushy, Sandy, Turkey, Bull, and Bear creeks. There are also numerous springs. The largest group, Springville Springs, are the source of a stream that flows through the city park in Emory. The rate of flow from these and other springs has slackened in recent years because the water table has been lowered by well pumping.
The dominant trees in the county are post oak, blackjack oak, walnut, cedar elm, and black hickory, as well as winged elm, chinaberry, redbud, and dogwood. The western Blackland Prairie has primarily tall grasses and mesquites, and post oak, elm, and pecan trees are found along streams. The number of wild animals is relatively low, but a considerable diversity is represented. Many of the species are at the extreme western or eastern extension of their natural range. The most common mammals are the opossum, cottontail, swamp rabbit, several species of squirrel, and the plains pocket gopher. Less abundant, but also native to the area, are the beaver, coyote, gray fox, raccoon, weasel, mink, river otter, skunk, bobcat, and white-tailed deer. The armadillo established itself in Rains County within the last century. Species which have been exterminated or driven away include the black bear, mountain lion, red wolf, alligator, buffalo, and wild turkey.
Some of the earliest inhabitants of the Rains County area were hunters and gatherers from the Archaic period who left enough evidence, in the form of projectile points and primitive pottery, to establish their presence in East Texas. Of the seventy-two known prehistoric sites in Rains County, half are from the Archaic period. Around A.D. 800 Indians of the Caddo culture appeared in the area. Although none of their distinctive mounds have been found in Rains County, many lesser village sites have been unearthed, especially near springs. One settlement, the Bracheen Site, appears to have been occupied by Archaic peoples before it became a Caddo village. In the eighteenth century several Wichita tribes, principally the Tawakoni and Yscani Indians, moved southward into Texas and settled in an area from Rains County south and west to the Brazos River. The first Europeans known to have set foot in the territory of Rains County were Fray José Francisco de Calahorra y Saenz and his party, who set out from Nacogdoches in 1760 on a mission to end hostilities between the Spanish and the northern tribes. He later made two more visits to the Indian villages on the Sabine. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish largely withdrew from East Texas. Though traders undoubtedly came and went, it was eighty years before Anglo-Americans established a permanent presence in the county. In 1957 archeologists excavated a site on the north bank of the Sabine River in southwestern Rains County. The evidence they found led them to conclude that it was the village described by Calahorra in his diary. In addition to Indian artifacts, they found trade goods of Spanish, French, and even English manufacture.
The first American of European descent to colonize the territory was probably James H. Hooker of Tennessee. In the 1840s Hooker arrived from Missouri and settled in the area of southwest Rains County, establishing Hooker's Mill on the Sabine River. The site coincides with that of the Tawakoni-Yscani village visited by Fray Calahorra, but there is no evidence to indicate the Indians were still living there eighty years later. Hooker's homestead was originally in Hunt County and is now submerged by Lake Tawakoni. Another early immigrant, William Garrett of Tennessee, settled in the northwest section of the county. Other settlers, mostly from the South, soon followed. They founded such communities as Rice's Point, Sabine Pass, Springville, and Pilgrim Rest. The remaining Indian tribes were resettled to north central Texas in 1855. Four years later the remaining Caddos and Wichitas were moved to Oklahoma. The first pioneers found much of the area covered by a dense forest, with impenetrable cane brakes in the stream beds and river bottoms. Cotton was, from the first, the principal cash crop. After harvest the farmer might have to wait for months for good weather and dry roads to take his several bales to market. The journey by oxcart to Shreveport could take weeks even under good conditions. After 1850 most of the area that later became Rains County fell within the boundaries of Wood County, which was represented in the state Senate by Emory Rains, an early pioneer who had served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas. In 1866 Rains lobbied for the bill that established Rains County. On June 9, 1870, the legislature approved "an Act to create and provide for the organization of the County of Rains." The bulk of the new county was taken from Wood County. The western section, including the sites of the first settlements, came from Hunt County, and a narrow strip of land in the north was carved from Hopkins County. The act provided that the citizens should choose a county seat, to be named Emory. Springville, the largest and most centrally located community, was designated the temporary place of business for the five appointed commissioners and was later selected as the permanent county seat and renamed Emory. By 1857 the town had a store, tanning yard, and gin. Until at least the early 1880s, when rail service was first brought to Rains County, most of the inhabitants did their business in Mineola in adjoining Wood County. A log house in Emory was used initially as a temporary county courthouse. In 1872 a two-room wooden courthouse was erected. Seven years later the small building burned, along with all of the county records. The seat of government was moved back into the original log house until 1884, when a new brick courthouse was completed. In 1908 the courthouse was again destroyed by fire, but this time the records were saved.
Access to markets in the East became easier when in August 1873 the Texas and Pacific Railway completed a line from Shreveport to Dallas. Although the tracks did not pass through Rains County, there were stations at Wills Point and Jordan's Saline just across the Sabine River in Van Zandt County. The first official census taken of Rains County enumerated a population of 3,035 in 1880. Of these, 250 were Black and the rest White. The census recorded six small manufacturing establishments with a total of ten employees. Agriculture, however, continued to be the mainstay of the economy. There were 495 farms in 1880. An estimated 6 percent of the county was tilled; cotton and corn each accounted for a third of the cultivated land, although the former was recognized as the area's staple crop. The output of 1,915 bales was small compared with that of older counties, but Rains County's yield per acre exceeded the state average. Oats, wheat, and hay were produced in quantity as well. The livestock population included milk and beef cattle, swine, sheep, and poultry. That year the number of hogs and swine, 13,934, was the high for the county.
About 1880 the Denison and Southeastern division of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad began construction of a line from Greenville to Mineola which passed northwest to southeast through Rains County. In addition to a station at Emory, the railroad established a flag station eight miles to the northwest. Residents of the area proposed the name Rice's Point for the post office built there, but the name Point was adopted instead to avoid confusion with another post office. Point became the second-largest town in the county, which by 1887 had six merchants, five lawyers, and seven physicians. H. W. Martin founded the county's first newspaper, the Argus, that same year. The name was later changed to the Record, then to the Rains County Leader, under which name it is still published. Other papers that originated in this era included the Emory Star (1890), the Rains County Sentinel (1894), and the Point Enterprise (1913). With the help of the railroad the county population doubled in twenty years. At the turn of the century there were 6,136 inhabitants—426 in Emory, 174 in Point, and the rest living on the county's 1,037 farms. The cotton crop for 1900 totaled 5,314 bales. Corn, hay, and oats had also nearly tripled since 1880. Increases in livestock, however, were more modest, and the cultivation of fruits and vegetables had begun. "Here the Elberta peach reaches perfection," noted one observer, although peach production had declined after reaching 15,909 bushels in 1890. The county's first school district was established in 1892, and by 1904 there were thirty-one public schools, four of which served the Black population of 500, which was concentrated in the north central section of the county. The churches found in Rains County in 1904 were exclusively of Protestant denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Christian. In 1913 Point established the first independent school district in the county and erected a two-story brick school. Emory, though larger, did not form an independent school district until 1920.
Lignite was mined at several spots in Rains County around 1900, but only intermittently and never on a large scale. More successful was the mining of clay southeast of Emory. The small community near the deposit was named Ginger after the color of the clay itself. In 1905 the Fraser-Johnson Brick Company was established there and began producing and marketing "Ginger Bricks." It was later renamed Fraser Brick Company and began producing ceramic tile. It remained a successful enterprise through the 1930s but was finally forced to close in the 1940s, when the clay deposit was exhausted. Nothing remains today of Rains County's most successful industrial venture except a roadside marker.
The late nineteenth century was a time of unrest in many rural areas, as farm owners and tenants (see FARM TENANCY) rebelled against what they believed were monopolistic practices of banks and railroads. The agrarian populist movement was especially strong in East Texas, and Rains County in particular. In the 1870s many farmers organized Granges , cooperative ventures aimed at bypassing the big-city middlemen. The following decade a national organization, the Farmers' Alliance, attracted many local members. Initially apolitical, the alliance became increasingly associated with the People's (Populist) party. In 1892 the Populist candidate for president, James B. Weaver, received 448 votes in Rains County to 353 cast for Democrat Grover Cleveland. Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate, secured only 70 votes. The Farmers' Alliance was on the decline by 1892 and soon ceased to exist altogether. It and other farm organizations had failed because the farmers lacked the capital to establish the cooperative ventures necessary to make themselves independent from the middlemen. An attempt to join the alliance with the urban labor movement failed for lack of a common cause—higher prices for crops in the field meant higher prices for food in the market. Nonetheless, Texas farmers persisted in trying to collectively beat the system that was keeping them on the edge of poverty. On August 28, 1902, Populist leader Isaac Newton Gresham and nine other men met at Smyrna schoolhouse southwest of Emory to organize the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union. In 1903 Gresham moved to Emory and founded the Farmers' Union Password, which he edited until his death in 1906. Although its first meetings were held in secret, the union quickly gained widespread attention and support. In 1905 it became a national organization known as the Farmers Union. Membership rolls were secret until 1914, and estimates of the number of members vary, but by mid-decade its adherents numbered in the hundreds of thousands. When the headquarters in Point received more mail than the local post office could handle, the union office was moved to Mineola. Later, as the focus of union activities moved to West Texas and then the Plains states, the headquarters of the National Farmers' Union was moved to Fort Worth and finally to Denver. Other reform activities flourished in Rains County as well. In 1904, with the Populist party declining in strength, farmers in neighboring Van Zandt County organized the Socialist party of Texas. Under its national leader, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist party attracted its largest Texas following in Rains and Van Zandt counties. Large enthusiastic crowds greeted Debs when he toured the area in 1914, and a third of the electorate supported the Socialists at the polls. The Socialists, in turn, fanned the flames of resentment against usurious practices by banks and against exorbitant rents charged by absentee landlords. In 1914 renters in Rains County filed a suit against a bank they accused of violating the state anti-usury laws. When this action brought to light the fact that banks were charging interest rates as high as 35 percent, angry protests, some violent, erupted throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
Despite the grievances voiced by its small farmers, Rains County grew and prospered. The population was officially reckoned at 8,099 in 1920 and may have peaked at over 10,000 around 1925. The three population centers were still Emory, Point, and Ginger. Cotton production reached a peak of 8,291 bales in 1920 and remained high through 1931. The other staples—corn, oats, and hay—showed substantial increases as well. The 1920 harvest produced a third of a million bushels of corn and half that much of oats. Dairy cows were twice as numerous as the decade before, but other types of livestock were less. Nonetheless, farmers knew that diversification was needed. Peaches were grown in unprecedented quantities; Rains County produced 29,627 bushels in 1920 compared to 599 in 1910. But the crop many farmers turned to was the sweet potato. East Texas farmers and merchants invested heavily between 1915 and 1920 in storage facilities, and initial returns lived up to expectations, but production declined because the farmers were unaware of the need for crop rotation. The Great Depression brought economic growth to a halt but did not drastically reduce the population or the level of agricultural production. From 8,099 in 1920 the population fell to 7,114 in 1930 and rose slightly to 7,334 by 1940. A disproportionate amount of the increase during the 1930s was in the Black population, which grew to 633 by 1940. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of farms in the county decreased from 1,691 to 1,132. Production of cotton declined slowly but steadily to 6,936 bales in 1940. Grain production, which fell sharply from 1920 to 1930, rose slightly in the 1930s. Sweet potato harvests continued to vary from year to year. By 1940 Irish potatoes, which had not generally been a major crop, surpassed sweet potatoes in yield. The larger livestock animals declined in number during the depression, while the number of smaller stock increased. In 1940 there were more sheep (1,203) than beef cattle (1,146) in the county for the first and only time in its history. The number of goats increased to 587, and poultry were raised by the tens of thousands. Population counts of the towns were not taken regularly, but such figures as are available show a loss in both Emory and Point of about a third of the inhabitants from 1929 to 1941. Ginger remained the site of ceramic tile production and sporadic lignite mining. Emory had a cotton gin and a broom factory, but Point continued to rely exclusively on the farm trade. If there was a beneficial side to the depression it was in the numerous public works completed. Since 1880 Rains County had depended for transportation solely on the MKT rail line. About 1930 a branch of the Texas Short Line was built between Hoyt in Wood County and Grand Saline in Van Zandt and cut across the southeast corner of Rains County, but it made no stops there. Around 1932 State Highway 42 was built from Emory southeast to Mineola and northwest through Point to Greenville. It was surfaced with gravel until around 1940, by which time its designation had changed to U.S. Highway 69.
World War II substantially depopulated Rains County. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of inhabitants fell from 7,334 to 4,266 as people found employment in war plants. This transformation was paralleled by the consolidation of small farms into larger ones and a shift to less labor-intensive forms of agriculture. The number of farms dropped from 1,132 to 814, while the number of beef cattle soared from 1,146 in 1940 to 8,198 in 1950. Cotton production continued its gradual decline, and the production of other crops except sweet potatoes fell off sharply. With the closing of the Fraser Brick Company, manufacturing ceased altogether in Rains County. The 1947 Census of Manufactures reported no establishments at all. Emory and Point retained a higher proportion of their populace than did the countryside but subsisted after the mid-1940s strictly on trade and services. By 1945 both towns, along with almost half the farms in the county, had electric service. In the late 1940s and early 1950s State Highway 19 was built through Emory, connecting it to Sulphur Springs to the north and Canton to the south. The 1950s saw the continuation of the trends in population and agriculture that were brought on by World War II. In some ways the county had returned to its beginnings. At 495, the number of farms in 1959 was exactly what it had been when first recorded in 1880. The population declined to 2,993 in 1960, slightly lower than the 3,035 counted in the first federal census. The racial mix remained the same—90 percent White and 10 percent Black. Agricultural production figures in 1959 looked much as they had in 1880, except that hay had supplanted cotton as the leading crop and beef cattle were now favored over swine. Cotton yield was down to 3,150 bales. Manufacturing played an insignificant role by 1960, and mineral production was negligible. Oil had been found in Rains County in 1955, but output was only a few hundred barrels a year at a time when other counties were producing millions. The MKT line was abandoned in the late 1950s, and the right-of-way was used to build a wider, straighter U.S. 69. In 1960 the closest doctor was twenty miles beyond the county line. The median years of school completed had declined from 8.5 in 1950 to 8.3 in 1960, when 83 percent of the adult population had not completed high school.
The year 1960 was a turning point in Rains County history, due to the completion of Lake Tawakoni. In 1955 the City of Dallas and the Sabine River Authority had agreed to construct a dam across the Sabine River southwest of Emory in order to provide a supply of water to Dallas and to further the economic development of the region. Lake Tawakoni, which is impounded by Iron Bridge Dam, has a surface area of 36,700 acres and a storage capacity of 936,200 acre-feet. The economic benefits it brought to Rains County accrued slowly but steadily. By the late 1960s residential development had begun along the eastern shore. Nearby Point increased 50 percent in population within eight years and became the second town in the county to incorporate. By 1970 the lakeside residents had organized a town called East Tawakoni, which also incorporated to authorize the sale of liquor and beer to boaters and picnickers in what was otherwise a dry county. Lake Tawakoni reversed Rains County's downward trend in population. The number of inhabitants grew steadily from 2,993 in 1960 to 3,752 in 1970 and to 4,839 in 1980. The new residents were predominantly White; the number of Blacks in the county dropped from 306 to 270 over the same twenty-year period. Manufacturing returned to the county in the 1970s. By the end of the decade there were seven firms employing a total of 200 people with a payroll of $1.5 million. Although Rains County was bypassed by the interstate highway system, it did acquire a small general airport southwest of Emory in the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, agriculture remained the mainstay of the economy. The number of farms remained the same after 1960, but they have come to specialize almost exclusively in three products: beef cattle, hay, and sweet potatoes. The number of nondairy cattle doubled in the 1960s and has remained around 20,000 since then. Hay production continued to rise, reaching 31,537 tons in 1987. Because of the danger of exhausting the soil through overplanting, sweet potatoes vary in yield from year to year. In 1982, for example, the harvest totaled 206,831 bushels, whereas a few years earlier it had been almost nonexistent. In 1970 the United States Army Corps of Engineers recommended, for recreation and flood control, three additional reservoirs on the Sabine River and its tributaries. Two were to lie partly within Rains County. Construction on Lake Fork Reservoir began several years later and was completed in 1980. The lake has a conservation area of 27,690 acres and a capacity of over 600,000 acre-feet. The Mineola Lake project, later renamed Carl L. Estes Lake, was never completed. Preliminary surveys disclosed that the lignite deposits in southern Rains County were potentially too valuable to be locked away by building a reservoir over them. The Corps of Engineers deactivated the project in 1979, recommending that the lignite be mined. Energy prices fell in the 1980s, however, and no mining took place.
In 1984 there were twenty-two churches in Rains County, predominantly Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist. In the late 1980s the economy continued to be based on agriculture, and livestock accounted for 90 percent of all farm income. Of the 1,051 employed persons in the county in 1988, most worked in retail trade and services. Of the five businesses classed as manufacturing, two were in Point: a casting plant and a maker of wire products. The other three were in Emory: a concrete plant, a cabinet maker, and the weekly newspaper, the Rains County Leader. By 1990 the county's population had increased to 6,715. The majority of the inhabitants were White; only 286 citizens were Black, 158 were Hispanic, and 119 belonged to other races. Most of the people lived in rural areas or unincorporated towns.
Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election through 1992, with the exceptions of 1972 and 1984, when Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won. In 1982, 100 percent of the county's electorate voted in the Democratic primary; and as late as 1990 only 105 primary voters identified themselves as Republican. This began to change in the 1990s, however, as the area began to trend Republican. Democrat Bill Clinton won pluralities in the county in 1992 and 1996, and Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.
By 2014 the census counted 11,032 people living in Rains County. About 86.3 percent were Anglo, 2.9 percent were African American, and 8.2 percent were Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent of residents age twenty-five or older had four years of high school, and more than 10 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness and some manufacturing were the key elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 584 farms and ranches covering 93,601 acres, 46 percent of which were devoted to crops, 41 percent to pasture, and 10 percent to woodland. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $11,790,000, with livestock sales accounting for $9,507,000 of the total. Beef, dairy cattle, horses, vegetables, hay, and small grains were the chief agricultural products. Emory (population, 1,226), the county's seat of government, was its largest town. Other communities include Point (811) and East Tawakoni (876). Recreation in Rains County revolves around its two large reservoirs. Farm Road 47, which runs south from Point and skirts Iron Bridge Dam, has been designated part of the Texas Lakes Trail. There are public boat ramps and other facilities at both Lake Tawakoni and Lake Fork Reservoir. In 2004 the county began to host an annual bass fishing and golf tournament in September.