Ranger, on Interstate Highway 20 between Abilene and Fort Worth in northeastern Eastland County, derived its name from the Texas Rangers, who in the 1870s had a camp in a valley about two miles northeast of Ranger on a prong of Palo Pinto Creek. This camp would have been at the south end of the present Hagaman Lake, earlier the Watson Ranch. By 1879 the beautiful valley housed a tent city with tent churches, schools, hotel, and general store, and was known as Ranger Camp Valley. In 1880 the Texas and Pacific Railway Company laid tracks a couple of miles west of the valley. In August 1880 I. G. Searcy deeded 160 hundred and sixty acres to Texas and Pacific Railway Company. The inhabitants of Ranger Camp Valley moved to the railway and established the permanent town of Ranger. On December 27, 1880, James M. Davis was appointed postmaster of the new Ranger post office. Between 1889 and 1904 Ranger grew from a town of 350 with two doctors to 750 with five doctors, a bank, a high school, and a women's literary club. It had become a trade center for Stephens County, an important wheat-producing area to the north.
As an agricultural center, Ranger was hit hard by the drought of 1917. Inspired by adversity, a few residents encouraged William Knox Gordon, vice president of the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, to begin testing for oil. The first well drilled, the Nannie Walker No. 1, was somewhat of a disappointment, as it first produced gas and only later blew in oil. But in October 1917 the McClesky No. 1 came in, reached a daily production of 1,700 barrels, and began a mammoth oil boom that drastically changed Ranger and Eastland County. The discovery of oil in Ranger led the oil industry to reappraise Texas as an oil-producing area and allayed fears of a nationwide oil shortage, which had been growing since 1900. In June 1919 the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company, whose stock had skyrocketed from thirty dollars to $1,250 a share, was drilling twenty-two wells in the area. Eight refineries were open or under construction, and the city's four banks had $5 million in deposits. Later in the boom, work was begun on an eight-inch pipeline to carry oil to the Gulf Coast. Although census figures never went higher than the 16,201 recorded in 1920, Ranger may have had 30,000 residents at one time. With the arrival of the Wichita Falls and Southern Railroad, Ranger a second railway line; trains running between Fort Worth and Abilene made five daily stops in Ranger. The city was incorporated in 1919.
Not all the effects of the boom were positive, however. At about the same time that oil began flowing, the drought broke, and torrential rains fell through the fall and winter, turning Main Street into a three-foot bog in which one man reported he saw a mule drown. The rains, coupled with crowded and jerry-built housing, led to an epidemic of typhoid and influenza that killed many. Pictures from the boom days show derricks sprouting up like trees throughout the town. Their proximity meant that residents could never escape the smell of oil. It also meant that when wells came in and caught fire, as they often did, they endangered the whole town. One fire, on April 6, 1919, destroyed nearly two city blocks. The boom also brought with it rapid growth in the number of gambling houses and brothels, and oilfield killings reportedly were common; many people considered Ranger to be a typical oil-boom town.
By 1921, after less than two turbulent years, the boom was spent. Eastland County wells, drilled into black lime, produced remarkably at first, diminished, and stopped after relatively short lives. A number of bank failures in 1921 put a decisive end to the boom, and by the time of the next census in 1930, the population of Ranger had fallen to 6,208. During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan grew strong in Eastland County, with Ranger as the hub of activity. In the economic unrest after the oil boom spent itself, the Klan, with its anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic bias, claimed that it was formed to defend American values and that its picnics, baseball games, and rallies had attracted thousands. "Kluckers," as they termed themselves, published a newsletter, Ku-Klux in Round, and claimed to be good for business and society. Although its actual membership is unknown, the Klan soon attracted vigorous opposition. An Eastland Good Government Club was formed with a Ranger Club branch. In their declaration of principles the clubs quoted the United States Constitution on freedom and equality and denounced the Klan for boycotting Catholic and minority businesses. The Klan ventured into county politics, but after its defeat in the elections of 1924 it declined rapidly and by the end of the decade had virtually disappeared from the area. Although the town never recovered its former wealth, the postdepression era saw Ranger recover economically, saved by sheep and goat ranching and the cultivation of peanuts, cotton, and sweet potatoes. By the 1960s Ranger had fifteen industries. In the 1970s Eastland County became the second most important county for peanut culture in the state. At the same time Ranger Junior College, founded in 1926, was enrolling about 500 students. In 1980 Ranger had eighty-three businesses, a bank, and a population of 3,142. In 1982 the chamber of commerce established the Roaring Ranger Museum to depict the history of the oil boom and the community. In 1990 Ranger had a population of 2,803. The population was 2,584 in 2000. See also RANGER, DESDEMONA, AND BRECKENRIDGE OILFIELDS.