Reagan County is in West Texas at the northwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau on U.S. Highway 67 and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. It is bounded on the west by Upton County, on the north by Glasscock County, on the east by Sterling, Tom Green, and Irion counties, and on the south by Crockett County. The county's northwestern corner lies on the Llano Estacado. Big Lake, the county seat, is seventy miles southwest of San Angelo, and the center of the county lies at 31°22' north latitude and 101°31' west longitude. Other towns include Best, Stiles, and Texon. Reagan County comprises 1,173 square miles of flat to gently sloping sandy terrain in the northwestern and north central regions and flat to sharply dissected limestone and rolling caliche in the remaining sections. Soils are dark, calcareous stony clays and clay loams. In the 1980s less than 1 percent of the land was considered prime farmland. Vegetation in the county consists of mesquite savanna, except in the southeastern corner where juniper, shinnery, and live oak also appear. Altitudes vary from 2,406 to 2,953 feet above sea level. The average annual temperature is 66° F, and the average annual rainfall is sixteen inches. The growing season extends for 229 days. Duststorms were once common during the spring, and the land suffered from overgrazing, water and wind erosion, and poor irrigation systems. Natural resources in Reagan County include caliche, limestone, salt, gas, oil and sulfur. Numerous draws, which remain dry most of the year, provide drainage into the Middle Concho River during floods. Centralia Draw, which crosses the middle of Reagan County, is the most prominent. Runoff from the extreme southwestern corner of the county drains into the Pecos River.
Though early inhabitants remain undocumented, it is likely that Paleo-Indians lived on the land that became Reagan County. Spanish expeditions probably traversed the area; local Jumano Indians encouraged the Spanish to establish missions there on several occasions in the seventeenth century. Kiowa and Comanche Indians used the area as a hunting ground and later raided local ranches, but it remained largely unsettled country until the nineteenth century. An important source of water for prehistoric peoples and early travelers was Grierson Springs, which once flowed substantially in southwestern Reagan County. Spaniards probably discovered the springs in January 1684, when the expedition of Juan Domínguez de Mendoza arrived there and camped for two days. The Comanches also used the springs as a campsite. In 1858 the Butterfield Overland Mail missed the springs when planners drew its stage route along Centralia Draw across the center of the county, but a source of fresh water was the first consideration when an outpost for Fort Concho was selected on April 30, 1878. Both the springs and the camp were named in honor of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, who located the camp at the site. Camp Grierson was part of the army's plan to protect white society in the area from Indian attack and ultimately to eliminate the Indians from Texas. At different times, companies D, E, and F of the Tenth Cavalry, Company K of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, and Company K of the Twenty-fourth Infantry were stationed there. The camp was abandoned in 1882 when Grierson and his Tenth Cavalry were transferred from Fort Concho to Fort Davis. On May 26, 1885, George W. Wedemeyer stopped at the springs and described the camp as in ruins. P. H. Coates, whose family arrived in a train of seventeen wagons in 1885, also camped at the springs. By the 1890s sheep and goat ranchers had moved into the central area of the county near the homesite of another early settler, Gordon Stiles, on Centralia Draw. The local post office, named for Stiles, was established in 1894, and a store opened there before 1900.
Reagan County was carved from Tom Green County in 1903 and named for Senator John H. Reagan, the first chairman of the Railroad Commission. Stiles became the first county seat. After constructing two temporary frame courthouses, county officials built a striking two-story white stone building in 1911. A wooden school building was constructed adjacent to the courthouse. At one time the Stiles school employed a faculty of six certified teachers for an estimated enrollment of seventy-five students. The original school was replaced by a brick building in 1926, but enrollment dropped to eight in 1930, and the Stiles school closed in 1947. Early in the twentieth century post offices opened at two other small communities in Reagan County. Reaganview, fifteen miles northeast of Stiles, operated a post office from 1905 through 1910 and a one-teacher school from 1902 to 1915. The second community, Isaac, maintained a post office from 1907 through 1909. In 1905 the P. H. Coates family settled in southern Reagan County on the west side of Big Lake. The T. H. Taylor family took up residence on land on the east side of the pond. In 1911 Taylor sold 320 acres of land to the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient of Texas Railway for a station and townsite, which was named for the local landmark and promoted by the railroad. The railroad chose a route through Big Lake rather than Stiles, because a large landowner near Stiles failed to grant a right-of-way. A post office, public school, newspaper office, and various stores were established by 1912. In 1913 a Methodist church was formed, and in 1915 a Baptist church was organized with fifteen members. A red brick ten-grade school opened, and the Big Lake Hotel was completed in 1915. In 1910 the county population numbered 392, of which eleven were foreign-born and two were African American. A total of fifty-one farms, nine of which were operated by tenants (see FARM TENANCY), encompassed 443,715 acres. Farm crops included sorghums, hay, corn, and cotton. Livestock, valued at $396,306, included 9,074 sheep and 8,906 cattle. By 1920 the number of farms in Reagan County dipped to forty-six, acreage fell to 413,718, and the population dropped to 377, with no minority or foreign-born residents remaining. Seventeen farms, or 37 percent, were operated by tenants. Livestock increased to 48,000 sheep and 17,000 cattle, valued at $1.7 million. Farmers raised 707 tons of hay, 5,700 bushels of sorghum, and 1,246 bushels of corn. One of the oldest cattle trails in Texas crossed the Big Lake area, and between 1916 and 1920 up to 400 carloads of steers were unloaded at Big Lake each year to winter in Crockett County before being sent north to fatten for market.
In May 1923 the focus of the area economy changed from agriculture to petroleum when the Big Lake oilfield started producing. The discovery opened the Permian Basin and all of West Texas to oil exploration and production. Oil wells located on lands given to the University of Texas in 1876 subsequently became a major source of the institution's endowment. By summer oil leases sold for quick profits to local landowners and out-of-town speculators. Several cafes, a hardware store, a lumberyard, and other new businesses opened to serve the expected Big Lake boom, and the local hotel was expanded by a twelve-room addition. Big Lake citizens voted to incorporate on August 15, 1923. In 1925, by which time the population had reached 100 and Big Lake appeared to be the most important town in the county, voters moved the seat of government there from Stiles. As a result of the oil boom, two new post offices were established in southern Reagan County. The community of Best, six miles from the discovery well, received a post office in 1924 and operated a grade school under an emergency permit. Best developed into a typical 1920s boom town with growing vice and violence, reaching a population estimated at 3,000 by 1925. In an effort to clean up the town, citizens called out the Texas Rangers , who destroyed buildings that were being used as brothels, gambling houses, and saloons. By the 1980s less than a dozen people lived at Best. In contrast to Best, Texon was established by the Big Lake Oil Company for its employees and their families and was devoted to family life. It was granted a post office in 1926 and became a model town with stores, a union church, good housing, a school system, and a hospital. Entertainment facilities included a movie theater, swimming pool, playground, baseball park, and golf course. At that time the town was home to 738 residents, and the public school had enrolled fifty students. As oil activity decreased, however, Texon declined. The Texon school closed in 1958, and the company town in 1962. By 1990 only a single business and a population of thirty-five remained.
In 1930 the Reagan County population reflected the oil boom rather than the Great Depression. Of a total of 3,028 residents, sixteen were foreign-born. African Americans numbered sixty-four and Hispanics 101. With the onset of the depression the number of farms increased to seventy-three, and acreage climbed to over 507,000, yet the value of farms declined to about $3.5 million, and the number of tenants soared to forty-six, or 60 percent of the farmworkers. Livestock remained the focus of agriculture, with 13,000 cattle and 5,000 sheep and goats, and farmers raised a few crops. By 1936 the county was stocked with 120,000 sheep, 12,000 beef cattle, and 2,000 goats and shipped wool and mohair. By 1940 the county showed signs of recovery as farms increased to seventy-six, farmland expanded to 725,000 acres, and the value of farms rose to over $5.3 million, though tenants continued to outnumber owners. Sheep totaled 157,000 and far outnumbered all other livestock, and only sorghums were harvested. The population declined to 2,000 by 1940. In 1947 the county reported only two manufacturing establishments. By the 1950s the population had risen to 3,127, of which only one resident was black. Among county residents were 440 high school and 120 college graduates. A renewed oil boom swept the county in the spring of 1951, when the Spraberry Trend area, a shallow pay, was brought into production (see SPRABERRY-DEAN SANDSTONE FIELDS). By 1954 the number of farms, still mostly tenant-operated, climbed to 107, and total farm acreage decreased to 603,000. Sheep raising declined from 127,000 in 1950 to 49,000 by 1954. Crops were valued at only $100,000. Only a single manufacturing establishment operated in the county after 1958 for the next two decades. In the 1960s the population rose to 3,781. By 1969 the value of county livestock totaled $2.5 million, and a total of 103 farms occupied 639,000 acres, with the majority of operators living on their farms.
By 1970 the population reached 3,239. High school graduates numbered 1,561 and college graduates 162. Between 1923 and 1973 the county produced over 287 million barrels of oil. By the 1980s Reagan County had 4,135 residents, 82 percent of whom lived in urban areas, though there had been a significant increase in rural population during the previous decade. By this time, only 31 percent of residents were Hispanic and less than 4 percent were African American. High school graduates increased to 55 percent of the population, and college graduates to 9 percent. The number of farms reached 123 in 1982, but less than half of the farm operators lived on their land. The value of livestock was $2.8 million, and crops were valued at $4.2 million. The county continued to report two manufacturing businesses in operation. By 1985, 90 percent of the land was taken up in farming and ranching, but harvested cropland totaled only 4 percent.
The county's first presidential election results, reported in 1908, were fifty-two votes for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, three votes for William Howard Taft, and two votes for a third candidate. Between 1912 and 1924 the county remained predominantly Democratic, but in 1928 voters supported Republican Herbert Hoover. They returned to the Democratic column in 1932 and gave overwhelming victory to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman through the 1948 election. Republican war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower received a majority of county votes in 1952 and 1956, but voters supported Democrats John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and Hubert Humphrey by seventy votes in 1968. In 1972 conservatives won a majority for Republican Richard Nixon, but the county supported the Democratic candidate by two votes in 1976. From 1980 through 1992 voters expressed conservative political views by voting Republican. In 2014 the county population was 3,755. About 31.3 percent were Anglo, 3.4 percent African American, and 65.3 percent Hispanic. The major communities were Big Lake (population, 3,219), Texon, Best, and Stiles. The economy continues to revolve around oil, gas, and ranching, and the price and demand for petroleum are important economic concerns. Reagan County celebrates stock shows in January and July and a Chili Cookoff in October at Big Lake.