Runnels County is in west central Texas. Ballinger, the county seat and largest town, is 225 miles west of Dallas and 200 miles northwest of Austin. The center of the county, just north of Ballinger, lies at 31°45' north latitude and 99°58' west longitude. Runnels County encompasses 1,060 square miles of broad, rolling prairie with a small section of the Edwards Plateau in the very southeastern corner of the county and is bounded on the north by Nolan and Taylor counties, on the east by Coleman County, on the south by Concho County, and on the west by Tom Green and Coke counties. The gently sloping land is broken in the northeastern section by a few very steep limestone hills, including the highest point in the county, Moro Mountain. In general, county elevation ranges from 1,650 to 2,350 feet above sea level. The Colorado River flows through the southern third of the county from northwest to southeast, passing out of the county at the mouth of the Concho River. A number of streams, including Mustang, Oak, Elm, and Valley creeks, rise in the northern part of the county and flow south into the Colorado. The main tributaries from the south, above the mouth of the Concho River, are Pony, Redbank, and Mule creeks. A large number of smaller, spring-fed streams help to provide a generally abundant water supply to the area. Three-quarters of the land in Runnels County is well adapted to cultivation. The soil, black waxy and sandy loam, is mostly shallow to moderately deep over limy earth, red beds, or limestone. Some soils are deep with loamy surface layers and clayey subsoils. The clay is an excellent source of material for the production of bricks, and the massive limestone deposits have provided building material to the surrounding towns. The vegetation of the county can best be described as a mesquite savanna. A small number of other trees, such as shin oak, cedar, and post oak, can be found. Along the numerous streams stands of willow, hackberry, walnut, and pecan are abundant. The grasslands are composed of buffalo grass, various gramas, purple triple-awn, and fox-tails. Under more moist conditions and in the stony outcroppings, little bluestem and other bunch grasses appear. Wildflowers flourish in great variety. Mineral resources include the brick-making clay and oil and gas deposits. Temperatures in this subtropical climate range from 34° to 96° F with generally dry winters and humid summers. The growing season is usually 228 days, with the last freeze around March 30 and the first freeze around November 13. The prevailing winds are from the south, but the strongest winds, generally accompanying cold fronts, are from the north. The average rainfall is twenty-two inches, two-thirds of which occurs from April through September.
The original inhabitants of Runnels County were probably the Jumano Indians, whom the early Spanish explorers encountered in the mid-1650s and traded with on a limited basis. In the 1680s the tribe had contact with the Juan Domínguez de Mendoza expedition. Although some controversy exists concerning its precise location, Domínguez de Mendoza established San Clemente Mission in the area of Runnels County in 1684. The temporary structure was abandoned after two months. At this time, the Jumanos were being forced out of the area by the Apaches, who were in turn attacked in the mid-1700s by the advancing Comanche Indians. For the next 100 years the Comanches reigned supreme over the area that was to become Runnels County. On October 28, 1852, companies A and K of the Eight United States Infantry established camp on Oak Creek, just beyond the present western boundary of the county. Shortly thereafter the camp was renamed Fort Chadbourne, in honor of Lt. Theodore H. Chadbourne, who was killed at the battle of Resaca de la Palma during the Mexican War. Between 1852 and 1861 Fort Chadbourne provided protection from the Indians for the few traders and stockmen who had settled in the county. The fort continued to be garrisoned by federal troops until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, when the troops were reassigned to more urgent duty. The fort was claimed by Confederate forces after the federal troops left, but they too had to abandon the fort as their presence in more strategic areas became necessary. Denied the protection of a manned fort, the small civilian population departed, and the area was practically deserted. The fort was regarrisoned in 1865 and finally abandoned by the federal government in 1867.
Although the area was still sparsely populated, the demands of the advancing frontier were such that on February 1, 1858, the Texas legislature established twenty-three new counties. One of these was Runnels County, named in honor of Hiram G. Runnels, an ex-governor of Mississippi and a Texas state legislator. The county was carved from Bexar and Travis county lands. The first civilian settlement in Runnels County, Pickettville, was established in 1862 by Mr. and Mrs. John Guest and their three sons, Henry and Robert K. Wylie and their cowboys and a black servant, and Mrs. Felicia Gordon and her five sons. This small group was joined shortly thereafter by Richard Coffey and his family near the site of present Ballinger. Pickettville lasted only a few years; by 1866 it had been abandoned, as the families moved their stock out into the open range. During the 1870s the rich grasslands of Runnels County attracted more and more stockmen who were willing to risk Indian attacks. By 1876, after the Texas Rangers and United States troops such as those led by Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie had broken Indian resistance and driven them into Oklahoma, settlement began in earnest. In the late 1870s and early 1880s cattlemen, mostly from the southern United States, took possession of Runnels County, establishing camps along the Colorado River and its tributaries. Runnels County was organized in February 1880 and had a population of 980. It had no towns, only scattered settlements.
The extension of the Texas and Pacific Railway through Abilene, twenty-five miles from the county, brought the promise of continued settlement, and county commissioners established Runnels City for the county seat on Elm Creek, five miles north of the Colorado River. Runnels City served as the county seat until 1888, when Ballinger was selected as the new county seat. When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway built from Brownwood in 1886, it established a new terminal town five miles south of Runnels City. The rail town was named Ballinger in honor of William Pitt Ballinger, an attorney and stockholder in the railroad. Ballinger was elected the new county seat in 1888 and was incorporated in 1892. The new town grew quickly; its population increased to 1,128 by 1900 and to 3,536 by 1910. The county population also grew significantly, from 5,379 in 1900 to 20,858 in 1910. The lure of fertile and available land brought a flood of immigrants to Runnels County, many from Germany and Czechoslovakia, and almost all farmers. The ascendance of farming over stock-raising occurred in this decade, as the number of farms increased from 669 to 2,526, and improved acreage grew from 48,000 in 1900 to 232,000 in 1910. Cotton quickly became the main crop produced in Runnels County. From a humble beginning in 1890, when just 677 bales were ginned, production increased to more than 15,000 bales in 1900 and 23,126 bales in 1910. In May 1915 Runnels County was flush with the success of an unprecedented harvest of 58,000 bales of cotton. A dry fall did not arouse any apprehension, but when only fourteen inches of rain fell during 1916 and less than eleven inches in 1917, cotton production dropped precipitously. The drought continued into 1918, when only 2,500 bales of cotton were ginned in the entire county. By this time, farmers who had been borrowing money to plant crops were unable to pay off their loans and consequently lost their farms. Those who managed to hang on still faced financial disaster. The county population dropped from 21,000 in 1910 to 17,000 in 1920, and the number of farms fell from 2,526 to 2,023. With improved weather conditions, the farmers rebounded from the losses incurred by the drought, and the 1920s witnessed the height of agricultural dominance in the county. The number of farms increased to 2,544, and the population reached a high of 21,827, the vast majority of whom (17,634) lived in rural areas. The economy was primarily agricultural with wholesale-retail trade bringing up a distant second.
The Great Depression and World War II introduced changes that altered the almost totally agricultural basis upon which Runnels County was built. Most unemployed people were farm laborers. Of the 274 unemployed men in 1937, 119 were farm workers. In all other occupational categories, none reported more than twenty-six unemployed. Public emergency work projects employed 270 county residents. The number of farms fell from a high of 2,544 with an average of 234 acres per farm in 1930 to 1,707 with an average of 377.2 acres per farm by 1950. In that same time period the number of farmers fell from 3,554 to 2,156. The trend toward larger farms with fewer people required to work them continued as the number of farms dropped to 1,242 in 1959 and to 941 in 1978. At the same time, the average number of acres per farm rose from 507.3 in 1959 to 683 in 1978. As the war and war industries drew off many young people, the population of Runnels County began to drop steadily. From 1940 to 1980 the population fell from 18,903 to 11,872. In addition, a shift from a largely rural to an urban population took place. In 1940, 14,431 people lived in the country and only 4,472 in urban areas. By 1980, 4,604 people lived in rural areas and 7,268 in urban areas. After fifty years of population losses Runnels County showed an increase from 1980 to 1990, when the population was 12,121. The economic life of the county has become much more diversified since World War II. Although agriculture and the production of crops such as cotton, sorghum grains, and wheat are still mainstays, manufacturing, mining, and stock-raising have all contributed to the economy. Since 1970 the majority of jobs in the county have come from the manufacturing and wholesale-retail trade industries, followed by services (health care related jobs) and mining. Employment in manufacturing increased from 144 jobs in 1950 to 330 in 1970 to 1,008 in 1988, while all other categories have changed only slightly. The oil and gas industry in Runnels County began in 1927 with the discovery of the MacMillan field, near Ballinger. Only six fields were discovered between 1927 and 1948, but the industry began to boom in 1949 when eighteen new fields were explored. From 1951 to 1962, 254 new fields resulted in a total of 4,629,765 barrels of oil produced in the county. Between 1971 and 1989, 258 new fields were drilled, helping to account for the 1,715,985 barrels of oil produced in 1988, and providing employment for 180 workers. By 1987 the number of beef cattle had increased to an all-time high of 53,291.
Although initially Democratic, the conservative population of Runnels County voted Republican for Dwight D. Eisenhower twice in the 1950s, for Gerald Ford in 1976, for Ronald Reagan by large margins over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and for George Bush in 1988 and 1992. One of the hardest-fought election issues in county history, however, was over prohibition. Time after time the county split, with the southern third, largely populated by German-Czech immigrants, voting against and the northern two-thirds, largely native-born Anglos, voting for prohibition. The election battle raged over the wet-dry controversy until the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 forbade the sale of alcohol on a nationwide basis, bringing the county debate to an end. Runnels County remained dry until September 1959, when Justice Precinct No. 7 voted for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. As of 2014, the population of the county was 10,416. About 62.8 percent were Anglo, 2.6 percent African American, and 33.6 percent Hispanic. The religious community has been a mixture, mainly of Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist. The schools in Runnels County received their first county superintendent of public education on July 12, 1907. In 1920 there were fifty-three schools throughout the county, but consolidation reduced that number to three elementary and four high schools by 1970. The level of education has steadily increased for the population aged twenty-five and over from a median level of 8.6 years in 1940 to 11.1 years in 1980. By 1987 Runnels County had five school districts with five elementary, one junior high, and three senior high schools and a total student population of 2,522. Runnels County has five lakes, two of which offer the main boating and recreational opportunities, Ballinger City Lake and Lake Winters. In addition, the county maintains 1,184 acres in municipal parks and recreation areas. The Ballinger Carnegie Library is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only three of the original thirty-four Carnegie libraries in Texas to continue to function as a full-service library. The Texas Forts Trail, which leads to eight famous frontier forts and an old Spanish presidio in west central Texas, runs through the county and draws many tourists. A total of 1,247 miles of public road links the three incorporated towns of Ballinger, Miles, and Winters with numerous small unincorporated communities, including Crews, Maverick, and Rowena. Various events unite the communities and attract outsiders, including the Rattlesnake Roundup, the Texas State Festival of Ethnic Cultures, the Arts and Crafts Fair, the Pinto Bean Cookoff, and the Miss Ballinger Pageant and Parade, all located in Ballinger; the Mayfest in Winters; and the Cotton Festival in Miles.