Sabine County, an original Texas county, is in East Texas on the Sabine River at the border of Texas and Louisiana, 140 miles northeast of Houston. The center of the county is at 31°20' north latitude and 93°50' west longitude. Sabine County covers 546 square miles in the Redlands region, which is covered with longleaf pine, oak, and hickory forests. The southern part of the county is gently rolling to hilly with loamy surfaces and deep reddish, clayey, iron-rich subsoils. The northern part has sandy acidic loamy soils with very deep reddish clayey subsoils. Elevation ranges from 150 to 350 feet. Natural resources include clay, ceramic clay, industrial sand, oil, gas, and glauconite. Six major watercourses cross the county; Patroon, Palo Gauche, and Housen bayous and Six Mile and Sandy creeks flow east into the Sabine River, and Bear Creek flows along the southwestern edge of the county. The principal freshwater source is the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. The average annual precipitation is 51.94 inches with a mean temperature range of 36° F in January to 93° in July. The record high was 104°, and the record low was 8°. The average growing season is 236 days.
Sabine County was named for the Sabine River. The original inhabitants of the area were the Ais tribe of the Caddo Indians. Probably the first Europeans in the area were members of the Moscoso expedition in the early 1540s. In the early 1700s Louis Juchereau de St. Denis led three expeditions into Texas, one of which took him through what is now northern Sabine County, along the Old San Antonio Road, which later became the main route of travel to Texas. Thereafter the area slowly began to be settled. Original land grants from Spain and Mexico took up 220,000 acres; the largest, made to Juan Ignacio Pifermo in 1794, encompassed 17,713 acres near the site of later Geneva. Other settlers in the 1790s included Jack Cedars, Christobal Concha, and David Watman. Cedars, who lived on part of the Pifermo grant, was the first Anglo settler in the region. Concha is thought to have lived along Palo Gaucho Bayou, and Watman settled on Patroon Bayou. Before 1832 the area was part of the Municipality of Nacogdoches. It belonged to the Municipality of San Augustine from 1832 until 1835, when it became the Municipality of Sabine. A ferry across the Sabine River was established in the northern part of what became Sabine County. This ferry is thought to have been called El Paso de Chalán until 1796, when Michael Crow established Crow's Ferry. It operated until 1812, when it was purchased by James Gaines and renamed Gaines Ferry. Gaines served as alcalde of the Sabine District of the Municipality of Nacogdoches in 1824. Other settlers at this time included Donald McDonald, James Hines, Isaac Lindsey, and Elbert Hines, who was alcalde of the Sabine District in 1826.
With the aid of Gaines Ferry, communities began to develop in the area. In 1825 Haden Edwards received a land grant to settle 800 families there, but due to his involvement in the Fredonian Rebellion, he was forced to leave Texas. In 1828 the town of Milam was established in the northern part of what is now Sabine County. Lorenzo de Zavala was given a settlement land grant, but because a section of his grant was in an area forbidden to foreign settlers, they did not receive title to their land until 1835. At that time a census listed the population of the Municipality of Sabine as 1,240. Shortly before the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Benjamin Holt, Jesse Parker, and Absalom Hier served as delegates from the Sabine District to the Convention of 1832 in San Felipe de Austin. Mathew Caldwell and William Clark, Jr., served as delegates to the Convention of 1836 and were signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. During the Runaway Scrape Texans fled to Louisiana across Gaines Ferry. Benjamin F. Bryant, in response to Sam Houston's call for troops, organized the volunteer Sabine Company, which served at the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. After the victory at San Jacinto, the government of the Republic of Texas began to organize. On December 14, 1837, Sabine County was organized and its boundaries defined. John Boyd represented the county at the First and Second congresses of the Republic of Texas, and Matthew Parker was appointed the first chief justice. The county boundaries have remained unchanged since its establishment; however, when the area was known as the Municipality of Sabine, it encompassed parts of present-day San Augustine, Jasper, and Newton counties. Milam was the original county seat, but as early as 1850 settlers began to petition the government for a more centrally located county seat on the grounds that Milam was more than five miles from the geographic center of the county. In August 1858 an election was held, and 160 out of 260 votes were cast in favor of relocation. However, the election was invalidated because there was not an official survey proving Milam was outside the five-mile limit. On November 11, 1858, after a survey found Milam to be six and three-quarter miles from the center of the county, another election was held, and a majority again voted for relocation. J. A. Whittelsey, Alex Harris, John H. Smith, George L. Clapp, and C. K. Blanchard, acting as the Sabine County Court, used a survey by E. P. Beddoe and ordered that the county seat be located at the center of the county. The new town was named Hemphill, in honor of John Hemphill, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, who at the time was serving as a United States senator.
Sabine County's population grew from 1,021 in 1847 to 2,498 in 1850, of which 1,556 were Anglo-Americans and 942 were African-American slaves. The population was 2,750 in 1860. During the Civil War the county was the scene of a Confederate supply trail along which cattle were driven to Natchez, Mississippi. The war's toll on the civilian population resulted in assistance by the Confederate government to families of those serving in the army, and in February 1864 Chief Justice J. A. Whittelsey compiled a list of 334 people eligible for relief. Educational efforts in Sabine County began shortly before the Civil War. Public schools were established as early as 1854. Milam Masonic Institute opened in 1854 under the direction of Bertrand McClosky and operated until 1859. Sabine Baptist College opened in Milam in 1858 but closed during the war. It reopened in 1868 under the direction of W. C. Maund and was closed permanently in 1870. Sabine Valley University was established in 1876 in Hemphill. It was sponsored by Mount Zion Baptist and Bethlehem Baptist associations. By 1890 there were fifty-one rural community schools in the county.
The economy of Sabine County gradually recovered after the Civil War. The number of farms increased to 1,064 in 1900, and the primary crops were cotton, corn, and sweet potatoes. The population went from 3,256 in 1870 to 6,394 in 1900 to 12,299 in 1920. The number of farms increased slightly to 1,270 in 1920. Cotton bales ginned went from 2,409 in 1910 to 2,919 in 1920 to 4,760 in 1929, with a high of 8,209 in 1926. The county had eighteen manufacturing establishments in 1920.
A county newspaper called the Sabine County Reporter began publication in Hemphill in 1883. It merged with the San Augustine Rambler and became known as the Sabine County Reporter and the Rambler. In the early 1900s a number of other newspapers were published, including the Hemphill Reporter, the Hemphill Sabine County Reporter, and the Sabine County Citizen. Telephone service from the Sabine Valley Telephone Company was available between Bronson and Hemphill as early as 1911, and in 1914 the Sabine Citizens Telephone Company was authorized to build and maintain a telephone service along all public roads and streets. Railroads first came into Sabine County in 1902–03 when the Gulf, Beaumont and Great Northern Railroad laid a track north from Jasper County. In 1948 the railroad was leased to the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, which merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1965. The Lufkin, Hemphill and Gulf Railway ran eastward through Bronson in 1912 and reached Hemphill in 1916; the track was abandoned in 1938. In the 1920s construction began on State Highway 21 from Geneva to Milam and State Highway 87 from Milam to Hemphill. The era of growth at the turn of the century was accompanied by the organization of six financial institutions. Bronson State Bank was established in 1907 and merged with Peoples State Bank of Bronson (1919) in 1921. This bank was closed in 1931 due to insolvency. Farmers and Merchants State Bank of Hemphill later became First National Bank and was also liquidated in 1931. Sabine County was without a local bank until September 1944, when the First State Bank at Hemphill was established. Pineland State Bank was established in May 1957. Both banks were still in operation as of the 1980s.
The era of the 1920s to the 1950s was a period of general decline for Sabine County, with the population decreasing to 8,586 in 1950. This was due partly to the effects of the Great Depression, the cutting out of the virgin timber in the area, and the establishment of Sabine National Forest in 1933, which removed 112,000 acres of timber from cutting. The number of farms increased to 1,598 in 1940 and then dropped to 873 by 1950, with farm value decreasing by one-third. Crop production fluctuated and by 1950 had declined to pre-1900 lows. Cotton bales ginned fell to 1,000 by 1950. During the 1930s two Civilian Conservation Corps camps, one near Pineland and one near Milam, helped the Texas Forest Service build fire watchtowers and roads and assisted in the planting of pine seedlings in Sabine National Forest. The corps also helped with the construction of the Red Hills Recreation Area. Another New Deal project, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, was established in Hemphill to implement crop and livestock programs to help reduce excess production. In 1933 the State Highway Department took over the ferry at Pendleton, the site of Gaines Ferry, when the county could no longer afford the expense. Upon the completion of Highway 21 in 1935, a temporary bridge was built and construction of a permanent bridge began. In 1937 the bridge was completed, but later destroyed by a flood and replaced in 1967 by a second bridge. Electricity was brought to Sabine County in 1938 by the Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative, which was originally funded by the Rural Electrification Agency. By 1935 there were only thirty community schools, twenty-five for white students and five for black. An independent school district was established at Geneva and was discontinued in 1942. The Bronson and Pineland school districts, established in the early 1900s, were consolidated into the West Sabine Independent School District in 1961. Hemphill Independent School District was established in 1918 and remained in operation in the 1990s.
Construction began on Toledo Bend Reservoir in 1964. The impoundment of water began in 1966, and the electrical plant was finished in 1969. Toledo Bend, the largest man-made lake in the South, covers 181,000 acres, over a third of which are in Sabine County. Another construction project was the Pineland Airport, built in the mid-1960s a mile southwest of Pineland on U.S. Highway 96. The Arthur Temple, Sr., Memorial Library was built in 1969 with funding from the T. L. L. Temple Foundation and the city of Pineland. By 1969 the number of farms in the county had dropped to 382, but their value had increased to $32 million. Cotton production decreased from 1,000 bales in 1950 to the last reported figure of 520 in 1960. Sabine County experienced an era of growth in conjunction with the completion of Toledo Bend Dam and Reservoir. In 1970 the county had 7,187 residents-1,715 black and 5,445 white- and manufacturing increased to eighteen establishments. In 1975 the Sabine County Hospital District was established and collected $1,500,000 in funding for the construction of Sabine County Hospital, which in 1980 had thirty-six beds. Residents had previously been served by the City Hospital, established in 1953 by Dr. G. C. Winslow. In 1984 Congress set aside 9,946 acres for the Indian Mounds Wilderness Area, administered by the Yellow Pines Ranger District of the United States Forest Service, in Hemphill. The district also supervises the operation of the Red Hills, Willow Oak, Indian Mounds, and Lakeview recreation areas. Twenty-five percent of the money received from oil and gas royalties and the sale of timber from within the forest went toward the support of the county road and school systems.
In 1982 the county produced 58,744,000 cubic feet of gas and 36,244 barrels of oil. The population was 9,586 in 1990. Manufacturing remained steady, while the number of farms decreased to a low of 224. In 1990 the main population centers were Hemphill (population, 1,182), Pineland (882), and Bronson (259). The economy was based on tourism, livestock and broiler chicken production, and the lumber industry.
Politically, Sabine County voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates for most of its history. Before 1900 the only major fluctuation was in the 1890s, when the Populists carried the county in the 1892 and 1896 elections. FDemocratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election from 1900 through 1968. The area’s sympathies began to change in 1972, however, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the county. Nixon’s win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s in 1984 marked a shift away from the area’s traditional leanings. Nevertheless, the Democrats continued to dominate area politics for some time, and won majorities in the county in 1976, 1980, and 1988. Democrat Bill Clinton won only a plurality of the county’s votes in 1992 and 1996, however, and Republican George W. Bush won solid majorities in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
In 2014 the census counted 10,350 people living in Sabine County. About 86.7 percent were Anglo, 7.5 percent were African American, and 3.8 percent were Hispanic. Almost 71 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and almost 10 percent had high school degrees. In the early twenty-first century timber, tourism, and service businesses were important elements of the area’s economy. In 2002 the county had 219 farms and ranches covering 30,808 acres, 38 percent of which were devoted to crops, 33 percent to pasture, and 29 percent to woodlands. In that year Sabine County farmers and ranchers earned $6,853,000 (down 39 percent from 1997); livestock sales accounted for $6,479,000 of that total. Poultry, cattle, vegetables, and fruit were the chief agricultural products. About 16,726,000 cubic feet of pinewood and more than 1,573,300 cubic feet of hardwood were harvested in the county in 2003. Hemphill (population, 1,215) is the county seat; other communities include Milam (1,535), Pineland (839), Bronson (377), Brookeland (300), and Geneva (200). Billing itself “The Fishing Capital of the World,” the county offers a wide variety of recreational activities, including fishing in Toledo Bend Reservoir and hunting in the Sabine National Forest. It also has a Mayfest and a county fair in October.