San Saba County is in Central Texas in the Llano Basin region. Its largest city and county seat, San Saba, is ninety miles northwest of Austin and 110 miles southwest of Waco. The geographic center of the county is at 31°10' north latitude and 99°41' west longitude. San Saba County covers 1,136 square miles and has an elevation of 1,100 to 1,800 feet. Mineral resources include dolomite, limestone, natural gas, and industrial sand and gravel. North of the San Saba River the terrain varies from steep to rolling. South of the river it varies from flat with deep local dissection to slightly hilly. Soil is composed of shallow, stony clays and sandy loam; vegetation consists primarily of oak, mesquite, and cedar, with occasional cacti and bluestem and gramma grasses. Pecan trees are also found in abundance along the Colorado and San Saba rivers. Primary streams include Richland, Wallace, Simpson, Rough, Wilbarger, Brady, and Cherokee creeks. Indigenous wildlife includes deer, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, and turkeys. The temperature ranges from an average low of 34° F in January to an average high of 96° in July. Rainfall averages 26.19 inches, and the growing season is 227 days.
Archeological evidence indicates that Tonkawas, Apaches, Caddoans, and Comanches inhabited the area at different times. Comanches and Lipan Apaches continued to live in the San Saba County area into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often coming into conflict with Spanish missionaries, United States military forces, and Anglo-American settlers. The first European exploration of the area occurred in 1732, when an expedition led by the Spanish governor of Texas, Juan Antonio Bustillo y Ceballos, passed through the vicinity. José Mares is also supposed to have crossed the area in 1788 on an expedition from San Antonio to Santa Fe. The original surveys of present San Saba County indicate that the first land grants, of a league each along the San Saba River, were given to Spanish grantees. The earliest known record of Anglo-Americans in San Saba County was in December 1828, when a group of twenty-eight citizens from Austin's colony at Gonzales traveled through the eastern area of the county on their way to recapture a band of horses. A part of the county was included in one of the grants ceded to Stephen F. Austin under the Mexican empresario system. The Beall grant, which overlapped the Austin grant, was another. In the case of these early grants individuals took legal but not physical possession of the land. The Fisher-Miller land grant, ceded by the Republic of Texas in 1842, can also be included in this category. Most of the later land deeds for San Saba County were out of the Fisher-Miller surveys, but the original members of this group of German-Texan pioneers did not stay in the area. Early permanent settlers included the Harkey family, who settled at Wallace and Richland creeks in the fall of 1854, and the David Matsler family, who moved from Burnet County and settled on Cherokee Creek that same year. San Saba County was organized in 1856 from Bexar County and was named for the San Saba River. The act establishing the county was passed by the Sixth Legislature and approved on February 1, 1856. The first election was held on May 3 to select county officers and a county seat. The results of this election were set aside because of irregularities, and another election was ordered. On July 19 the present site of the town of San Saba was selected for the county seat. Chappel, settled during the 1850s, was San Saba County's first town. Other towns founded at this time included Richland Springs, Sloan, Deer Creek, Colony, Harkeyville, and San Saba. Cherokee, Harmony Ridge, Holt, and Bend developed over the next twenty years. The original boundaries of the county were confirmed by the Seventh Legislature in 1858. During the Civil War the citizens of San Saba County supported the Confederacy. Although they held relatively few slaves, they favored states' rights. The majority of San Sabans who served in the Confederate forces were in the regiment of Col. James E. McCord. Their primary assignment was to protect the frontier, and they used Camp San Saba, a ranger station in McCulloch County, as their base of operations.
The years between 1860 and 1920 marked a period of growth for San Saba County. The census of 1860 recorded a population of 913, with eighty-nine listed as slaves. By 1870 the number of African Americans grew to 144, while Whites increased to 1,281. During the 1880s lawlessness became a problem, and the county experienced a period of "mob rule." In response, citizens formed an anti-mob organization. However, factions developed within the organization, and by 1896 the competing groups were conducting what amounted to open warfare. After a number of men were killed, the Texas Rangers were dispatched to the area, and order was eventually restored. The towns of Bethel, Hall, Lakeview, and Locker were established between 1890 and 1910, and at the turn of the century the county population was 7,569, which included only sixty-one Blacks. By 1920 the population was 10,045. During this period agriculture in San Saba County flourished. The number of farms grew from thirty-four in 1860 to 834 in 1890 and 1,268 in 1920. Between 1860 and 1900 the number of cattle jumped from 13,482 to 47,944 and the number of sheep went from 3,674 to 32,974. Between 1900 and 1920 the number of goats increased from 6,284 to 10,040. Wheat and oats originally emerged as primary crops; in 1890, 89,111 bushels of oats and 37,178 bushels of wheat were harvested. Peaches were produced in significant numbers after 1900; in 1920, 28,274 bushels were harvested. Pecans, already in natural abundance, also emerged as an important crop, largely because of the work of Edmund E. Riesen, an Englishman who moved to San Saba County in 1874 and made improvement of the native nuts his life's work. Riesen is credited for laying the groundwork for the pecan industry that led San Saba County to proclaim itself Pecan Capital of the World.
The county population was 10,273 in 1930 and 11,012 in 1940. That year there were 11,327 cattle, 127,207 sheep, and 63,911 goats in the county. Oats, pecans, and peaches continued as primary crops, but wheat production was surpassed by sorghum and corn, with 70,032 bushels of sorghum and 190,633 bushels of corn harvested in 1940. Difficult agricultural conditions in the 1920s followed by the Great Depression affected farming in the county. Although the number of farms increased to 1,424 in 1930, the overall value decreased, from $15,249,276 in 1920 to $14,574,633 in 1930, when half of the county farms were worked by tenants (see FARM TENANCY). By 1940 the number of farms had declined to 1,267, and their value was $12,264,321. The record-breaking flood of the San Saba River in July 1938 caused destruction throughout the county. Although the city of San Saba suffered the most extensive damage, Harkeyville, Richland Springs, Pecan Grove, and Bend were also affected. Estimates of the total damage to crops, livestock, homes, and businesses ranged from $1,000,000 to $3,000,000. San Saba County's population declined to 8,666 by 1950 and to 5,540 by 1970. A prolonged drought from 1953 to 1956 did extensive harm to the agricultural economy. The total rainfall during this four-year period was 63.08 inches, an average of 15.77 inches per year. Of that total rainfall 10.12 inches occurred between May and June of 1955. Between 1950 and 1959 the number of farms decreased from 1,105 to 784.
The first church organized in the area of present San Saba County was a Baptist church formed in 1856, the same year the First Methodist Church of San Saba was organized. The Presbyterian church was organized in 1874. The first Episcopal services were held in 1853, but the church was not officially established until 1876, when St. Luke's Episcopal Church was founded. Catholic services were first held in the 1890s, and St. Mary's Catholic Church was built in 1968. In the 1980s there were twenty-four churches in San Saba County, with the largest denominations being Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and United Methodist.
Several community schools operated in the county prior to the Civil War. Attempts to establish a public school system were delayed by the war, but in 1867 the county was divided into ten school districts. Between 1877 and 1881 several communities organized neighborhood schools within their districts, in which the teachers were paid by subscription. The first school communities organized were Harmony Ridge, Cherokee, Cedar Springs, and Simpson Creek. Schools in the county remained subscription schools until the Methodist High School was established in San Saba in 1881. In 1882 the San Saba Male and Female Academy was founded. In 1895 the West Texas Normal and Business College was organized at Cherokee. It was eventually acquired by the Methodist Church and was known as Cherokee Junior College until 1921. When consolidation of the county schools began in 1911 there were forty-one schools. Consolidation was completed in 1948, and in 1982 there were three school districts in the county.
The first newspaper in West Texas was the San Saba County News, which was founded on January 1, 1873. The paper continued operating into the twentieth century, and in 1960 it merged with the San Saba Star, which was established in 1902. It was still being published as the San Saba News and Star in the late 1980s.
In 1886 the Santa Fe Railroad completed a line that came within twenty-one miles of the town of San Saba, but it was twenty-five years before railroad officials were convinced that San Saba's level of agricultural production merited the extension of the line to the county seat. Not until August 1911 did the Lometa-Eden branch of the Santa Fe build across the county, with stations at San Saba, Algerita, Richland Springs, and Hall Valley. The county's progress in the area of highway construction was equally slow; it was the last county in Texas to have its roads paved. In 1982 San Saba had one railroad branch line, for freight; 755 miles of public roads; and one airport, the San Saba County Municipal Airport.
Politically, San Saba County has been traditionally Democratic. In every presidential election between 1876 and 1992 the majority of votes went to the Democratic candidate, with the exception of 1972 and 1984, when the county supported Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. After 1970 San Saba County's population began to increase. By 1980 the population was 6,231, including forty-four Blacks and 968 Mexican Americans (the latter had increased from 152 in 1970). The largest ancestry groups in the county were English, Irish, and Hispanic. Although the number of farms declined slightly, from 783 in 1969 to 778 in 1982, their value increased. Primary crops included sorghum, oats, peaches, peanuts, and watermelons. The county was fourth in the state in pecan production in 1982. The county was the ninth-highest turkey producer in the state in 1982. The economy of San Saba County became more diversified in the late 1980s. The manufacturing base remained small, constituting only 7 percent of the business sector. Sixteen percent of the labor force was employed in wholesale and retail trade, and almost 25 percent in agribusiness, forestry, fishing, or mining. The industries with the most employment were agribusiness, stone quarrying, and tourism. The latter showed the highest rate of growth. As of 2014, 5,622 people lived in the county. About 66.1 percent were Anglo, 3.6 percent African American, and 29 percent Hispanic. San Saba (population, 3,075) and Richland Springs (333) remained the two most populous communities. The county has a variety of recreational opportunities and is a popular deer-hunting area.