Schleicher County (SHLI-ker) is in west central Texas 290 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and ninety miles northeast of the Texas-Mexico boundary. It is bordered by Tom Green, Concho, Menard, Kimble, Sutton, Crockett, and Irion counties. Eldorado, the county seat, is at the intersection of U.S. highways 190 and 277, forty-five miles south of San Angelo. The county's center lies five miles northeast of Eldorado at 30°54' north latitude and 100°31' west longitude. Situated in the Edwards Plateau, the county comprises roughly 1,309 square miles of rolling to hilly terrain at elevations ranging from 2,100 to 2,400 feet above sea level. The dark, loamy soils support a variety of tall grasses, as well as some oak, cedar, and mesquite. Between 11 and 20 percent of the land is considered prime farmland. The southwestern part of the county is in the Rio Grande basin, with the uppermost tributaries of the Devil's River draining the runoff south; the rest of the county lies within the Colorado basin and is drained by the upper reaches of the San Saba River to the east and by the South Concho River to the north. Wildlife in the area includes deer, turkey, javelina, bobcat, coyote, badger, fox, raccoon, squirrel, and skunk, as well as a variety of birds, fish, and reptiles. Among the county's mineral resources are dolomite, limestone, industrial sand, oil, and gas. The climate is subtropical, with an average minimum temperature of 32° F in January and an average high temperature of 96° in July. The growing season averages 229 days annually, and the rainfall averages twenty inches.
The Central Texas region, including Schleicher County, has supported human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological evidence discovered in several hundred mounds in the county suggests that hunting and gathering peoples established themselves in the area as early as 10,000 years ago. Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century found that the Jumano Indians living in the region were receptive to efforts to convert them to Christianity. Fray Juan de Salas and Father Juan de Ortega did some missionary work among the Jumanos in the 1630s, but by 1700 the Jumanos had disappeared, possibly absorbed into the Lipan Apache culture that had moved in from the north. The Comanche Indians dominated the region by the mid-eighteenth century, making their first recorded raid in 1758 against the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission in neighboring Menard County. Francisco Amangual led an expedition across the area in December 1808 and found the Indians to be friendly; nevertheless, the Spanish did not attempt further colonization in the area, probably because Amangual also reported no sign of American encroachment on the Spanish frontier. Schleicher County was part of the Fisher-Miller Land Grant, made by the Republic of Texas in 1842, but none of the immigrants who settled within the limits of the grant came so far west. Settlement of Schleicher County occurred well after the annexation of Texas to the United States. Some people may have moved into the easternmost part of the county after the United States War Department opened Camp San Saba (see FORT MCKAVETT) in western Menard County in 1852, but it was not until the mid-1870s that permanent ranches were established. The Texas legislature established Schleicher County from Crockett County in April 1887 and named it in honor of Gustav Schleicher, an early surveyor, engineer, and politician. It is not clear why the legislature decided to form the county at that time; there is no evidence available to suggest any lobbying efforts by local residents. In fact, because the county had such a small population, it was attached first to Kimble County and later to Menard County for judicial purposes. It was not until July 1901 that Schleicher County residents elected their first county officials.
The first census of Schleicher County was recorded in 1890 and listed 155 residents, of whom 134 were listed as White, four as Black, and seventeen as American Indian. Most of the people who moved to Schleicher County came from other parts of Texas or from other states; however, about a third of the 1890 population was native to Mexico. Most of the early settlers engaged in large-scale ranching operations, to which the climate and terrain of Schleicher County was well suited. In the early 1890s a group from Vermont settled in the central part of the county and established the Vermont Ranch, out of which grew Verand, the county's first town. When the Eldorado community was laid out in 1895, Verand residents moved their homes and businesses to the new location. By 1900 the number of people residing in the county had risen to 515. The most dramatic increase in population resulted from land rushes between 1901 and 1905, when tracts of public school land became available for sale. The 1910 census reported the number of residents at 1,893, more than 250 percent higher than in 1900. The 135 residents who were recorded in the 1910 census as being native to Mexico represented 7 percent of the county's population, although the percentage of residents of Mexican descent was probably much higher.
The first public school in Schleicher County opened at Verand in 1894 and was moved to Eldorado by 1897. Other schools were established in small communities, such as Adams and Mayer, and near large ranches. Two schools were established for Mexican-American children: one in Eldorado in 1916 and one in the Bailey Ranch district in 1926. In the late 1920s the county had eight common school districts and one independent school district. By the 1940s improved transportation made large-scale consolidation of schools into one independent school district possible. Until the mid-twentieth century extensive schooling was for many children in Schleicher County a luxury that took second place to duties on the family farm; also, the migratory nature of much of the work force was such that in many cases children of workers were able to attend school only on an irregular basis, if at all. As late as 1950 only 12 percent of the population over the age of twenty-five had completed high school. Residents began to place greater emphasis on education in the 1950s, as job markets expanded. By 1960, 20 percent of the population over twenty-five were high school graduates, and by 1980 the number represented nearly 55 percent.
Early residents of Schleicher County had to rely on missionary priests and circuit riders for religious services, which were generally held in schoolhouses or brush arbors; baptisms were often performed in stock tanks. The Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist churches were probably the first to be represented in the county. Methodist, Baptist, and Church of Christ churches were formally organized in Eldorado in 1901, although services were held on alternate Sundays in order that residents might attend all of them. A Catholic congregation was organized in 1902, but the group did not have its own building until 1925; a priest from San Angelo came to Eldorado to perform sacraments. A Presbyterian church was established in 1903 and an Episcopal congregation in 1954. In the early 1980s the county had nine churches, with an estimated combined membership of 1,758; Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist were the largest denominations.
By 1900 more than half the county's population lived on farms and ranches, and the dominant occupation was stock raising. Cattle and sheep both did well in the area, their numbers increasing from 58,500 and 17,366, respectively, in 1900 to 69,700 and 48,600 in 1910. The number of farms rose from sixty in 1900 to 208 by 1910; the average farm size dropped from more than 12,000 acres to a more manageable 3,950 acres. Although most of the county's resources were devoted to stock raising, farms in the South Concho River valley and in the upper tributaries of the San Saba provided the local market with cotton, corn, oats, wheat, and milo maize. Beginning in 1903 the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway Company made plans to extend its track south from San Angelo through Schleicher County. Work began on the railroad bed in 1911, but in 1912 the railroad company went into receivership without completing much of the track. Residents continued to hope for rail service, however, and the county grew rapidly. Between 1920 and 1930 the population of Eldorado increased from 500 to 1,000, and the county as a whole grew from 1,851 to 3,166. In 1929 the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway Company leased the Orient's route, and work resumed on the railroad project; by July 1930 Eldorado had access to San Angelo to the north and to Sonora to the south. By virtue of its rural environment and relatively small population Schleicher County escaped many of the hardships suffered by more urban areas during the Great Depression. Favorable rains led to good crop yields in 1932 and 1933, so, although there was little money on hand, there was enough food to go around. During the depression the bank at Eldorado remained open, and only one business failed. Livestock prices fell, but because sheep prices were among the first to recover, Schleicher County ranchers suffered less than they might have.
In the 1910s sheep production in Schleicher County began to eclipse the cattle industry. By 1920 the number of sheep had risen to more than 120,000, while the number of cattle had fallen to less than 47,000; ten years later the shift was even more evident: the sheep population had more than doubled to 244,000 in 1930, and the number of cattle had decreased to 27,000. Wool production rose from 390,000 pounds in 1920 to more than 1.5 million pounds in 1930. The mohair industry also came into prominence in the 1910s, with 19,800 goats and 78,500 pounds of mohair reported in 1920 and 38,200 goats and 152,600 pounds of mohair reported in 1930 (see WOOL AND MOHAIR INDUSTRY). The West Texas Woolen Mills was established in Eldorado in the early 1940s, making Schleicher County one of the state's most important wool- processing centers. In the years that followed ranchers found it more efficient to raise smaller numbers of better breeds; as a result, although livestock industries continued to be of first importance to the local economy, the total livestock population actually declined. In the mid-1980s the county's 74,000 sheep and 14,000 goats produced, respectively, 700,000 pounds of wool and 120,000 pounds of mohair.
Cotton proved to be a good staple crop to farmers in Schleicher County. It did well in the county's black soil, and yields were high when weather conditions were favorable. In 1920 farmers planted 4,360 acres, or 22 percent of the county's improved land, in cotton and harvested 1,366 bales; in 1930, 14,700 acres, or 65 percent of the cropland harvested, produced 3,329 bales. Although farmers did plant fewer acres in cotton during the late 1930s and early 1940s, they returned to cotton production in the late 1940s and 1950s instead of moving on to other crops. The nearly 12,700 acres planted in cotton in 1950 represented 46 percent of the total cropland harvested in the county that year. Cotton continued to be an important crop for the county through the 1980s, when more than 5,000 acres were planted annually.
In the 1930s the population of Schleicher County began a slow decline, as people left to find jobs in larger cities. The number of residents fell slightly from 3,166 in 1930 to 3,083 in 1940, then dipped to 2,852 in 1950, 2,791 in 1960, and 2,277 in 1970. The number of farms in the county fell from a high of 300 in 1930 to 225 in 1959. The urban-rural balance shifted in the 1940s, and for the first time more than half the population resided in Eldorado. Improved highways in the 1960s lessened the county's dependence on rail service, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company abandoned its track through Eldorado in 1976. The downward population trend reversed in the 1970s, with the number of residents estimated at 2,820 by 1980. In the early 1980s 26 percent of the population was of Hispanic descent, 24 percent were English, 17 percent Irish, and 0.9 percent Black; the ethnic background of the remaining percentage was unspecified. The total population in 2014 was 3,162, with 1,881 living in Eldorado. About 46.6 percent of the county was Anglo, 1.8 percent African American, and 50.9 percent Hispanic.
One economic plus for Schleicher County proved to be the oil and gas industry. Although the first oil and gas leases were probably made in 1918, no significant discovery was made until the late 1920s, and no commercial production took place until 1934. Oilfield discoveries on school lands in the 1950s enabled Schleicher County to build new library and gymnasium facilities for its students. Most of the gas wells discovered in the 1950s and early 1960s were plugged until the gas market improved in the late 1960s. In the 1970s the ad valorem tax collected on oil and gas production paid 60 to 70 percent of the county's public school costs, as well as contributing to road maintenance. Schleicher County oil fields produced approximately one million barrels annually in the 1980s.
Politically, the majority of Schleicher County voters were conservative Democrats. They favored the Democratic presidential nominee in every election from 1904 through 1948, with the exception of 1928, when they preferred Herbert Hoover to Al Smith. From 1952 through 1992 they chose the Republican presidential candidate, the one exception for this later period being a preference for Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. In local and state politics, however, the county remained staunchly Democratic. In the early 1980s approximately 94 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, but only 4 percent of this was under cultivation. Wheat, sorghum, cotton, and oats were the primary crops; other crops were tomatoes and pecans. About 81 percent of agricultural receipts came from livestock and livestock products, the most important ones being sheep, wool, cattle, angora goats, mohair, and hogs. Agribusiness, professional and related services, wholesale and retail trade, and general construction involved most of the labor force. The county had no large tourist trade, but hunting and fishing opportunities attracted some visitors, as did various rodeo events and the county's annual livestock show.