Wilbarger County is in northern Texas, along the Oklahoma border. The center of the county is at 34°07' north latitude and 99°15' west longitude. Vernon, the county's seat of government and largest city, is thirty-five miles northwest of Wichita Falls. It encompasses 947 square miles of rolling plains surfaced by sandy, loam, and waxy soils that support tall grasses, mesquite, and shinnery oak trees. Altitudes range from 1,050 to 1,400 feet above sea level. The area is drained by the Red and Pease rivers. Santa Rosa Lake, a reservoir on Beaver Creek in the south central part of the county, stores water used primarily for irrigation. Annual rainfall averages 25.65 inches, and temperatures range from an average minimum of 29° F in January to an average maximum of 98° in July. The average growing season lasts 221 days. Minerals resources include volcanic ash, sand, gravel, and bituminous coal. U.S. highways 183, 283, 287, and 70 are the main transportation arteries.
The area that is now Wilbarger County was part of the buffalo hunting ground of the Wanderers Band of Comanches until the 1870s, when great buffalo hunts by Whites destroyed the herds and United States Army campaigns removed the Indians. Wilbarger County was established in 1858 from lands formerly assigned to the Bexar District. It was named for settlers Josiah P. and Mathias Wilbarger. Though the area was within the boundary of the Peters colony, because of Indian hostilities it attracted no settlers until 1878, when the first settlement was made and the county was attached to Clay County for judicial purposes. C. F. and J. Doan, the first settlers in the area, established Doan's Crossing and Store where the Western Trail crossed the Red River; C. F. Doan became the county's first postmaster in 1880 after buffalo hunters, cattlemen, and Indians settled near the store, and mail lines to Wichita Falls, Mobeetie, and Seymour were soon opened. Mrs. A. T. Boger held classes for schoolchildren in a dugout east of Vernon in 1879, and by the next year a school had been built; L. N. Perkins taught the first classes there. W. B. Worsham established the R2 Ranch with headquarters at Big Spring in 1879. Settlers who lacked livestock made a living poisoning coyotes for their hides; gathering buffalo bones for eastern fertilizer plants was another source of income. Bone gatherers hauled their take to Gainesville, where bones sold for twenty to twenty-two dollars per ton (see BONE BUSINESS). The county's tall sage grass supported antelope, deer, buffalo, wild turkey, and prairie chickens, and in season the land offered wild plums, grapes, currants, persimmons, and pecans for the taking. By 1880 there were 126 people living in the area. The agricultural census for that year found thirty farms or ranches, encompassing 4,800 acres, but only 1,292 cattle and 46 sheep were reported. About 225 acres were planted in corn, the most important crop at that time.
Wilbarger County was organized in 1881, and the town of Vernon was designated the county seat; there were only fifty-six voters in the county at that time. The county grew quickly during the 1880s, despite droughts in 1886 and 1887, the prevalence of prairie dogs, and occasional rampages of stampeding cattle from the seasonal cattle drives that traveled through the area. In 1886 the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway built into Vernon, connecting the county to outside markets and encouraging immigration. The importance of the railroad to early development was recognized by local ranchers, who had donated rights of way. Relations with Indians were friendly during the 1880s. Quanah Parker and his Comanche followers visited the Doan family frequently, and Comanche-Kiowa Indians from Oklahoma marketed in Vernon with their government allotments in the 1880s. A newspaper, theVernon Weekly Call, was established by D. O. McConnell in 1889. By 1890 there were 720 farms and ranches, encompassing almost 313,000 acres, in Wilbarger County, and the population had increased to 7,092. Ranching had become important, and almost 23,000 cattle and 21,000 sheep were reported that year. But crop farming was also becoming fairly well established in the area. Almost 6,000 acres were planted in corn that year, in addition to 11,000 acres in wheat and 13,000 acres in oats; another 1,600 acres were devoted to cotton. Poultry raising was also becoming a significant part of the economy, and 50,700 chickens were reported that year. Many farmers and ranchers suffered reverses during the 1890s. By 1900 almost all the county's sheep had disappeared, only 636 farms remained, and the population had dropped to 5,759. Nevertheless, crop acreage expanded significantly during this time, and in 1900 over 14,000 acres were planted in corn, almost 34,000 acres in wheat, and almost 4,000 acres in cotton. The number of cattle increased to 33,000 head that year. The agricultural economy rapidly expanded between 1900 and 1920 as hundreds of new farmers moved into the area. By 1910 there were 1,435 farms and ranches in the county; almost 63,000 acres were planted in corn, and about 20,000 acres in wheat, while more than 55,000 acres were planted in cotton, which was rapidly becoming the area's most important cash crop. As old ranch lands were converted to crops, the number of cattle declined, and by 1920 there were only 10,000 cattle in the county. The population grew rapidly during this period, rising to 12,000 by 1910 and to 15,112 by 1920. Immigration continued during the 1920s, as cotton cultivation spread rapidly across the county. By 1930 almost 166,000 acres were planted in cotton, while only 1,400 acres were devoted to wheat and 8,000 acres to corn. There were 2,139 farms that year, 1,717 of which were operated by tenants (see FARM TENANCY). The 1920s also saw the rise of the petroleum industry. The first oil well in the county had been drilled in 1908, and a producing well followed in 1915, but significant production awaited the drilling of the South Vernon field in 1923. Soon the oilfield was extended across much of the south part of the county from the Wichita county line west through the Flukman field. By 1930 there were 24,579 people living in Wilbarger County.
The cotton economy was devastated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1940 just over 70,000 acres were planted in cotton; overall, cropland harvested in the county dropped from 207,000 acres in 1930 to 171,000 acres in 1940. Though cotton production remained a significant part of the economy after the depression, it would never again so be so dominant as before. The county lost 800 farms during the 1930s, and by 1940 only 1,300 remained. The tenant farmers were especially vulnerable during this period, and by 1940 only 753 remained. The rapidly developing petroleum industry helped to offset some of these losses; in 1938 more than 3,369,000 barrels of oil were produced in the county. Nevertheless, 20 percent of the population moved away during the depression, and by 1940 only 20,474 people lived there. Agriculture revived during the 1940s, and by 1950 more than 236,000 acres of cropland were harvested in Wilbarger County; almost 105,000 acres were planted in wheat that year. But farm consolidations and the mechanization of agriculture combined to drive down the number of farms and continued to push tenant farmers off the land. By 1959 there were only 873 farms, and of these only 340 were operated by tenants. The county population reached 20,552 in 1950 but then declined to 17,748 by 1960 and to 15,355 by 1970. Meanwhile cattle again became important to the economy. Almost 41,000 cattle were reported in 1950 and more than 30,000 in 1959. Petroleum production grew rapidly during the 1950s and early 1960s, but then began to decline. Production increased from 3,176,000 barrels in 1948 to 5,456,000 barrels in 1956 and to 6,011,000 barrels in 1965. The oil and gas industry remained important to the economy during the 1970s and 1980s, even though production declined. In 1982 over 10,000,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, almost 245,000,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and almost 1,968,000 barrels of crude oil were produced. Almost 1,219,000 barrels of crude were produced in 1990; by January 1, 1991, 252,208,000 barrels had been produced in the county since 1915. In 1982 approximately 93 percent of the land was in farms and ranches; about 41 percent of the farmland was cultivated, and 9 percent was irrigated. About 69 percent of the agricultural income was from crops, especially wheat, cotton, hay, oats, and guar; watermelons were also grown. Cattle and hogs were the county's primary livestock. Industries included meat packing and the manufacture of resins, plastic material, and men's clothing.
The majority of voters in Wilbarger County supported the Democratic candidate in every election from 1884 to 1948, except in 1928. The county voted Republican in 1952, 1960, and 1972, and Democratic in 1956, 1964, 1968, and 1976. The county then went Republican in every presidential election between 1980 and 1992. The population rose somewhat during the 1970s to reach 15,931 by 1980, but in 1990 there were only 15,121 residents there. As of 2014, 12,973 people lived in the county. About 61 percent were Anglo, 8.7 percent African American, and 27.7 percent Hispanic. Vernon (population, 10,533) is the administrative, manufacturing, and educational center of the county; Vernon Regional Junior College is located there, and the town also has a mental health center, a drug treatment center, a county airport, the Red River Valley Museum, and a county library. A Texas A&M Research and Extension Center is located at Lockett (150). Other communities include Doans, Elliott, Farmers Valley, Fargo, Grayback, Harrold (200), Odell (100), Parsley Hill, Tolbert, and White City. The Santa Rosa Roundup and the Annual Doan's Crossing Picnic are held in Vernon each May.