DELTA COUNTY. Delta County is located in northeastern Texas seventy miles from the eastern and thirty miles from the northern state boundaries. It is bordered by the North Sulphur River on the north and the South Sulphur River on the south. The two waterways join to form the eastern boundary. Cooper, the largest town and the county seat, is in the center of the county (at 33°23' N, 95°42' W) at the intersection of State highways 24 and 154 with Farm roads 64, 128, 1528, and 1880. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway crosses the northwestern edge of the county by way of Pecan Gap and Ben Franklin. The county comprises 278 square miles of the Blackland Prairies. The terrain is undulating; soils vary from deep clay to clay covered with a dark loam. The elevation ranges from 400 to 500 feet above mean sea level. The vegetation along the streams consists primarily of hardwoods, particularly oak, elm, pecan, bois d'arc, and mesquite, while the prairie is covered with grasses including Texas grama, buffalo grass, and bunchgrass. Between 51 and 60 percent of the soil is prime farmland. The climate is warm and moist, with annual rainfall averaging forty-four inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 31° F in January to 95° in July. The first freeze in mid-November and the last late in March bracket a 233-day growing season.
The original inhabitants of Delta County were the Caddo Indians, an agricultural people with a highly developed society. The first European visitor was a Frenchman, François Hervey, who traveled through the area in 1750. Later in the eighteenth century, disease and threats from other tribes forced the Caddos to relocate. By 1820, however, scattered remnants of the Delawares, Quapaws, and Seminoles were hunting in the vicinity. During that decade, Hugh Castle settled near the future site of Ben Franklin, and, shortly thereafter a man known only as Blue built a pole hut in the Rattan area, probably to trade with the Indians. Other settlers soon began to arrive from Kentucky and Tennessee. The isolation caused by river boundaries on the north, south, and east, as well as the large Jernigan Thicket on the west, also made the location attractive to horse thieves and other criminals who drifted down through Arkansas from Missouri. By 1830 an agent had moved into the area to report on local Indian activities, and in 1836 the government of the new Republic of Texas recognized the land between the Sulphur rivers as part of Red River County. Without the restrictive regulations of the Spanish and Mexican governments, more settlers arrived, particularly from the South. By late in the 1830s, Dr. Moses Hogue and the Birdwell, Simmons, and Wilson families had established the little village of Ben Franklin. In 1840 the Congress of Texas formed Lamar County, which included present-day Delta County, from Red River County. In March 1846 the new state legislature organized Hopkins County, which absorbed the southern two-thirds of Delta County.
During the antebellum period, settlers mainly located on the North and South Sulphur rivers in order to be near the Hopkins and Lamar county seats, the most important local trade centers. Nat Corbet, a former resident of New York, established the first store in the county at Ben Franklin in 1845. The following year, a "Brigadier" DeSpain, his wife, Narcissa, and their three daughters claimed a land grant on the South Sulphur River along the Bonham-Jefferson Road, a major thoroughfare for cotton transportation that ran from Fannin County to Jefferson. The DeSpains built a bridge that was sturdy and high enough to escape flooding, thus facilitating trade in Hopkins County as well as at the Jefferson port. As the area began to prosper agriculturally, more settlers arrived. In 1847 pioneers from Shiloh, Tennessee, built a church and school named Shiloh just north of the South Sulphur River. The Lake Creek post office, originally called Odd's Creek, opened in 1848, but most pioneers continued to receive mail at Pin Hook (now called Paris) in Lamar County. In 1859 the residents of Giles, near Ben Franklin, established the Giles Academy, which became a respected school under the leadership of Thomas B. Hockaday. By 1860 the county had two Methodist Episcopal churches, one at Craig-Tranquil and another at Ben Franklin.
As the Civil War approached, some residents of the future county supported Governor Sam Houston's Unionist stand, a controversial one. Unionists were in the minority, however; most residents heartily endorsed the Confederate cause. In 1861 a militia was organized at Charleston, a small community near the fork of the rivers, and Gen. Sam Bell Maxey's Ninth Texas Infantry performed drilling exercises at Camp Rusk near Giles. The Confederacy also attempted to develop a saltworks on Lake Jordan, a few miles southeast of Klondike. In 1863 four Charleston men fighting on the Union side escaped capture in Arkansas by fleeing to Jernigan Thicket. Citizens apprehended three, who were summarily court-martialed and hanged. This was the only incidence of local violence, however, and the vicinity remained virtually untouched by the fighting.
At the end of the war the pioneers who had settled between the two rivers turned their attention to rebuilding an agricultural and herding economy. As the less-isolated county seats of Hopkins and Lamar Counties grew and developed, people from the river delta were forced to travel long distances over inadequate dirt roads and to cross waterways that were often flooded for long periods of time. In 1868 they petitioned the legislature to form a new county that would include parts of Hopkins, Lamar, Hunt, and Fannin counties. After much debate, Texas lawmakers granted their request on July 29, 1870, but only after excluding Hunt and Fannin counties because neither wished to be included. Governor Edmund J. Davis designated a five-man board of commissioners to organize the new district, to be called Delta County for its triangular shape. The county seat would be a new town named Cooper after Leroy Cooper, chairman of the House Committee on Counties and Boundaries, and situated directly between the North and South Sulphur rivers. Erastus Blackwell was appointed sheriff to supervise land sales. The first county election was held on October 6, 1870, to organize the municipal government, and Charles S. Nidever, John P. Boyd, J. F. Alexander, Alfred Allen, and J. M. Bledsoe were elected the first county commissioners. County organization, however, failed to settle continuing political divisions. In the election of 1872, Horace Greeley, the liberal Republican candidate endorsed by the Democrats, captured 50 percent of the vote, while Republican Ulysses S. Grant received 40 percent. Although the entire state became solidly Democratic after Governor Davis was defeated in 1873 by Democrat Richard Coke, the Republican party remained an important factor in Delta County politics. In 1876 local voters chose Democrat Samuel B. Tilden over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but only by a narrow margin of sixty-one votes.
The postwar years brought growth and, eventually, prosperity to the new county. Cooper soon became the center of local activities, and in 1873 Bob Michiel began publication of the first newspaper in the county, the Delta Courier. By 1880 the population had reached 5,597, including 598 African Americans. Fifty percent of the residents were native Texans. Education had become a more important issue during Reconstruction, and by 1880 the number of schools had increased from nine to almost thirty. These facilities operated 4½ months of each year and served a combined total of 998 students. Though the county had many small communities, the only towns were Cooper, Charleston, and Ben Franklin. Nine manufacturing establishments were in operation. The seven churches were predominantly Methodist. A new courthouse was constructed in Cooper, and Confederate and Union veterans planted pecan trees on the town square to symbolize the end of animosities. Development also extended to agricultural and herding pursuits. The fertility of the soil and natural pasturage made for more diversification than in other counties. Though only 32,120 or approximately 32 percent of the 102,086 acres in farms was improved, harvests were large. Local farmers ginned 4,911 bales of cotton, but this was not the most lucrative crop. The average corn yield was four bushels an acre, more than 130,000 bushels for the entire county, and one acre could produce nineteen bushels of oats. Sorghum was also grown on a large scale, and the county produced 11,345 gallons of sorghum molasses in 1880. The acreage not in use for planting was used for grazing. The county had 2,957 milk cows, mostly used for local needs, but other cattle amounted to 24 percent of the stock. Smaller numbers of horses, mules, and sheep also grazed on the open range. The number of hogs, most of them wild, had reached 10,994 and accounted for 43 percent of the animals raised in the county in 1880. The large numbers of cattlemen and the upsurge in farming resulted in fencing controversies that climaxed in 1883 with several fence-cutting incidents. The success of farming and herding was also complemented by a new interest in the lumber industry, and the wooded portions of Delta County became the sites of sawmills as well as shingle and furniture factories.
With the development of these industries, along with gristmills and cotton gins, crops and timber could be processed locally, but many county businessmen were interested in finding a method for shipping more goods to distant markets. In 1886 entrepreneurs J. M. Van Zandt and Joe C. Waller negotiated a contract with the Santa Fe Railway, and the following year a section of the line was built across the northwest corner of the county. Pecan Gap and Ben Franklin became stops on the new railroad, and many area people moved into the towns searching for jobs with the new company. By 1888 there were seven post offices in Delta County. The following year seven Baptist churches sent delegates to a meeting of the Delta County Baptist Association. The First National Bank, the only financial institution in the county, opened in 1889, as did East Texas Normal College. The school became very successful under the direction of William Leonidas Mayo, but it moved to Commerce after its only building burned in 1894.
The 1890s brought an even more impressive agricultural boom. Though the number of swine had decreased to 6,816 at the beginning of the decade and herds of other stock had grown only slightly, the amount of land in cotton, corn, and oats had increased sharply. Sixty-one percent of the acreage that made up the 1,188 farms was improved, and farms had doubled in value to $1,400 each. Cotton had boomed and was planted on 23,041 acres, as compared to 8,940 only ten years earlier. The census also reported 57,282 bushels of oats and 336,370 of corn. Sorghum acres had dropped to seventy-seven, but poultry production had begun to develop. Local growers produced 73,956 chickens in 1890. That year the Delta County population had increased to 9,117, including 728 black residents. While towns, especially those along the railroad, continued to grow, the majority of citizens still lived and worked in the country. The eighteen manufacturing establishments employed only thirty-three workers, who earned an average annual income of $208. The predominantly rural nature of the county was also reflected in political strife. The Populists won many local elections, and although Democrat Grover Cleveland won the county in the 1892 presidential election, third-party candidates captured 31 percent of the vote. Prohibition was also an important issue. Delta County remained dry throughout the Populist era.
At the beginning of the 1890s, there were eight Baptist churches in the Delta County Baptist Association and nine new Methodist churches. The lumber boom continued. In 1894 J. R. and W. H. Carson began a large lumber business at Pecan Gap. The following year the Texas Midland Railroad built a line through Cooper with stops at Enloe, Klondike, Horton, and Cooper, thus giving new life to those small towns. On February 21, 1897, Cooper was incorporated, and in 1898 a $40,000 bond issue passed to provide funds for the construction of a new brick courthouse. With the turn of the century, the county continued to prosper agriculturally. Most of the 15,249 citizens, including 967 blacks, preferred to remain on the farm. Though tenants and sharecroppers composed 60 percent of the farm labor force, huge outputs made theirs a profitable occupation. The number of farms had doubled over the past decade, and 73 percent of the farm acreage was improved. Sixty-nine percent of this cropland was planted in cotton, 25 percent in corn, and 4 percent in oats. Unimproved acreage was used primarily for open-range grazing. The number of swine had more than doubled to 15,413, and cattle numbered 10,943. Poultry remained an important source of income; growers reported 83,958 chickens and guineas and 2,599 turkeys. The poultry, livestock, and cotton were primarily shipped out of the area for sale, while corn and oats were used locally for human consumption and to feed cattle, hogs, and chickens. By 1910 the county population had increased to 14,566. Economically, most residents continued to rely on agriculture, but 66 percent of the 2,202 farmers were sharecroppers or tenant farmers who did not own land. In contrast to the rule in farm tenancy in other counties, only 3 percent (fifty-five) of this landless class was black because most of the 809 African Americans in the county worked for local manufacturers or on the railroad. The cultivation of cotton, corn, and oats remained lucrative, as did livestock and poultry raising. Fruits, particularly strawberries and peaches, were also being grown and shipped out of the county for sale. Local towns, particularly those along the railroad, continued to develop. Six new Methodist churches had been built since 1900, and the county had seventeen post offices. The First National Bank built a new building in 1909, but the most publicized county event of the decade occurred on May 19, 1910, when a 500-pound meteorite hit the earth near Charleston during the passage of Halley's Comet.
In 1920, 2,191 county residents were farming. The majority, 67 percent, were sharecroppers, and of these 1,469, eighty-two were black. That year county farmers produced more than 491,000 bushels of corn, 26,654 bales of cotton, and 9,047 bushels of oats. Potatoes had become the most important truck crop, although fruits were also marketed. The numbers of both cattle and swine had dropped considerably, however, and livestock production continued to decline throughout the decade because of a decrease in prices. In order to compensate for lost income, farmers began to produce even larger cotton crops.
By 1926, however, the prosperity of the early twentieth century was beginning to give way. That year the cotton crop failed, and citizens were forced to withdraw their savings from local banks. The First National Bank in Cooper closed in 1927, and even though it reopened two months later the economy of Delta County had been heavily damaged. Most citizens, relying on the income from the projected harvest, were deeply in debt. Bank capital had been drastically curtailed, making more loans almost impossible to obtain. By 1928 the Texas Midland Railroad sold out to the Southern Pacific Corporation. Although farmers grew more cotton in the hope of recouping their losses, prices continued to plummet. Lumber companies had exhausted much of the timber in the area, and the few that survived could not afford to continue through such hard times. It was as if Delta County had got the jump on the Great Depression. The population had decreased to 13,138 by 1930, as many people moved away in search of jobs. The number of black residents fell from 1,400 in the previous decade to 995. More people turned to sharecropping. Black tenancy doubled, and only 431 of 2,289 farmers actually owned their land. Corn production fell by 50 percent. The oat harvest dropped drastically. County farmer continued to produce more and more cotton. In the 1930 census county stockmen reported only 3,889 hogs and 4,739 cattle. Only four manufacturing establishments, employing thirty-six people, survived. In desperation, voters turned to the Democratic party for relief.
In the election of 1932 they supported Franklin D. Roosevelt with 96 percent of the vote, the largest Democratic margin of victory in county history. The First National Bank had closed again in 1933 as part of the national "Bank Holiday." It permanently reopened soon after. By the beginning of World War II, the local economy was fairly stable, and farming remained the prevalent occupation. Although the New Deal programs had lessened its production temporarily from 43,726 bales in 1931 to 11,421 in 1935, cotton remained the most important money crop. In 1932 300 farmers had formed a ginning cooperative, and by 1940 the county reported 26,789 ginned bales. Oats were no longer a cash crop, but 443,802 bushels of corn and large amounts of potatoes were grown, primarily for local use. Livestock were also consumed locally, and their numbers remained small. Schools and churches remained the centers of local activities as railroad towns declined with the decrease in trade. In 1931 there were thirteen Baptist churches in Delta County. The thirty-four common and six independent school districts employed 134 staff members and enrolled 4,000 children, who attended eight-month sessions. Enloe, Cooper, and Pecan Gap offered four-year high school programs. The small schools began to consolidate later in the decade with the help of state funding for transportation. In 1940 the Work Projects Administration built a new $110,450 four-story courthouse in Cooper and demolished the old one. While cotton was still the principal crop, alfalfa and hay were produced in larger amounts. Poultry and eggs as well as fruits, milk, and butter were shipped out in great numbers. Though stockmen produced good pork during this decade, the cattle industry never again attained its predepression success. At least one-fourth of all county farms were worked by tenants. By 1946 the county had 433 miles of roads, and 16 percent were graveled or paved. The WPA also constructed white rock roads so that school buses could travel more easily.
Many of the young people who left the area during the war chose not to return, and others moved to urban areas, particularly Dallas, in search of jobs. By 1950 the population of Delta County had decreased to 8,953, including 934 black residents, and by 1960 it had fallen to 5,860. Subsequently it hovered for many years around 4,900. The number of farms in the county also declined as mechanization made it easier for one farmer to work an area that might previously have supported several. Only 9 percent of the 1,413 farms were operated by black citizens, and all were tenants or sharecroppers. Although alfalfa, hay, and livestock had become the most lucrative products, cotton remained important to the local economy; growers produced 26,787 bales in 1950.
In 1966 more than 50 percent of Delta County remained rural. Cooper was the largest town and the center of local activities. It had two elementary schools, a junior high, and a high school. Two small airfields were located nearby. Major employers included the schools, a battery and generator plant, five cotton gins, eight cottonseed cleaning and processing plants, a locker plant, the Lone Star Gas Company, Texas Power and Light, and two hospitals. The forty-acre Delta County Country Club, which included a ten-acre lake, had also been constructed. Seven Christian communions were represented in the county's thirty-two churches. Politically, the county was still overwhelmingly Democratic. Only 18 percent of the population had finished high school. Farming continued to decline through the 1960s. By 1969 the number of farms had decreased to 650; 136 of these operated under the share or tenant system. Only eighteen black families were involved in agriculture, and eleven of these were sharecroppers or tenants. Most farmers had abandoned even subsistence crops in favor of nursery products and hay, while 432 continued to grow cotton in smaller amounts than previously. Almost one-third of all farmers worked off the farm for more than 200 days a year.
Voters in Delta County supported the Democratic candidates in every presidential election from 1872 through 1968. The county's sympathies began to shift, in 1972, however, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the area by a large margin. Economic hardships, especially for farmers, were partly responsible for this political upset. In 1976 Delta County residents again endorsed the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, with 68 percent of their votes, and in 1982, 99 percent of county residents who voted did so in the Democratic primary. Though a majority of the county's voters supported Ronald Reagan in 1984, Democrat Michael Dukakis carried the county in 1988 and Bill Clinton won a plurality of the area's votes in 1992 and 1996, partly because independent candidate Ross Perot won many votes in the area during those elections. (He got more than 25 percent of the county's vote in 1992). By the early twenty-first century, however, Delta County was firmly in the Republican camp, as George W. Bush carried the county by large margins in the elections of 2000 and 2004.
In 1982 the county was still primarily rural, with 81 percent of the land in farms and ranches, although one-half of the population lived in Cooper. Wheat culture, which had recently been introduced into the area, was increasing in importance, but 73 percent of all farm income came from livestock and livestock products. There were sixty businesses and five manufacturing establishments. While these institutions employed 40 percent of the labor force, an additional 42 percent worked outside the county. The county supported three banks, two telephone companies, and a weekly newspaper, the Cooper Review. Two school districts had an average daily attendance of 993; 77 percent of the students were white, and 23 percent were black. Residents could attend any of twenty-seven churches, the largest being Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Church of Christ. They also had access to the services of one doctor, one dentist, three attorneys, a police force of three, three sheriff's officers, and three volunteer fire departments. In 1982 Cooper had a fifteen-acre municipal park and the Patterson Memorial County Library. Eight communities maintained recreational centers. In 1987 there were 421 farming families in Delta County, but only 228 were involved in full-time agriculture. Cotton production had decreased to 1,710 bales, most of which was processed at local seed-cleaning plants. Grain had become the most important crop. Wheat was grown on more than 10,000 acres that produced 310,144 bushels. Large amounts of soybeans, sorghum, and corn were also harvested. The other successful county product was livestock. Herders raised more than 36,000 cattle and sold more than half of these.
The census counted 4,857 people living in Delta County in 1990 and 5,328 in 2014. In the latter year almost 81.3 percent of the population were Anglo, about 7.5 percent were African American, and about 6.9 percent were Hispanic. Almost 76 percent of the residents over age twenty-five were high school graduates; almost 14 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, tourism, and some manufacturing were the key elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 507 farms and ranches covering 141,992 acres, 64 percent of which were devoted to crops and 30 percent to pasture. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $10,675,000; livestock sales accounted for $5,890,000 of the total. Beef, dairy cattle, and crops such as hay, soybeans, corn, sorghum, cotton, and wheat were the chief agricultural products. Cooper (population, 1,987) was the county seat and largest town; other communities included Pecan Gap (195), Klondike (175), Enloe (90), and Ben Franklin (60). Tourist attractions include the Doctor's Creek unit of Cooper Lake State Park and the annual Chiggerfest held in Cooper each October.
Paul Garland Hervey, A History of Education in Delta County, Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1951).
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