FREESTONE COUNTY. Freestone County is located in east central Texas in the center of a group of counties once known as the Trinity Star. It is bounded on the east by Anderson County, on the south by Leon County, on the west by Limestone County, and on the north by Navarro and Henderson counties. The county's center lies at 31°43' north latitude and 96°07' west longitude; Fairfield, the county seat, is about eighty miles southeast of Dallas. Freestone County covers 888 square miles of coastal plain upland with an elevation ranging from 600 to 900 feet above sea level. The topography is generally a smooth, even plain with a gentle slope from northwest to southeast. The area is timbered with mesquite on the west, while the eastern half has almost every variety of oak, hickory, and walnut; there is a also scattering of pine groves on the western bank of the Trinity River, which provides drainage for the entire county, with the exception of a small area in the southwest, where runoff finds its way to the Navasota River. Most of the soil is fine sandy loam; springs are common in the deep sandy areas. Rainfall averages about thirty-eight inches per year, and temperatures range from an average high of 94° F in July to an average low of 36° in January. The growing season extends for 263 days. Interstate Highway 45 and State Highway 75 run north-south through the county, while U.S. Route 84 runs northwest to southeast.
Archeological evidence indicates that the area that is now Freestone County was inhabited from the late Holocene era to the arrival of the Spanish. In the historic period the area was inhabited by Caddoan Indians; in the 1830s these included the Kichais, who had a small settlement near what is now Butler, and the Tawakonis, who lived around Tehuacana Creek. Many other tribes also appear to have used the area for hunting and trading. While both the French and Spanish were familiar with the area, the French seem to have had more influence with these Indians, which limited the Spanish presence in the region. In the mid-1820s the Mexican government opened Texas to American colonization through the national colonization law of 1824 and through a law passed by the state of Coahuila and Texas in 1825, which opened uninhabited tracts to contractors and empresarios (see MEXICAN COLONIZATION LAWS). One of the first to secure a grant was David G. Burnet, whose land lay in the area that later became Freestone County. Under the terms of his grant, Burnet was authorized to settle 300 families in the area within six years. Little progress was made in executing the provisions of the contract, however, until after 1830, when Burnet joined with other empresarios to form the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company. In 1833 at least seven Mexican citizens received eleven-league grants, and another twenty-four titles to land were granted between 1834 and 1835. It is unclear how many of these landholders actually took up residence in the area; according to one account, in 1835 the only white inhabitant was James Hall, a fur trader. After the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836, the land company's rights to land in the area were terminated, and all lands not previously assigned became part of the public domain. During the early years of the republic period the area that is now Freestone County was considered Indian land and therefore dangerous; very few whites ventured into it until the Indian Treaty of 1843 (see INDIAN RELATIONS). So many settlers moved into the region in the years immediately following the treaty, however, that by 1846 every county now bordering Freestone County had been organized. One of these, Limestone County, included the land that would later comprise Freestone County. By the 1840s the white population of the northeastern half of Limestone County had grown significantly. By 1846 a fairly large settlement, later called Troy, had been established along the west side of the Trinity River near Pine Bluff, and in 1848 a few isolated settlers appeared in the southern and central sections of what is now Freestone County. Sometime around 1847 the steamboat Roliance made its way up the Trinity River. Others soon followed, bringing supplies for the many settlers moving into the area. Often the heads of families arrived on prospecting missions, then returned home to bring their families back with them. Since the population of Limestone County was rapidly expanding, in 1850 the Texas legislature divided it to form Freestone County. By 1851 the county had been organized; the town of Mound Prairie, in the center of the county, was chosen to be the county seat, and its name was changed to Fairfield. Some other early towns were Cotton Gin, Avant Prairie, Butler, and Bonner Community. By 1860 the agricultural economy was rapidly developing toward the model provided by slaveholding areas to the east; of the county's total population of 6,881, more than half (3,613) were slaves. The United States agricultural census found 417 farms, encompassing 282,803 acres, in Freestone County that year. More than half of these farms were smaller than 100 acres in size (and only two were larger than 1,000 acres), but already a few extensive plantations had been established. Two local landholders owned more than 100 slaves each, and four owned 70 to 100 slaves; all told, there were fifty-seven slaveholders in the county who owned twenty slaves or more. Though corn was the county's most important crop at this time, cotton production was also becoming well established. Over 6,900 bales of cotton were ginned in 1860, and local farmers also produced 5,200 pounds of tobacco, along with other crops such as wheat, oats, and sweet potatoes. Ranching was also an important part of the economy; the agricultural census listed almost 19,300 cattle and 7,700 sheep in 1860. By the early 1860s the residents had also begun to found cultural institutions. A combination school and Masonic lodge was built in Fairfield in 1853, and at least two colleges were established before or during the Civil War, including Fairfield Female Academyqv, (chartered in 1860) and Woodland College for Boys (established in 1863). Thirteen churches, mostly Methodist and Baptist, had also been established by 1860.
At the Secession Convention of 1861 Freestone County, represented by John Gregg and W. M. Peck,qqv voted to secede. After the convention county residents voted 585 to 3 in favor of secession. Preparations for military action were undertaken with 529 men available for duty. The Freestone contingent served well in the war, although there were many casualties. The loss of slave labor and the lack of a good transportation system slowed the economy in the years just after the Civil War, and in 1870 the area's production of corn (about 197,400 bushels) and cotton (6,465 bales) was lower than it had been in 1860. Nevertheless, the county experienced a good deal of growth during this period. By 1870 the agricultural census counted 1,029 farms in the area, more than double the number ten years earlier, and the population had increased to 8,139. The lack of good transportation persisted into the early twentieth century. In the early 1870s, for example, local farmers lost valuable opportunities to link directly to national markets when two railroads, the Houston and Texas Central and the International-Great Northern, skirted the county to the west and south. The local economy profited by the proximity of these railways, however, and the county grew significantly between 1870 and 1900. The number of farms nearly doubled (to 2,111) between 1870 and 1880, then increased to 2,728 by 1890 and to 3,518 by 1900; the number of "improved" acres of farmland more than tripled during this period, rising from 47,558 in 1870 to more than 159,000 by 1900. The population mirrored this growth, reaching 14,921 by 1880, 15,987 by 1890, and 18,910 by 1900.
Much of the county's growth during the late nineteenth century can be attributed to a significant rise in cotton production. About 31,300 acres were devoted to raising cotton in 1880 and about 49,300 acres in 1890; by 1900 that number had risen to almost 72,700 acres. Other aspects of the agricultural economy also developed during this time. By 1900 more than 48,000 acres were devoted to corn production. Sheep ranching declined significantly during this period (by 1900 there were only 346 sheep counted), but cattle ranching continued to flourish, and by 1900 almost 22,700 cattle were counted. Poultry had also become significant in the local economy; by the turn of the century farmers owned almost 112,000 chickens, which produced about 387,000 dozens of eggs that year. Agricultural activity was further encouraged in 1906, when the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway was built across the county and partially solved the transportation problem, and the economy continued to grow during the first two decades of the twentieth century despite a boll weevil infestation that plagued farmers beginning in 1903. The number of farms increased to 3,518 by 1910 and to 3,587 by 1920. At the same time farm acreage rose from about 324,000 to almost 564,500 acres. By 1920 almost 100,000 acres were devoted to cotton, and more than 50,600 acres were planted in cereal crops, primarily corn. At that time the U.S. census found 23,264 people living in Freestone County.
Agriculture declined dramatically during the early 1920s, however. The county lost 777 farms between 1920 and 1925, when only 2,910 farms remained. One of the most lucrative enterprises during the 1920s, when prohibition was in effect, was bootlegging, centered around the community of Young (or Young's Mill). Illegal whiskey known as Freestone County Bourbon Deluxe was transported out of the county by car, boat, truck, and plane and helped offset the downturn in the economy; according to one source, a number of local families "became wealthy, directly or indirectly," from the liquor trade. More farms were established in the late 1920s—by 1929 there were 3,559 farms in the area—but the rate of farm tenancy among local farmers also rose significantly during this period, from 46 percent in 1920 to 65 percent in 1930. The economy never fully recovered. By 1929 the land devoted to cotton production had dropped to about 93,400 acres, and by 1930 the population had declined to 22,589.
The economic slump continued during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Partly due to newly imposed federal crop restrictions, cropland harvested in the county dropped from 135,700 acres in 1929 to 112,700 in 1940; land in cotton declined by more than 50 percent during the depression years, with only about 44,000 acres left by 1940. Hundreds of farmers left, and by 1940 the county had only 2,761 farms and 21,138 residents. Due partly to farm consolidations, the population continued to decline, to 15,696 by 1950, to 12,525 by 1960, and to 11,116 by 1970. It rose significantly in the 1970s and 1980s, however, as new businesses moved in. While farming and the livestock business remained important, the biggest gains were in the mining industry, which by 1988 employed over 500 workers in the county, up from 20 in 1970. A new electric generating plant just outside of Fairfield caused the public utilities to more than double their work force from 1980 to 1986. Service and retail industries also grew significantly, and the population increased from 14,830 in 1980 to 20,946 by 1990.
Oil was first discovered in the county in 1916, and petroleum and natural gas production contributed to the area's economy into the twenty-first century. Almost 294,000 barrels of oil and 263,851,056 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 44,889,337 barrels of oil had been taken from county lands since production began.
Democratic presidential candidates carried the county in every election from 1872 through 1968. In 1972, however, Republican Richard Nixon carried the area. Though Democrats carried almost every election in the county from 1976 to 1992, when Bill Clinton won a plurality of the area's votes, Nixon's win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan's in 1984 marked moves away from the area's traditional leanings. By the late twentieth century the Republicans were clearly in ascendance. Republican Bob Dole won a plurality of the county's votes in 1996 and George W. Bush won the county with solid majorities in 2000 and 2004.
In 2014 the census counted 19,762 people living in Freestone County. About 67.2 percent were Anglo, about 16.8 percent were African American, and 14.6 percent were Hispanic. About 66 percent of the residents age twenty-five and older had completed four years of high school; more than 9 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century natural gas, mining, quarries, various manufacturing concerns, and agribusiness were the key elements of the local economy. More than 263,851,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas were produced in the county in 2004. In 2002 the county had 1,468 farms and ranches covering 429,339 acres, 53 percent of which were devoted to pasture, 30 percent to crops, and 16 percent to woodlands. In that year farmers and ranchers in the area earned $32,473,000; livestock sales accounted for $30,473,000 of the total. Beef cattle, hay, fruits, vegetables, melons, pecans, and corn were the chief agricultural products. Communities in Freestone County include Fairfield (population, 2,951), the county seat; Teague (3,697); Kirvin (129); Streetman (260, partly in Navarro County); Wortham (1,048); and Donie (250). Lake Fairfield, in the north central part of the county, provides recreation for residents and visitors, and many historic sites are preserved throughout the county. Blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Coutchman and buried in Wortham.
Freestone County Historical Commission, History of Freestone County, Texas (Fairfield, Texas, 1978).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, "Freestone County," accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcf09.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on February 1, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.