BLANCO COUNTY. Blanco County is in the Hill Country of south central Texas, bordered on the west by Gillespie County, on the north by Burnet and Llano counties, on the east by Hays County, and on the south by Kendall and Comal counties. Johnson City, the county seat, is four miles north of the center of the county, forty miles west of Austin and sixty miles northwest of San Antonio. The county's center lies at 30°23' north latitude and 98°24' west longitude. Blanco County comprises 714 square miles of the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau and has an elevation range of 800 to 1,850 feet above sea level. The terrain is generally hilly to mountainous, and along some streambeds the landscape has a "stairstep" appearance due to limestone benches and steep slopes. The vegetation consists mainly of stands of live oak and Ashe juniper, with mesquite and grasses. The soils are generally dark, calcareous, stony, clay loams with rock outcrops. Mineral resources include limestone, lead, oil, gas, industrial sand, and dolomite. Most of the county is best suited for rangeland and wildlife habitat. The northern and central part, about two-thirds of the total area, drains into the Colorado River in Travis County through Miller and Cypress creeks and the Pedernales River. The southern third of the county drains into the Guadalupe River through the Blanco and Little Blanco rivers. The temperatures range from an average high of 96° F in July to an average low of 34° in January, the rainfall averages 34.39 inches per year, and the growing season extends an average of 234 days.
There is archeological evidence that Indians camped in the Blanco County area as early as a.d. 1150, and ancestors of the Lipan Apaches, who had migrated from the great Northwest, may have been roaming the area when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. There is not much concrete evidence of Spanish and French exploration of the area at that time, but the fact that there was a proposal for a mission on the Pedernales River submitted by a Father Santa Ana, plus the fact that the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo named the Blanco River in 1721, does suggest that the Spanish knew the area fairly well. Small expeditions continued to cross the territory throughout the eighteenth century, but most of what is now Blanco County had been explored by 1749.
Land agents, empresarios, and Indian fighters began visiting the area about 1821. Land grants, however, were not issued by the Mexican government until 1826, when Benjamin R. Milam was given a contract to settle 300 families between the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers. The land granted constituted a small part of the early Blanco County area. In 1835 Jesse L. McCrocklin, Horace Eggleston, Noel Mixon, and Benjamin Williams each received a league of land now in Blanco County, but these tracts remained largely undeveloped until the middle of the nineteenth century.
By 1836 the Comanches had claimed all lands within the present boundaries of Blanco County. This hostile tribe made war on Apaches and white settlers alike, causing them to band together to fight their common enemy. Capt. James Hughes Callahan first visited the Blanco River area on his way to an Indian battle. He was apparently impressed with the land along the river and so returned in 1853 with his friend, Eli Clemens Hinds. Both men built homes on the Blanco River in 1854, thus becoming the first white settlers in what is now Blanco County. Later that year Joseph Bird established Birdtown, now known as Round Mountain, in the northern part of the county.
Also in 1854 Gen. John D. Pitts, who had fought in Indian campaigns with Callahan, came to settle in the Blanco County area. Pitts, with Callahan, Judge William S. Jones from Curry's Creek in what was then Comal County, Andrew M. Lindsay of San Marcos, and F. W. Chandler of Travis County, chartered the Pittsburgh Land Company and laid out the town of Pittsburgh between 1854 and 1855. The first church in the county was built in 1854 by a Methodist circuit rider named Daniel Rawls. As more and more settlers moved into the area, missionaries from various Christian churches also established themselves in Blanco County.
In 1855 settlers in the western part of what was then Comal County began to agitate for a new county. As a result, Kerr County was established in 1856. This, however, did not help the people of northern Comal County. They continued to petition the legislature, and through the efforts of members of the Pittsburgh Land Company, Blanco County was formed on February 12, 1858, from parts of Comal, Hays, Burnet, and Gillespie counties and named for the Blanco River. Some historians believe that Blanco County also acquired two small unattached pieces of Travis County. The total area of the new county was 1,043 square miles.
The act that established Blanco County also stipulated that the county seat should be called Blanco and that an election should be held to determine the location, which should be within five miles of the center of the county. A spot on the north bank of Martin's Fork of the Blanco River, just across from Pittsburgh, was chosen as the site for the new town. The Pittsburgh Land Company donated a 120-acre tract of land there, and Blanco was founded. A courthouse was erected on the town square in 1860. It was replaced in 1885 by a limestone structure that came to be known as the Old Courthouse, which fell into private hands after Johnson City became the county seat; the Old Courthouse was restored in the early 1990s.
Blanco County was settled predominantly by natives of Tennessee and Alabama, mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestants, although about a tenth of the residents were natives of Germany. According to the United States census, 1,218 people, including ninety-eight slaves, lived in the new county by 1860, and 184 farms had been established. Indian corn and wheat were the county's most important crops, but settlers also grew small amounts of rye, tobacco, and cotton on the 6,400 acres classified as "improved." The settlers also had vegetable gardens to supplement their meat-laden diets. Cattle and sheep were central to the local economy. Over 13,000 cattle and 4,179 milk cows were counted in Blanco County in 1860. The same year, large herds of sheep were brought from Missouri; over 19,000 sheep were counted in Blanco County in 1860, and the county produced more than 44,300 pounds of wool.
Though many of the residents of Blanco County in 1860 were native Southerners, and though some owned slaves, the majority apparently had Unionist sympathies. Immigrants from Northern states and from Europe helped to sway opinion toward the Unionist position, and when secession came to a vote in Blanco County it was voted down 170 to 86. In spite of the county's Unionist sympathies, few former slaves chose to remain in the area after emancipation. In 1870, after the Civil War, only forty-four blacks lived in the county, most of whom probably settled in Peyton, a freedmen's colony near Blanco.
The war disrupted economic expansion. By 1870 the county's population had dropped to 1,187, and livestock and crop production had declined dramatically. The number of milk cows fell to 1,397 by 1870, and beef cattle dropped to 8,755; most devastating to the county was the loss of over 16,000 sheep during the same period. Though the production of corn actually increased, other crops were severely reduced. Wheat harvests fell from 2,355 bushels in 1860 to 1,391 bushels in 1870. As a result, farm and ranch values plummeted from a total of $576,302 at the onset of the conflict to $90,736 in 1870.
During the Civil War the county lost a large part of the land on its southwestern border when the legislature established Kendall County in 1862. The legislature compensated Blanco County by giving it additional parts of Hays and Burnet counties. When all the changes were complete, Blanco County comprised the 714 square miles of land it occupies today, but the town of Blanco was no longer at its geographical center. By 1875 James Polk Johnson and other settlers on the Pedernales River in the northern part of the county began to agitate for a new county seat. For the next fifteen years Johnson and his friends petitioned that the county seat be moved; in 1879 Johnson City was founded near the new geographical center of the county in hopes that it would become the new county seat. After a number of hotly contested elections the people of the north were successful, and in 1891 Johnson City became the seat of county government.
As elsewhere, education in Blanco County began with one-room schoolhouses. In 1874 the Masons of Blanco chartered Blanco Masonic University. The project literally did not get off the ground, however, for once the foundation of the building was laid, there was no money left. A few years later citizens in the community formed a corporation to raise money to build a high school. Blanco High School was chartered in 1883 and built on the unused university foundation. The first class graduated in 1887. The school system grew slowly, as many of the young men who attended seem to have dropped out, possibly to work on family farms or ranches.
Census reports show livestock and crop production generally increasing from 1870 to 1900. The number of farms in the county increased to 519 by 1880, to 645 in 1890, and to 702 in 1900. Meanwhile the number of cattle almost tripled, to over 31,000 by 1880, and remained at that level in 1900. Similarly, the number of sheep in the county recovered to prewar levels by 1880, when over 19,000 sheep where counted, and in 1890 Blanco County had 30,000 sheep. Angora goats, which were to become a significant aspect of the county's economy in the twentieth century, were counted for the first time in 1900, when 789 goats of all kinds were reported. Crop production increased as well during this period and in 1900 stood at 17,150 bushels of wheat, 24,708 bushels of oats, and 215,230 bushels of corn. The population of Blanco County increased as its economy developed. In 1880 it was 3,583. By 1890 it had risen to 4,649 and by 1900 to 4,703.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cotton production rose steadily in the county, and by 1910 the fiber had become one of the county's most important crops. Blanco County's first cotton gin was established in 1870; by 1900 cotton culture occupied more than 10,300 acres of county land, which that year produced more than 8,951 500-pound bales. By 1910 cotton was grown on 16,000 acres in the county. Between 1900 and 1930 local farmers also diversified considerably, as peanuts, peaches, pecans, pears, plums, grapes, and figs were produced. By 1929 more than 20,000 peach and pecan trees were being harvested.
The land of the county offered only limited possibilities for crop production, however, and was much better suited for livestock. Between 1910 and 1930 the number of cattle remained constant at 20,000, and sheep grazing grew considerably. By 1930 Blanco County had 71,000 sheep and produced 433,473 pounds of wool. Mohair goats also became an important part of the economy during this time, and in 1929 farmers in the county sheared almost 274,000 pounds of mohair. During the period from 1920 to 1930 the number of sheep rose from 9,685 to 7l,049, and the number of goats rose from 13,780 to 81,500 (see sheep ranching, goat ranching, wool and mohair industry). Poultry production also increased in importance during this period. From 1920 to 1930 the number of chickens in the county increased from 29,153 to 43,136 and the number of turkeys from 3,517 to 14,937. The number of farms in Blanco County reached its peak between 1910 and 1920 and declined thereafter. The county had 753 farms in 1910, 713 in 1920, and 708 in 1929. Population figures for the period reflect the same downward trend; residents numbered 4,703 in 1900, 4,311 in 1910, 4,063 in 1920, and 3,842 in 1929.
During the Great Depression farm and ranch values plummeted and crop production fell. The number of farms in the county continued to drop; by 1940 only 632 farms remained in Blanco County. However, ranchers managed to keep most of their cattle and even substantially increased the number of sheep; in 1940 the county reported 90,000 sheep. The effects of the depression on the county were also tempered by a marked rise in government projects in the area, many of them acquired through the influence of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had developed a close relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of the county's roads were paved, and the federal government's Civilian Conservation Corps worked to improve state parks in the area. Perhaps most importantly, the New Deal introduced full electric power to the area through the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Pedernales Electric Cooperative. Though many county residents suffered through the years of the depression, these projects help to explain a rise in the population of Blanco County between 1929 and 1940. By 1940 4,264 people were living in the county.
The number of farms continued to drop between World War II and the 1970s, when their number again began to rise. In 1950 the county had 567 farms, in 1959 it had 516, and by 1969 only 472 remained. By 1982, however, there were 488 farms in the county. Population since World War II followed the same pattern. After the brief increase during the depression, the number of people in Blanco County dropped to 3,780 in 1950, then to 3,657 in 1960 and 3,567 in 1970, before rising to 4,681 by 1980. In 1990, 5,972 people lived in the county.
Farm and ranch supply stores have been the most prominent businesses in the two population centers of the county, Blanco and Johnson City. However, tourism has also become an important part of the local economy since the 1960s, as many visitors are attracted to Blanco State Recreation Area just south of Blanco, Pedernales Falls State Park in the northern part of the county, and to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Birthplace, Boyhood Home, and Ranch. In the 1980s Blanco County ranked 210th of the 254 Texas counties in agricultural receipts. Primary crops included wheat, hay, and oats; peaches and pecans were important. Blanco County continued to raise sheep, cows, cattle, goats, and turkeys and to produce wool, milk, meat, and mohair. Most county residents worked in tourism, agribusiness, or construction, and the county supported two newspapers, the Record Courier of Johnson City and the Blanco County News of Blanco.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Moursund, Blanco County History (Burnet, Texas: Nortex, 1979). John W. Speer, A History of Blanco County (Austin: Pemberton, 1965).
Mary H. Ogilvie and John Leffler