Burnet County
November 2008

Tom & Sharon Douglas, Frank & Joanie Wyatt, Steve & Kathy Wilkening

BURNET COUNTY. Burnet County , situated on the northeastern edge of the Hill Country, comprises roughly 1,000 square miles of gentle to broken hills with elevations ranging from 700 to 1,700 feet above sea level. The terrain in the northwestern, western, and southern parts of the county is characterized by rolling hills with local deep and dense dissections; fertile plateaus and valleys are found in the eastern section, and rolling prairies dominate the north and northeast. The land is drained by the Colorado River, which forms most of the western county line before meandering across the southern part of the county; by the San Gabriel River, which rises in three forks in the northern and central parts of the county; and by the Lampasas River, which cuts across the northeastern corner. Wildlife in Burnet County includes deer, coyotes, bobcats, beaver, opossums, ring-tailed cats, foxes, raccoons, turkeys, badgers, weasels, skunks, and squirrels, as well as assorted birds, fish, and reptiles. Among the county's mineral resources are granite, limestone, industrial sand, and graphite. The average minimum temperature is 37° F in January, and the average maximum is 96° in July. The growing season averages 234 days annually, and the rainfall averages about thirty inches.

In the early nineteenth century, surveyors found the local Tonkawa and Lipan Apache groups to be friendly, but the Comanches made frequent raids into the area.

Several surveying and Indian-fighting expeditions from the colonies of Stephen F. Austin and Green DeWitt ventured into Burnet County in the 1820s and 1830s, but no permanent settlement occurred. At the time of Texas independence, most of the area was still public domain; through the mid-1840s settlers preferred the relative security of communities farther to the east.

In the 1840s, after the annexation of Texas to the United States, the federal government became responsible for the protection of frontier settlers from Indian raids. Several companies of Texas Rangers, financed by the federal government, were stationed along the frontier. In December 1847 a company commanded by Henry E. McCulloch took up a position about three miles south of the site of present Burnet. When the Rangers were relieved by a company of United States Dragoons in December, 1848, Holland protested the construction of a fort on his property; as a result, Fort Croghan was established at the site of future Burnet, three miles to the north. The military abandoned Fort Croghan in December 1853, when it was thought that the population of the area was sufficient to hold its own against the remaining Indians.

The presence of troops had encouraged settlers to make their homes in Burnet County. By December 1851 the population of the region was large enough to warrant petitioning for the foundation of a new county. Burnet County was formed by the Fourth Texas Legislature on February 5, 1852, from parts of Travis, Williamson, and Bell counties. It was named for David G. Burnet, president of the provisional government of the Republic of Texas. The first county officials were elected later that year.

The first post office in the county was established at Hamilton in 1853; the name of the town was changed to Burnet in February 1858. By 1860 Burnet County had 2,487 residents.

Among the earliest churches in the county were a congregation at Mormon Mill in 1851, a Christian church established at Sycamore Springs in 1851, a Baptist church established on Oatmeal Creek in 1854, and a Church of Christ established at Burnet in 1856. Few communities had their own preacher; itinerant ministers held periodic camp meetings to which people came from miles away. One of the first of these was held in the fall of 1855 by Methodists at Sand Springs, south of Burnet. The first land deed specifically for church purposes was executed in 1859 in Backbone Valley. Most often, early church services were held in a building that also served as the schoolhouse. A Catholic church was established at Burnet in 1930; an African Methodist Episcopal church was established there in 1953. In the early 1980s the county's forty-seven churches had an estimated combined membership of 10,329; Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and United Methodist were the largest denominations.

The Austin and Northwestern finished laying the track between Austin and Burnet in 1882. The track to Granite Mountain was built in the mid-1880s, and branches to Marble Falls and Llano were completed by 1889 and 1892, respectively. The Houston and Texas Central Railway was completed from Burnet to Lampasas in 1903. Lake Victor and Bertram were established as railroad towns and prospered as shipping points and commercial centers for area farmers and ranchers. Such other communities in the county as Lacy, Naruna, South Gabriel, Sage, Wolf's Crossing, Shady Grove, and Strickling were bypassed by the railroads and faded as their populations were drawn to more promising locations.

One beneficiary of the additional railroad lines was the mining industry. Although the quarry at Granite Mountain had been in operation for several years, shipping became much easier with the arrival of the railroad. Stone from the Granite Mountain quarry was used for the Capitol in Austin, the Galveston seawall, numerous county courthouses, and several buildings in New York. Graphite proved to be another profitable mining venture. The deposits in the northwestern part of the county, discovered in 1916, were the Western Hemisphere's only fully integrated primary source of graphite. The Southwestern Consolidated Graphite Company began operation in the late teens; the mining stopped because of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but began again at the request of the War Production Board in 1942. Mining for lead, copper, zinc, iron, and gold was also attempted in Burnet County, but with little success.

When the depression hit in the 1930s, however, prices for all agricultural products plummeted. Cotton, which averaged sixteen cents a pound in 1929, sold for only five cents in 1931; wheat prices fell as low as forty-five cents a bushel. The value of livestock dropped as well: a ewe and lamb that cost twenty dollars in 1929 sold for two dollars; wool, which sold for forty cents a pound in the late 1920s, fell to seven or eight cents. Lower prices meant lower income for farmers and lower wages for their hired workers. Many farmers had difficulty obtaining enough credit to continue operating. The number of farms in the county fell from 1,548 in 1930 to 810 in 1960.

Another major employer during the depression was the State Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation). In 1929, construction of the Burnet County section of State Highway 66 (later U.S. Highway 281) began; the project lasted until 1939. State Highway 29, which connected Austin with Burnet and Buchanan Dam was built between 1936 and 1939. These north-south and east-west routes each required a large bridge to cross the Colorado River; one bridge, located at Marble Falls, was completed in 1936, and the second was built across Inks Lake about a mile below Buchanan Dam in 1937.

Agriculture in Burnet County had for the most part recovered by the early 1940s, but farming as an occupation was less prevalent than it had been before the depression. Land previously under cultivation was now used for grazing; crop raising was relegated primarily to the northeastern part of the county. Larger farms and ranches squeezed out the small farmer and sharecropper. Tenant farming and sharecropping, which had accounted for the operation of nearly 29 percent of the county's farms in 1880, increased steadily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, peaking at 54 percent in 1930. In 1940 roughly 49 percent of the farms were tenant-run; in 1950 the number had fallen to 23 percent; by the late 1960s fewer than 13 percent of the farms in the county were operated by tenants. The average farm size had increased from 380 acres in 1930 to 695 in 1960.

The LCRA built two more dams on the Colorado in Burnet County in the late 1940s and early 1950s: Alvin J. Wirtz Dam, which impounded Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, and Max Starke Dam, on Lake Marble Falls. Subdivisions on the lake shores were popular sites for retirement and vacation homes. By the 1970s retired couples comprised a significant part of the population; in the early 1980s, Burnet County ranked seventieth of all counties in the United States in percentage of population over age sixty-five. Burnet County had an urban growth of 133 percent between 1970 and 1980, one of the highest in the state. Lake Buchanan, Inks Lake, Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, and Lake Marble Falls were popular recreational sites.

In the early 1980s between 80 and 90 percent of the land in the county was devoted to farming or stock raising. Only about 4 percent of the farmland was under cultivation; hay, oats, and wheat were the primary crops. Most of the farmland was located in the northeastern part of the county. More than 90 percent of the county's agricultural receipts came from livestock, the most important animals being cattle, sheep, angora goats, and hogs. Although agriculture continued to be an important aspect of the economy, farm receipts represented less than 6 percent of the county's annual income in the early 1980s. Roughly three-quarters of the county's farmers and ranchers depended on other work to supplement their income.

Professional and related services, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and construction involved more than 60 percent of the workforce in the 1980s; an additional 17 percent was self-employed, and 24 percent was employed outside the county. Industries with the highest employment included limestone quarrying, agribusiness, general construction, and the manufacture of wood cabinets. In 1980 Burnet County had 17,803 residents, a 56 percent increase over the 1970 population of 11,420; the population increased a further 27 percent in the late 1980s, reaching 22,677 in 1990.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Malvin George Bowden, History of Burnet County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1940). R. S. Crawford, Jacob Wolf: Burnet County Pioneer (Waco: Texian Press, 1969). Darrell Debo, Burnet County History (2 vols., Burnet, Texas: Eakin, 1979). Noah Smithwick, The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days (Austin: Gammel, 1900; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).