COLEMAN COUNTY. Coleman County is located in west central Texas. Coleman, the county seat and largest town, is sixty miles southeast of Abilene. The county is bordered on the south by the Colorado River, on the north by Taylor and Callahan counties, on the west by Runnels County, and on the east by Brown County. Coleman County encompasses 1,280 square miles. It lies in the transitional area between the Edwards Plateau and the Rolling Plains and has some characteristics of each.
Anglo exploration of the county came with the establishment of Camp Colorado. The camp was originally located in what later became Mills County, but in August of 1856 was moved to Mukewater Creek on the Jinglebob Trail of John Chisumqv in the eastern part of Coleman County.
Coleman County was formed in 1858 from parts of Brown and Travis counties. Organization began in 1862 and was completed in 1864. The county was named for Robert M. Coleman, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and an aide to General Houston at San Jacinto. After organization was completed settlers began moving into the county. Some of the more notable were Rich Coffey, William Day, Mabel Doss Day Lea,qqv and John Chisum. Chisum established a store at Trickham and maintained a ranch headquarters on Home Creek in the southern part of the county. Coffey established himself on a ranch between the site of present Leaday and Voss about 1866.
Camp Colorado served as the county seat from 1864 to 1876. But with an increasing population, a new county seat in a more central location was needed. In 1876 a commission was selected to find a suitable site. Early that year a tract on Jim Ned Creek was chosen as the site of the future city of Coleman. In July 1876 town lots were sold to settlers. The "second city" of Coleman County, Santa Anna, came into existence three years later. It had formerly been called Gap because of the cleft in the Santa Anna Mountains but changed names when the residents petitioned for a post office.
In the 1920s decade the oil industry began in Coleman County. Natural gas had been discovered around Trickham, and in 1916 the wells were producing 2½ million cubic feet of gas a day. In 1917 oil was discovered north of Coleman on the J. P. Morris ranch. By the end of 1918 Coleman County had produced over 31,000 barrels of oil.
In the 1920s the agricultural economy of Coleman County was depressed. In 1919 the value of the crops grown was more than $10 million, but crops grown in 1924 were worth only a little over $6 million. Tenancy increased dramatically in the twenties. In 1920, 54.8 percent of Coleman County farmers were tenants. By 1925 tenants amounted to over 63 percent. The oil industry began to grow in this decade, however, and continued to grow for the next thirty years. In 1927 the county produced more than 400,000 barrels of oil.
The years after the depression saw many changes in Coleman County. In the next four decades the county experienced a decrease in population, a stabilization of agriculture, and booming oilfields. The population of the county in 1940 was 20,571, a figure representing a net decline of 13 percent since 1930. For the first time in many years the farm segment of the economy began to improve. In 1945 only about one-third of the farm operators were tenants, and of these the largest group were cash tenants. The oilfields of the county were producing over a million barrels a year by 1948.
In 1950 the population of Coleman County had declined to 15,503, nearly 25 percent less than in 1940. Also by 1950 the urban population increased significantly. More than 42 percent of the county's population was urban by 1950, compared to a little less than 30 percent in 1940. The oil industry, centered in Coleman, accounted for this shift in population. Coleman had 6,530 people in 1950. Oil reached its peak in the county during the 1950s and early 1960s. In a period of about ten years Coleman County produced over three million barrels of oil a year. Agriculture continued its rise. With the loss of rural population, the number of holdings decreased, but the average size increased due to a greater reliance on machinery. In 1950 there were 1,596 farms with an average size of 485.7 acres. In 1954, however, the number of farms had decreased to 1,427, and the average size of each holding had increased to 526.7 acres. Tenancy continued to decrease. In 1950, 37.3 percent of the county's farmers were tenants. By 1954 tenancy had decreased to 34.5 percent. Again most of these were cash tenants.
In the 1960s and 1970s the economic trends of the previous two decades continued. The population of the county declined to 12,458 by 1960. For the first time in the county's history most of the population was urban. By 1960 the number of farms had decreased to 1,105 and earned an annual income of over $7 million. The petroleum industry began to slow down, however. In 1968 production was a little over a million barrels, less than half the yield of 1960.
The 1970s brought similar changes. In 1969 the county had 1,073 farms with a total area of 795,000 acres; the value of products of these farms was almost $9 million. By 1974 the number of farms had decreased to 847, and the total area under cultivation had also decreased, to 747,000 acres. However, the value of farm products sold annually had increased to $10 million. Oil production slowed further during the 1970s. In 1972 the county produced just over 700,000 barrels of oil; in 1976 the total was 643,000. Production increased during the 1980s, increasing to nearly one million barrels, but in the early 1990s it had fallen to about 700,000 barrels annually.
Politically Coleman County has been staunchly Democratic, though in the late twentieth century the Republican party made strong inroads, particularly in national and statewide races. Between 1952 and 1990 Republican presidential candidates have outpolled their Democratic counterparts in every election except those of 1964, 1976, and 1992. Republican candidates in gubernatorial and senatorial contests also fared well. In 1980 the county population had increased to 10,439 people, as compared to 10,288 in 1970. In 1990 the county population was 9,710.
Coleman County Historical Commission, History of Coleman County and Its People (2 vols., San Angelo: Anchor, 1985).