TAYLOR COUNTY. Taylor County is in west central Texas. The center of the county lies at 32°18' north latitude and 99°53' west longitude, and Abilene, the largest city, is 151 miles west of Fort Worth. Located in the Rolling Plains vegetation region, Taylor County covers 917 square miles of prairie covered by grasses, with some mesquite and live oak trees. The loamy surface soils are reddish to brownish, while the clayey subsoils often include lime accumulations; altitudes range from 1,672 to 2,410 feet above sea level. Taylor County is traversed from east to west by the Callahan Divide, a line of hills separating the Brazos River and the Colorado River watersheds. Lake Abilene, Kirby Lake, Lytle Lake, and Fort Phantom Hill Reservoir provide water and recreation. The county is semi-arid, with an average rainfall of 23.59 inches. Temperatures range from an average low of 31° F in January to an average high of 96° in July, and the average growing season lasts 225 days. Natural resources include oil and gas, stone, clays, sand, and gravel. Transportation needs are met by U.S. Highway 83/84 and 227, Interstate 20, State Highway 36, Abilene Municipal Airport, and Elmdale Airport. The Missouri Pacific Railroad serves cities such as Merkel, Tye, and Abilene. Other railroads serving the county are the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the Burlington Northern.
Comanches of the Penateka band led the advance into the region in the eighteenth century. In 1858 the Texas legislature established Taylor County, named for Alamo defenders Edward, James, and George Taylor, from lands formerly assigned to Bexar and Travis counties. Taylor County was attached to Travis and Bexar counties for judicial and administrative purposes until 1873, when these responsibilities were assigned to Eastland County. Partly due to the presence of Indians, the area remained largely unsettled. The Penatekas maintained their independence until the 1870s, when, after much bloodshed, they were defeated by the United States Army. The earliest group of European settlers in Taylor County were buffalo hunters and bone gatherers, who arrived during the 1870s. Sam Gholson, William C. Dunn, and William E. Cureton were among the early settlers. As more people moved into the area, the county was organized in 1878, and Buffalo Gap, a small settlement near the center of the county, became the seat of government. By 1880 there were 917 people living in the area, and ranching completely dominated the local economy. The agricultural census for that year counted 107 farms and ranches, encompassing 30,213 acres, but only 3,099 acres were described as "improved." Over 30,000 cattle and almost 6,000 sheep were reported, but only 157 acres were planted in wheat, the county's most important crop at that time; another 73 acres were planted in corn. Settlement accelerated when the Texas and Pacific Railway built through the area in the early 1880s. Buffalo Gap was bypassed by the railroad, which was routed instead to pass through the northern part of the county to the site of a new town, to be called Abilene. In 1881 the railroad connected the area to national markets and encouraged immigration. While Abilene began to develop into a shipping center, Buffalo Gap declined in population, and, after an election held in 1883, Abilene became the county seat. Attempts by the people of Buffalo Gap to challenge the election results by force of arms were quickly suppressed.
Though the climate and land of Taylor County were hostile to agriculture, hopeful farmers experimented with different crops in the 1870s and 1880s, cultivating peaches, corn, wheat, and cotton. The spread of crop cultivation led to disputes between the cattlemen who favored the open range and the new farmers who sought to fence in their crops. This fence-cutting war was on the brink of an armed exchange until the late 1880s, when the legislature passed new laws to regulate the sale, ownership, and fencing of land. By 1890 there were 587 farms and ranches in the county, encompassing 196,000 acres, and the population had increased to 6,957. The agricultural census reported 25,000 cattle and 36,000 sheep; more than 200,000 pounds of wool were produced that year. Meanwhile, crop farming was expanding. Local farmers planted 6,000 acres in oats, 4,000 in corn, 3,000 in wheat, and 4,000 in cotton that year. Though sheep ranching soon faded, crop farming continued to expand during the 1890s. By 1900 there were 6,957 people living in the area. Almost 10,000 acres were planted in corn, and 28,000 acres were devoted to cotton, which best survived the adverse conditions, especially drought, which plagued farmers in the late nineteenth century. As one commentator observed, "Our soil and fast-growing dry climate seem peculiarly adapted to the fleecy staple." The number of farms in the county almost doubled during the 1890s, rising to 1,152 by 1900. During the first years of the twentieth century, hundreds of farmers moved into the area. Though ranching remained important, crop farming emerged as the most significant element of the economy, and the cultivation of cotton continued to expand. By 1910 more than 101,000 acres were planted in cotton, while only 3,200 acres were devoted to wheat and corn combined. Meanwhile, the number of cattle had declined to 18,200. Primarily because of the rapid expansion of cotton cultivation, there were 2,404 farms in the county by 1910, including 1,351 operated by tenants (see FARM TENANCY), and the population had risen to 26,293. By the time the Santa Fe Railroad reached Taylor County in 1909 and 1910, Abilene had established itself as the largest and most important town in the county.
The growth of the agricultural economy was reversed during the 1910s because of extended droughts at the beginning and the end of the decade. Cotton acreage declined 30 percent, to 17,000 acres, by 1920. Though some farmers switched to wheat production, the number of farms dropped to 1,892 by 1920. Tenant farmers suffered most, and by 1920 only 982 remained. Meanwhile, the population dropped to 24,081. The 1920s saw a resurgence of cotton cultivation, however, and the economy boomed. More than 139,000 acres were devoted to cotton by 1924 and more than 150,000 by 1929. The cattle and poultry industries also grew during these years, and sorghum became an important crop. By 1930 there were 2,333 farms in the county, and the population had increased to 41,023. Abilene more than doubled in size during the 1920s; by 1930, 23,175 people were living there. Taylor County's growth during the 1920s was to some extent reversed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which wiped out many cotton farmers. By 1940 only 58,000 acres were planted in cotton, and only 1,871 farms remained; almost a third of the county's tenant farmers were pushed out. The depression also hurt ranchers, as cattle prices dropped significantly. Nevertheless the population rose slightly during the 1930s to reach 44,147 by 1940. While cotton production continued to decline in the years after World War II, the economy shifted significantly and became more diversified. Oil had been discovered in the county in 1929 but first became an important part of the local economy during the early 1940s. About 26,000 barrels of crude were produced in 1938, for example, but production increased to 403,000 barrels in 1944, to 1,536,000 barrels in 1948, to 2,735,000 barrels in 1956, and to 5,090,000 barrels by 1960. As production increased, so did the number of companies providing goods and services for the oilfields and their workers. The agricultural economy also shifted; after 1945 cattlemen diversified their stock and began raising more pigs and sheep; poultry farming was also encouraged. Meanwhile Dyess Air Force Base, completed near Abilene in 1956, also helped boost the local economy. Though farm consolidations and mechanization led to a steady decline in the number of farms during this period, the county's population rose to 63,101 by 1950 and to 101,078 by 1960.
The decline of petroleum production undercut the county's prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s; just over 2,492,000 barrels were produced in the county in 1974, and fewer than 1,124,000 barrels in 1989. Taylor County took steps in the 1960s and 1970s to encourage industrialization, however, and by 1985 there were 145 industrial plants, employing 5,800 workers. Abilene remained the home of Hardin-Simmons University (established in 1891), Abilene Christian University (1906), and McMurry University (1923). Despite the setbacks experienced since the depression, cotton continued to be a source of revenue in the 1980s, though acreage was much reduced; in 1982, 17,000 county acres were planted in the fiber. At that time 89 percent of the county's land was in farms and ranches; about 44 percent of the farmland was cultivated, and 2 percent was irrigated. About 67 percent of agricultural income was derived from livestock, especially cattle, sheep, angora goats, and hogs. Primary crops included wheat, sorghum, hay, cotton, and oats; vegetables such as sweet potatoes and watermelons were also grown. Industries included meat packing, soft-drink bottling, and the manufacture of men's clothing, plumbing fittings, watches, clocks, and aircraft equipment. Goods and services related to the oil industry were also important to the local economy. The county population dropped to 97,853 by 1970, but then began to rise again, reaching 110,932 by 1980 and 122,797 by 1990.
The majority of voters in Taylor County supported Democratic candidates in every presidential election from 1880 to 1948, except in 1928, when Republican Herbert Hoover won the county. Republican candidates, however, won every election between 1952 and 1992, with the exception of 1964, when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson carried the county. In the 1990s most of the county's residents lived in Abilene, the county seat (population 122,797). Other communities include Merkel (2,559), Tye (1,616), Tuscola (698), Buffalo Gap (409), Impact (55), Lawn (402), and Trent (330). Abilene's zoo and its numerous parks and lakes and provide residents and visitors with recreational opportunities. Other significant attractions include Buffalo Gap Historic Village and the annual West Texas Fair.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Emmett M. Landers, A Short History of Taylor County (M.A. thesis, Simmons University, 1929). Juanita Daniel Zachry, A History of Rural Taylor County (Burnet, Texas: Nortex, 1980).