Terry County
June 12, 2003

Dan Vacek, John Bourg

TERRY COUNTY. Terry County, on the southern High Plains of West Texas, has an area of 899 square miles and an elevation of 3,100 to 3,600 feet. The county center lies at 38°10' north latitude and 102°21' west longitude, forty miles southwest of Lubbock. The primary roads are U.S. highways 62/82, 385, and 380 and State Highway 137. The land is level, broken by draws and playas with sandy loam soils. There are no rivers or streams, and drainage is through draws, which form the upper watershed of Sulphur Springs Creek. Sand hills dominate the northeast corner of the county. The average annual rainfall is 17.21 inches. The average minimum temperature in January is 26° F; the average maximum in July is 93°. The growing season averages 206 days. Agricultural profits average $63 million annually, 90 percent from cotton. The county is among the state leaders in cotton production and had twenty-one gins in 1971 to process 103,514 running bales produced during that season. Sorghums are also produced, and cattle and hogs are raised. Most of the county's 144,000 acres of irrigated land is planted in cotton. Manufacturing accounts for an income of $4.5 million annually in irrigation equipment, carbon black, fertilizers, and process minerals. In 1982 nearly 14.5 million barrels of oil valued at $451 million and some sodium sulfate were produced.

The area that is now Terry County includes lands granted by Mexico to Stephen J. Wilson in 1826 and John Charles Beales in 1832, but the Texas Revolution prevented any settlement on grant lands of West Texas. The land had been a hunting ground for Comanches and other Indians who preyed on the great herds of buffalo in the area, but buffalo hunters depleted the herds during the early 1870s. Terry County was demarked from Bexar County in 1876 and named for Col. Benjamin Franklin Terry, who commanded the Eighth Texas Cavalry (Terry's Texas Rangers) in the Civil War. It was attached to Young County until 1881, when Throckmorton County took over its judicial affairs. In 1883 administration was vested in Howard County, and in 1889 it was transferred to Martin County. The county began to be settled by whites in the 1890s, when the state offered ten-year leases on school lands for grazing cattle. Terry County was organized in 1904, with Brownfield as its seat of government.

Most of the earliest ranches in the county were established on lands leased from the state. The first ranches were the DOV, established by Ira J. Coulver in 1889, and the QIV, founded by J. R. Quinn the same year. The Nunn Ranch, founded in 1894, covered most of the northeastern part of the county; the county's first well was drilled on this ranch near Meadow. The TFW, established by Englishman Q. Bone in 1894, included 100 sections in the northwest part of the county. Marion V. Brownfield drove his cattle to the plains in 1896, acquired railroad lands, and bought more acreage when the original grazing leases expired between 1901 and 1903. Only three ranchmen actually lived on the six ranches in Terry County in 1900; the other ranching operations were absentee-owned and run by itinerant cowboys. According to the census, only twenty-one people lived in the county in 1890, and only forty-eight lived there in 1900. In 1901 nonresident owners of railroad certificates put eighty-six sections of land in the center of the county up for sale, and farmers began to settle on purchased state and railroad lands in 1903, clearing shinnery and catclaw to plant grain, sorghum, and corn. By 1910 Terry County had 235 farms and 23,000 acres of improved land, and the population had increased to 1,474. Corn was the most important crop. Over 7,800 acres were planted in corn in 1910, and 4,509 acres were devoted to forage, the second-most important crop at that time; only 131 acres were planted in cotton. The county's transportation network developed slowly between 1900 and 1920. Until a railroad reached Lubbock in 1909 to make it the county's market center, all freight was brought in from Plainview, Colorado City, or Big Spring over a winding road in Sulphur Draw. It took seven or eight days to make a round trip to Big Spring for supplies. In 1909 Brownfield made a rough auto road through his ranch to Lamesa, and another road was soon constructed to Lubbock. Transportation became easier when a railroad extended its tracks into the county in 1917. For a time Terry County was known as the Egypt of the West, or the Corn Basket of Texas, as 300 to 400 carloads of corn were shipped out annually. In 1920 more than 10,600 acres were planted in corn, and in 1930 over 35,000 acres were devoted to the crop. Devastation by corn borers, however, helped to encourage farmers to shift to cotton. The first cotton gin had been built at Gomez in 1909. In 1920 almost 3,800 acres were planted in cotton, which by 1930 had become the county's most important crop, with 101,487 acres devoted to its production.

The number of farms in the county and the population increased accordingly. By 1930 there were 1,458 farms, up from 274 in 1920, and the population had risen to 8,883 from the 1920 figure of 2,236. Droughts and depressed prices during the 1930s shook out some of these farmers, however, and forced others into farm tenancy. By 1940, 1,305 farms remained in the county, and more than half of these (758) were operated by tenants. The population actually rose during the 1930s, however; by 1940 it was 11,160. Those who remained through droughts and the dreary years of the Great Depression were on hand to greet the discovery of oil in 1940 with jubilation. Terry County lies in the oil-rich north Permian Basin, and the discovery of oil quickly led to production. In 1944, 173,877 barrels of petroleum were pumped out of Terry County lands; in 1950 over 780,000 barrels were produced; in 1956 production reached 7,463,320 barrels. After a decline to under five million barrels by 1960, oil production rose to 7,097,000 barrels by 1963 and to 12,282,000 barrels by 1974. It declined again in the 1980s before rising to over 8,502,000 barrels in 1990. By 1991 almost 363,143,000 barrels of crude had been extracted from Terry County lands since 1940. In 1991 Terry County was among the leading cotton counties in Texas, and the oil and gas industry remained crucial to the economy. Market vagaries affect both industries, however, and potential water shortages threatened to make irrigated cotton raising unprofitable. The county population was 3,074 in 1950, 16,286 in 1960, 14,118 in 1970, 14,581 in 1980, and 13,218 in 1990. Towns included Brownfield (population 9,560), Meadow (571), Wellman (239), Union (85), and Tokio (60). Brownfield and Meadow were the only incorporated communities. The county supports the Terry County Heritage Museum and an annual fall harvest festival.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Oran Silas Buckner, History of Terry County (M.A. thesis, Texas Technological College, 1943). Terry County Historical Survey Committee, Early Settlers of Terry (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1968).

William R. Hunt and John Leffler