Palo Pinto County, located in north central Texas, is approximately a one hour drive west of Fort Worth. Though Mineral Wells (approximately 17,000 population) is the most populous town in the county, with manufacturing as well as health and recreation facilities, Palo Pinto (approximately 350 population) remains the county seat. Mineral Wells, “the town that water built” was once renowned for its mineral waters and springs and is home to the once famous Baker Hotel. Though closed for a number of years, the Baker hosted movie stars and other world celebrities in its heyday. The Famous Water Company, however, is still in business and is a destination for many tourists. Mineral Wells was also home for the now closed Fort Wolters, once the world’s largest primary helicopter training base, and the National Vietnam War Museum.
Steeped in history, Palo Pinto County is home to popular Possum Kingdom Lake and State Park, Mineral Wells State Park, and Palo Pinto Lake. One of Texas’ first designated scenic routes, FM 4 from Santo to Palo Pinto, runs through the Palo Pinto Mountains, north to south.
The county is named for one of its principal streams, Palo Pinto Creek, which roughly translates to “painted stick or post”. The county covers 948 square miles of broken, hilly land with elevations that range between 800 to 1,450 feet above sea level. The county has an average annual rainfall of 30.13 inches and the scenic Brazos River runs from through the county, meandering north to south. Temperatures range from an average low of 33° F in January to an average high of 96° F in July; the growing season lasts 221 days. During the 1980s the county’s annual agricultural yield was $12.5 million, 90 percent of which was from livestock. Pecans, peaches, vegetables, grains, and hay accounted for the rest. Clay pipes, aircraft systems, plastics, electronic products, brick, feeds, clothes, and other products are manufactured in the county, as well. Major highways include U.S. Highway 180, which runs west to east across the county; Interstate Highway 20, which crosses the southeast corner; U.S. Highway 281, which runs north to south.
Famous scout Bigfoot Wallace surveyed the frontier region in 1837, and may have been the first white in the area that is now Palo Pinto County. The original settlers in the area, including Oliver Loving, Charles Goodnight, and Reuben Vaughn, established cattle ranches there in mid-to-late 1850. In addition, there were six groups of Indians, numbering 1,000 people, living along the Brazos in 1850. Though early settlers apparently cultivated friendships with the Indians, as more whites moved into the region the relations between the two peoples became strained, particularly because of the senseless aggression of some whites. The Brazos Indian Reservation, founded in 1854, held destitute bands from several tribes: Delawares, Shawnees, Tonkawas, Wichitas, and Caddoes. All Indian depredations, whether perpetrated by free Comanches or Kiowas passing through the region or by reservation Indians from Indian Territory, were attributed by terrified settlers to Indians from the Brazos reservation. White settlers retaliated against reservation Indians, and racial tension and violent incidents increased. Violence followed, and in 1856 the Texas Rangers rounded up the Indians and moved them to two reservations established in Young and Throckmorton counties. The removal did not end the conflict, however, for settlers complained that reservation Indians continued to steal cattle, and some settlers threatened to attack the reservations. Eventually the Indians were removed from their Brazos reservation to Oklahoma, while settlers flocked in along the old Fort Worth-Fort Belknap road.
In 1856 the Texas state legislature established Palo Pinto County from lands formerly assigned to Bosque and Navarro counties. The county was organized the next year, with the town of Golconda chosen to be the seat of government. The town was renamed Palo Pinto in 1858. By 1860, there were 1,524 people, including 130 slaves, living in the county. Though crop farming was becoming better established, the area’s economy centered around cattle in the years just after the Civil War. In 1867, cattlemen Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight established the famed Goodnight-Loving Trail to western markets. In 1876, C. C. Slaughter, James C. Loving, and C. L. “Kit” Carter met to discuss the theft of cattle by reservation Indians and white rustlers, and the challenge to their open range by new settlers. Out of this meeting on Slaughter’s ranch grew the organizational meeting, held at Graham the next year, of the Stock Raiser’s Association of Northwest Texas, later known as the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Carter, of Palo Pinto, was the association’s first president.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, some ranchmen began fencing rangeland to which they held title. Some settlers opposed fencing of the traditionally free open range, and incidents of fence cutting and violence resulted.
In 1880, the Texas and Pacific Railway built through the county, tying the area to national markets and encouraging farming and further settlement; the towns of Brazos, Santo, Gordon, Mingus, and Strawn sprang up along the rail route. In 1891, the Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railway, a twenty-five mile line, also built into the area, bringing eastern traffic to Mineral Wells. The line became part of the Texas and Pacific in 1902.
Oil production in the county during the 1910s helped to diversify the local economy. The first test oil well in Palo Pinto County was drilled in 1901, but the boom did not occur until 1915, when the field near the town of Palo Pinto was opened and became “one of the most productive oil fields in the world,” according to one historian. Oil production increased during the 1950s, and oil and natural gas production has remained a significant part of the local economy. By January 1, 1991, 17,874,218 barrels had been produced in the county since discovery in 1902..
In 1990 the county’s population was 25,055. The county has developed a tourist industry revolving around Possum Kingdom Lake, Mineral Wells State Park and Trailway, Lake Palo Pinto, historical sites, and the annual Crazy Water Festival.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mary Whatley Clarke, The Palo Pinto Story (Fort Worth: Manney, 1956). J. C. Koen, A Social and Economic History of Palo Pinto County (M.A. thesis, Hardin-Simmons University, 1949). Palo Pinto Historical Association, History of Palo Pinto County (Dallas: Taylor, 1978), and John Leffler, The Handbook of Texas.