FISHER COUNTY. Fisher County (H-11) is on U.S. Highway 180 west of Abilene in the Rolling Plains region of central West Texas. The county is bordered on the north by Kent and Stonewall counties, on the east by Jones County, on the south by Nolan County, and on the west by Scurry County. Its center point is 32°45' north latitude and 100°23' west longitude. Roby is the county seat; Rotan, the county's largest town, is 225 miles west of Dallas, 65 miles northwest of Abilene and 125 miles southeast of Lubbock. In addition to U.S. 180 the county's transportation needs are served by State highways 70 and 92. Fisher County covers 897 square miles of grassy, rolling prairies. The elevation ranges from 1,800 to 2,400 feet. The northern third of the county is drained by the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, and the southern two-thirds is drained by the Clear Fork of the Brazos. Soils range from red to brown, with loamy surface layers and clayey or loamy subsoils. Between 51 percent and 60 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland. The vegetation, typical of the Rolling Prairies, features medium-height to tall grasses, mesquite, and cacti. Cedar, cottonwood, and pecan trees also grow along streams. Many species of wildflowers bloom in the spring and early summer, including daisies, buttercups, tallow weed, Indian blanket, baby's breath, prairie lace, wild verbena, belladonna, and hollyhock. Texas bluebells thrive in low places. The climate is subtropical and subhumid, with cool winters and hot summers. Temperatures range in January from an average low of 28° F to an average high of 56°, and in July from 70° to 96°. The average annual rainfall measures twenty-two inches, and the average relative humidity is 73 percent at 6 A.M. and 40 percent at 6 P.M. The average annual snowfall is five inches. The growing season averages 222 days, with the last freeze in early April and the first freeze in early November.
Fisher County comprises a region that has been the site of human habitation for several thousand years. Archeological artifacts recovered in the area suggest that the earliest human inhabitants arrived around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and evidence of Paleo, Archaic, and Historic cultures have been found in the county. Following these earliest inhabitants were the Lipan Apaches, who had settled in the region by the sixteenth century; later, around 1700, Comanches and Kiowas drifted in from the north, and Pawnees, Wichita, and Wacos occasionally hunted along the upper Brazos valley. The Old Indian Trial, which crossed the county, was used by various Indians to travel between the Plains region and Central Texas. Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado traversed the general region in 1541, and José Mares crossed it in 1788 while searching for a more direct route from Santa Fe to San Antonio. In the spring of 1847 Robert B. Marcyqv traveled along the Old Indian Trial through Fisher County on his way to El Paso; he camped for two days near the site of present-day Rotan. In the early summer of 1856 Robert E. Lee explored the county while leading a punitive expedition against the Indians.
A few buffalo hunters passed through the area in the early 1870s, but not until 1876, when the legislature separated the county from Bexar County, did the first permanent settlers arrive. The new county, named for Samuel Rhoads Fisher, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, however, remained sparsely populated and was not organized until 1886. Most of the early residents were cattle ranchers, who were attracted to the area by its abundant grasslands and available water. The census of 1880 reported 136 inhabitants. Only four of those who responded listed their occupation as farmer; the remainder were connected with the livestock industry. Cattle, in fact, greatly outnumbered people in the county's early years; by 1880, 24,164 cattle were reported. Among the early residents was a colony of Swedes from Travis and Williamson counties, who settled in the northeastern portion of Fisher County near the site of present-day McCaulley. Other early settlers came from East and North Texas. The first post office, Newman, was established in 1881. The first townsites registered were Fisher, now North Roby, on November 11, 1885, and Roby on April 16, 1886. There was a bitter county-seat struggle between Roby and Fisher. Roby eventually won the election, but many questioned its legality, and it was later discovered that one of the voters, a Mr. Bill Purp, was actually a dog whose owner lived near Roby.
Railway construction began in 1881, when the Texas and Pacific Railway routed an east-west branch through Eskota in the southeastern corner of the county. Cheap land, and improved access to markets made possible by the new railroad connection, lured many new settlers to the county. Between 1880 and 1890 the population grew more than twentyfold, from 135 to 2,996, and by 1910 the number of inhabitants had more than quadrupled again, increasing to 12,596. Many of the new settlers were farmers, who began plowing and fencing the prairie. In 1880 there were only three farms in the entire county; in 1890s that figure had grown to 332; and by 1910 the county had 1,839 farms. One result of the dramatic rise of the farming economy was the gradual decline of ranching. The number of cattle in the county was nearly 70,000 in 1890, but by the turn of the century only about one-third of that number remained. Although ranching continued to be a mainstay of the economy, it never again dominated the scene as it had in the county's early years. The earliest farmers in the county planted such subsistence crops as corn and wheat. But in the 1880s cotton was introduced, and by the early 1890s corn, oats, and wheat were being grown commercially. In 1900 Fisher County farmers produced 113,640 bushels of corn, 41,290 bushels of oats, 7,320 bushels of wheat, and 1,280 bales of cotton. After 1910 wheat and cotton increasingly took center stage, and by 1920 the county was among the state's leaders in wheat production. High prices for cotton, however, persuaded many farmers to dedicate ever-increasing acreage to cotton culture in the 1920s. In 1926 more than 48,000 bales were ginned in the county, and production levels continued to be high through the end of the 1920s. Falling prices, droughts, and boll weevil infestations, however, combined to drive down cotton production in the 1930s. Although the amount of land planted in cotton continued to be quite high-as much as 165,000 acres in 1930-both yields and profits dropped significantly, especially after 1932. In 1930 Fisher County farmers produced only 17,937 bales, half the peak figure of the mid-1920s.
Because of the rapidly growing population, land prices showed a marked increase between 1910 and 1930, and many new farmers found it impossible to buy land. The number of tenants grew rapidly, particularly in the 1920s, and by 1930 more than half of all farmers in the county-1,326 of 2,088-were working someone else's land. In contrast to many other areas of the state, the overwhelming majority of the tenants were white, but the practice nonetheless had serious results during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As a result of the poor yields and the reluctance of banks to extend credit to financially strapped farmers, many of those who made a living from the land, particularly tenants, found themselves in a precarious position. Numerous farmers were forced to give up their livelihoods and seek work elsewhere. The population of the county as a whole fell from 13,563 in 1930 to 12,932 in 1940. Oil, discovered in 1928, helped some poor farmers to settle long-standing debts and survive the depression years, but the farming economy did not fully recover until after World War II. Cotton was the chief money crop in the years after 1945, with grain sorghum, wheat, hay, corn, and watermelons providing a significant source of income. Cattle, sheep, and poultry were also raised commercially. Large-scale irrigated farming was introduced during the 1950s, and by 1964 the county had 4,140 acres under irrigation. The percentage of proceeds from livestock grew in the 1950s and 1960s; by the early 1970s the county's average annual farm income evenly divided between livestock and crops. In 1982, 94 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 27 percent of the land under cultivation and 2 percent irrigated. Fisher County ranked 102d in the state in the highest agricultural receipts, with 73 percent coming from crops. Primary crops were cotton, wheat, sorghum, hay, and oats; cantaloupes, tomatoes, watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also grown in sizable quantities. The leading livestock products were cattle, milk, and hogs.
The total number of businesses in the county in the early 1980s was ninety-seven. In 1980, 23 percent of the laborers were self-employed; 18 percent were employed in professional or related services, 13 percent in manufacturing, 13 percent in wholesale and retail trade, and 31 percent in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining; 23 percent worked in other counties; 727 retired workers lived in the county. Nonfarm earnings in 1981 totaled $45,908,000. Gypsum, discovered in Fisher County around the turn of the century, is mined in large quantities and processed in plants in Nolan County and at the National Gypsum Company facility in Rotan (see MINERAL RESOURCES AND MINING). Oil also continues to be produced in sizable amounts. Production in 1990 was 2,265,676 barrels. Between 1944 and January 1, 1990, 230,887,287 barrels was pumped from the county's wells.
Wood's Chapel, built in 1883, was the first church and school building in the county. In the early 1980s Fisher County had four school districts, with four elementary, one middle, and three high schools. The average daily attendance was 968 in 1981–82, when expenditures per pupil were $2,785. Seventy percent of the seventy-seven high school graduates that year planned to attend college. In 1983, 55 percent of the school graduates were white, 37 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black, 0.1 percent Asian, and 0.1 percent American Indian. The first churches in Fisher County were established shortly after county organization. In the mid-1980s the county had twenty-three churches with a estimated combined membership of 5,379. The largest denominations were Southern Baptist, Catholic, and United Methodist.
Fisher County has generally been staunchly Democratic, although Republicans have made some inroads. In elections since World War II the only Republican candidate to win a majority of votes was Richard Nixon in 1972. Democratic officials have also continued to maintain control of county offices. In the 1982 primary 100 percent voted Democratic, with a total of 1,986 votes cast. The population of Fisher County fell steadily after World War II, as residents moved away to find jobs. The number of residents was 11,023 in 1950, 7,865 in 1960, 6,344 in 1970, 5,891 in 1980, and 4,842 in 1990. In 1990, nearly half of the population (2,284) lived in Rotan. Other communities include Roby, Busby, Claytonville, Eskota, Hobbs, Longworth, McCaulley, Palava, Royston, and Sylvester. In 1990, 91.8 percent of the population was white, 3.9 percent black, 0.4 percent American Indian, and 0.3 percent Asian. The largest ancestry groups are English, Irish, and Hispanic. Moore, West Moore, and Plasterco lakes and the Brazos River are popular with fishermen, and the county also attracts numerous dove and quail hunters. A stock show and a fair in October are among the prime tourist attractions.
R. C. Crane, "Early Days in Fisher County," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 6 (1930). Fisher County Historical Commission, History of Fisher County, Texas (Rotan, Texas: Shelton, 1983). E. L. Yeats and E. H. Shelton, History of Fisher County, (n.p.: Feather, 1971).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Hooper Shelton, "FISHER COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcf04), accessed April 16, 2015. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.