KLEBERG COUNTY. Kleberg County is south of Corpus Christi on U.S. Highway 77 in the Rio Grande Plain region of South Texas. The county's center is at approximately 27°50' north latitude and 98°00' west longitude. Situated on a grassy plain with elevations ranging from sea level to 150 feet, part of the county's 853 square miles lies on the mainland, while the remainder is on Padre Island. A number of creeks, including San Fernando, Santa Gertrudis, Escondido, and Los Olmos, flow into the Callo del Grullo and Baffin Bay in the southeastern section. The county's clay and loam soils are covered in places with such brush as huisache, mesquite, and ebony. Temperatures range from an average January minimum of 48° to an average July maximum of 96°, and the average annual rainfall is 26.5 inches. The growing season is ordinarily 314 days.
When the Spaniards came to the area they found it inhabited by Karankawa and Coahuiltecan Indians, who had occupied the territory for centuries. These groups were primitive food gatherers who subsisted on roots, mesquite beans, prickly pear, and any animals they could kill. The future Kleberg County was part of the Spanish province of Nuevo Santander, which encompassed the area between Tampico, Mexico and the Guadalupe River in Texas. In 1747, Joaquín de Orobio y Basterra led a small party of soldiers across the area that is now Kleberg County, gleaning the first information on the county. A few years later, Spanish authorities founded a number of towns on the banks of the lower Rio Grande, and much of the land north of the river was granted to ranchers from those communities, including large tracts in the future Kleberg County. After Mexico secured her independence in 1821, additional land in the county was granted to various individuals. In 1846, American troops commanded by Gen. Zachary Taylor went through Kleberg County on their way to the Rio Grande. Shortly after the army reached the river, the land that is now in Kleberg County was designated a part of Nueces County; it remained so for many years.
In 1853 Richard King purchased the Santa Gertrudis grant in Kleberg County from the heirs of the original Spanish grantees and started the King Ranch. The history of Kleberg County during the next fifty years is almost indistinguishable from that of the ranch. In 1903, however, the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway was built through South Texas to Brownsville, and Henrietta King, owner of the King Ranch, opened for sale a large tract of her land. A surveyor employed by the ranch laid out the town of Kingsville in a pasture three miles east of the ranch headquarters. Even before the railroad reached the townsite, numerous lots were sold. By 1912 the population of the town was approximately 4,000. In 1908 Ricardo, located on the railroad six miles south of Kingsville, was started as a trading center for farmers living nearby. Nine miles farther down the tracks, Theodore F. Koch, who had purchased around 20,000 acres from Mrs. King in 1907, established Riviera. On Baffin Bay, a few miles to the east, Koch soon organized Riviera Beach as a vacation resort. Vattman, several miles to the northeast of Riviera, was settled in 1908 by German American families sponsored by the Catholic Colonization Society. With the construction of the railroads, the basis of the economy began to shift from ranching to farming and dairying. The farmers grew cotton and vegetables of all kinds. Most of them also acquired Jersey cows, and the sale of milk to a creamery in Kingsville became an important source of income for farm families.
Kingsville grew much more rapidly than the other towns, largely because the railroad placed its general offices and shops there. The railroad employees made up a third of the population of the town and were the main source of income. As the population in the area increased, the citizens of Kingsville and the other communities began agitating to break away from Nueces County. In 1913 the Texas legislature responded to this pressure and organized Kleberg County, named for Robert Justus Kleberg, whose son, also named Robert Justus Kleberg, was manager of the King Ranch. The law setting up the county named five residents to take care of organizing it, including hiring a surveyor and arranging for the first election. Anton Felix H. von Blücher was employed to do the surveying, and within a short time he delineated the boundaries of the county and drew the lines of the precincts. An election was scheduled for June 27, 1913. Precinct and county officers were chosen, and Kingsville was designated the county seat. The new public officials met in rented offices in downtown Kingsville and began their work. The commissioners' court proposed that a courthouse and hospital be built; the voters approved bond issues for their construction, and both were completed by 1914. A movement was started to improve existing roads and build others. In 1919 the citizens voted a $350,000 bond issue to construct a hard-surfaced highway. When it was finished, the road ran southward from the Nueces County line through Kingsville and Ricardo to Riviera. Oil exploration began early in the county; in 1919 the first producing well was discovered. During the next fifty years county wells produced around 178 million barrels. The first industry in the county was a cotton mill started in Kingsville in 1921. An additional stimulus occurred in 1925, when South Texas Teachers College (now Texas A&M University at Kingsville) was established.
The population grew significantly during the 1920s. At the beginning of the decade it was 4,470; by 1930 it had reached 12,451. In 1935 Loyola Beach was developed on the Callo del Grullo, three miles east of Vattman, as a recreational spot for vacationers and fishermen. The 1940s witnessed a period of spectacular growth similar to that of the 1920s. The population rose from 7,782 in 1940 to 16,857 in 1950. This growth was due primarily to the location of the Naval Auxiliary Station (later the Naval Air Station, Kingsville) three miles southeast of Kingsville and the erection of the Celanese plant four miles to the north, a short distance across the Nueces county line. The naval base brought in a large influx of personnel, and most of the Celanese employees made their homes in Kingsville.
Although the county experienced a reverse in the 1950s, when the railroad closed its general office and shops and moved its employees elsewhere, the population continued to grow. The prosperous oil industry, the rising enrollment at the college, and the strength of the agricultural economy contributed to this growth. The population rose to 30,052 in 1960, to 33,166 in 1970; by 1990, however, the area’s population had dropped to 30,274.
The U.S. census counted 32,190 people living in Kleberg County in 2014. About 71.4 percent were Hispanic, 21.9 percent were Anglo, and 4.4 percent African American. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 68 percent had completed high school, and 20 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century oil and gas production, the Kingsville Naval Air Station, chemical and plastics plants, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville were important elements of the local economy. More than 708,300 barrels of oil, and 33,859,808 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 336,320,467 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1919. In 2002 the county had 348 farms and ranches, and the area earned $57,787,000 in agricultural receipts; livestock sales accounted for $47,972,000 of the total. Beef cattle, cotton, and sorghum were the chief agricultural products.
Kingsville (population, 26,074), is the county’s seat of government and largest town; other communities include Riviera (696) and Loyola Beach. Attractions in Kleberg County include boating, hunting, fishing, Padre Island National Seashore, the annual Naval Relief Festival, held in July, and the Fiesta de Colores, held in October.
Sterling Bass, History of Kleberg County (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1931). Kleberg County Historical Commission, Kleberg County, Texas (Austin: Hart Graphics, 1979). Tom Lea, The King Ranch (2 vols., Boston: Little, Brown, 1957).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, George O. Coalson, "KLEBERG COUNTY," accessed August 08, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hck10.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 19, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.