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William R. Hunt

SWEETWATER, TEXAS. Sweetwater, the county seat of Nolan County, is on Interstate Highway 20, U.S. Highway 80/84, State Highway 70, Farm Road 419, and the Santa Fe Railroad, forty-two miles west of Abilene in the north central part of the county.  This oasis with sweet water amd bitter-tasting gypsum streams, Sweetwater has long been considered a place to rest one's weary feet.  Long before the settlers and ranchers arived, the Kiowa Indians names the site "Mobeetie," which meant sweet water.  

This area of Nolan County had few Anglo settlers until after the Civil War, when buffalo hunters came to the plains. The site held only a couple of tent stores and no permanent buildings when it was designated county seat at the organization of the county in 1881. The first stirrings of the community might be set in 1877, when Billie Knight ran a dugout store for buffalo hunters in the area. The county's first post office, established in 1879 in the village of Sweet Water, which was spelled as two words until officially changed in 1918.  The original name of the post office was Blue Goose, supposedly because a local cowboy mistakenly killed a great blue heron under the impression that it was a variety of goose. The Texas and Pacific Railway started service in 1881, and by 1883 there were five saloons and other businesses. A store building constructed in 1881–82 at a cost of $8,755 served as both a jail and a courthouse until a new courthouse was built in 1891. Grand jury indictments returned throughout the county in 1881–83 included seventeen for murder, seventeen for assaults to murder, and forty-five for gambling and carrying pistols, but there is no indication that Sweetwater itself was an unruly community. Its population remained small and relatively stable for several years. The most celebrated occasion of violence in early days occurred because Sweetwater lacked a bank. It was rumored that the saloon operated by Chiflet and Gilliot often held up to $20,000 in cash deposits left by residents. In February 1883 there was a raid on the saloon that resulted in the murder of the saloon owners and the wounding of a bystander, N. I. Dulaney. Eleven of the seventeen murder indictments returned in 1881–83 arose from this saloon robbery attempt. The next month Thomas Trammell and others established a bank. The Sweetwater Advance began publishing in 1881. Incorporation came in 1884, 1897, and 1902. A blizzard in 1885 killed 90 percent of the area's livestock and was followed by the disastrous 1886–87 drought. The population in 1890 was half that of 1884.

Prosperity revived when construction began on the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway in 1903. To encourage the railroads Sweetwater increased its water supply by building a small town lake in 1898 and, more ambitiously, Lake Trammell (1914), Lake Sweetwater (1929–30), and Oak Creek Reservoir (1950–52). Railroad shops have provided a steady payroll over the years. The Gulf refinery operated there from 1929 to 1954, and at one time the town was a large telegraph center. The International Harvester Company operated a factory in Sweetwater from 1920 to 1950. Gypsum plants, apparel manufacturers, cement plants, cotton compresses, a cottonseed oil mill, and packing companies were among the nearly 250 businesses operating there in the 1970s. The most important businesses trafficked in cotton, oil, and cattle. The Army Air Force used Sweetwater's airfield for training during World War II, and before that the field served as a training base for Britain's military flying cadets. In 1943 the Women's Airforce Service Pilots were trained there. Sweetwater has a pioneer museum, a hospital, and a golf course, and the swimming, fishing, and other recreational facilities of Lake Sweetwater are significant amenities. The Rolling Plains campus Texas State Technical Institute, established in 1970, is four miles west of Sweetwater. The population of Sweetwater was 10,367 in 1940, 13,914 in 1960, and 12,242 in 1980. In 1990 it was 11,967. The population dropped slightly in 2000 to 11,415. In 1998 the Texas Department of Agriculture listed the nearby Blue Goose Ranch, established in 1889, in its Family Land Heritage Program, which recognizes farms and ranches that have been in continuous agricultural operation by the same family for 100 years or more.


Kathleen E. and Clifton R. St. Clair, eds., Little Towns of Texas (Jacksonville, Texas: Jayroe Graphic Arts, 1982). E. L. Yeats and Hooper Shelton, History of Nolan County (Sweetwater, Texas: Shelton, 1975).

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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, William R. Hunt, "SWEETWATER, TX," accessed April 05, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hes09.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 20, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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