Wharton County

Wharton Co. 250

Wharton County Map

About Wharton County:

Wharton County was named for brothers William H. and John A. Wharton. It is located southwest of Houston on U.S. Highway 59 on the Coastal Plain of southeast Texas at the coastal bend. The county is bordered by Matagorda, Colorado, and Jackson counties and the San Bernard River, which forms its northeastern border along the Fort Bend county line. Wharton County comprises 1,086 square miles and is composed primarily of prairie and timber land. The Colorado River, which traverses the county from northwest to southeast, divides it roughly in half and flows through Wharton and Glen Flora. The county lands are drained by Mustang Creek in the extreme west, the Colorado River in the central portions, and the San Bernard River and West Bernard Creek in the eastern portions. Major creeks west of the Colorado River are the Blue and Jones creeks; those east of the Colorado River are the Peach and Caney creeks.

Level to undulating plains rise toward the north and are marked by a timber belt of ash, pecan, live oak, and other varieties of hardwood trees along the river. Closer to the Gulf, prairie and bunch grasses, mesquite, and oak predominate the landscape. The upper northeastern portion, Lissie Prairie, is treeless with prairie and bunch grasses. Altitude varies from 50 to 200 feet. The climate is considered subtropical humid, and rainfall averages forty-two inches annually. The average temperature is 93° F in the summer and 44° in the winter months with occasional snow falls. The average growing season lasts 268 days per year. Hunting is a major recreational and economic activity within the county. Loam, sand, coastal clay, and alluvial soils predominate in Wharton County. Natural resources include salt domes, sand and gravel, oil, gas, and sulphur; all have been tapped for commercial and industry use. The county is served by State Highway 60, U.S. Highway 90 A, Interstate Highway 59, and State Highway 71. The Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads own the remaining rail lines in the county. The county’s incorporated and largest communities are Wharton, the county seat, located at the center of the county (at 29°19′ N, 96°06′ W) east of the Colorado River, and El Campo, located west of the Colorado.

The first county courthouse was built in 1848 but was so poorly constructed that it was replaced in 1852. Antebellum Wharton County resembled parts of the Deep South, as planters and farmers from states there moved to the region. By 1850 the county had a population of 1,752 living in 112 dwellings. One plantation was over 4,500 acres, and the county had 16,784 acres of land under cultivation. In 1859 the value of Wharton County’s land was $10.40 per acre, the highest of any other county in Texas; at the time the average land in Texas was $2 per acre. In 1860 the value for Wharton County land went up to $14 per acre.

Wharton County’s population tripled between 1870 and 1900, from 3,426 to 16,942. In 1910 it grew to 21,123. El Campo experienced rapid growth with the 1881 completion of New York, Texas and Mexican Railroad and by 1900 had a population of 856. It doubled to 1,766 by 1920; Swedes, Germans, and Czechs settled there during that time. The Danish settlement at Danevang became a viable community by 1893, but Danes from the northern prairie wheat belt failed to plant successfully; some of the group moved on to California. A group of English and Welsh immigrants were brought in to establish New Philadelphia, but the different farming conditions and the conflicts between them and the open range advocates led most of them to leave Wharton County. Numerous Jewish families immigrated to Wharton County as early as 1850 and founded business establishments; the greatest number moved into Wharton. Eugene T. Heiner was commissioned to design a new three-story courthouse and a three-story jail for county use. A smallpox epidemic in 1898 led to the draining of Caney Creek and the construction of a hospital in Wharton. A county hospital was built in 1937.

Major Highways
  • U.S. Highway 59
  • U.S. Highway 90 Alternate
  • State Highway 60
  • State Highway 71
Adjacent counties
  • Austin County (north)
  • Fort Bend County (northeast)
  • Brazoria County (east)
  • Matagorda County (southeast)
  • Jackson County (southwest)
  • Colorado County (northwest)
  • East Bernard
  • El Campo
  • Wharton
Census-designated places
  • Boling-Iago
  • Hungerford
  • Louise
Unincorporated areas
  • Bonus
  • Newgulf
  • Glen Flora
  • Egypt
  • Hillje
  • Lane City
  • Lissie
  • Pierce
  • Spanish Camp

School districts serving Wharton County include:

  • Boling Independent School District
  • East Bernard Independent School District
  • El Campo Independent School District (partial)
  • Hallettsville Independent School District
  • Louise Independent School District
  • Wharton Independent School District (partial)
People QuickFacts Wharton County Texas
Population, 2011 estimate    41,314 25,674,681
Population, 2010 (April 1) estimates base    41,280 25,145,561
Population, percent change, April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011    0.1% 2.1%
Population, 2010    41,280 25,145,561
Persons under 5 years, percent, 2011     7.3% 7.6%
Persons under 18 years, percent, 2011     26.5% 27.1%
Persons 65 years and over, percent, 2011     14.7% 10.5%
Female persons, percent, 2011     50.9% 50.4%
Foreign born persons, percent,  2006-2010    7.9% 16.1%
Language other than English spoken at home, pct age 5+, 2006-2010    26.2% 34.2%
High school graduates, percent of persons age 25+, 2006-2010    75.1% 80.0%
Bachelor’s degree or higher, pct of persons age 25+, 2006-2010    15.4% 25.8%
Veterans, 2006-2010    2,281 1,635,367
Mean travel time to work (minutes), workers age 16+, 2006-2010    24.3 24.8
Housing units, 2010    17,127 9,977,436
Homeownership rate, 2006-2010    69.3% 64.8%
Living in same house 1 year & over, 2006-2010    87.2% 81.5%
Housing units in multi-unit structures, percent, 2006-2010    11.3% 24.1%
Median value of owner-occupied housing units, 2006-2010    $85,800 $123,500
Households, 2006-2010    14,808 8,539,206
Persons per household, 2006-2010    2.72 2.78
Per capita money income in past 12 months (2010 dollars) 2006-2010    $21,049 $24,870
Median household income 2006-2010    $41,148 $49,646
Persons below poverty level, percent, 2006-2010    17.2% 16.8%
Business QuickFacts Wharton County Texas
Private nonfarm establishments, 2009     946 519,028
Private nonfarm employment, 2009    11,361 8,925,096
Private nonfarm employment, percent change 2000-2009    1.7% 11.2%
Nonemployer establishments, 2009    2,927 1,844,130
Total number of firms, 2007    3,574 2,164,852
Manufacturers shipments, 2007 ($1000)    463,995 593,541,502
Merchant wholesaler sales, 2007 ($1000)    541,129 424,238,194
Retail sales, 2007 ($1000)    466,705 311,334,781
Retail sales per capita, 2007    $11,439 $13,061
Accommodation and food services sales, 2007 ($1000)    45,912 42,054,592
Building permits, 2011     10 97,450
Federal spending, 2010    382,654 225,724,926
Geography QuickFacts Wharton County Texas
Land area in square miles, 2010    1,086.15 261,231.71
Persons per square mile, 2010    38 96.3
FIPS Code    481 48
Metropolitan or Micropolitan Statistical Area    El Campo, TX Micro Area  
Agriculture / Natural Resources in Wharton County:

Cattle raising replaced the plantation system as Wharton County’s major industry after the Civil War and drew significant numbers of Mexicans into the area to serve as herdsmen. Herds were formed as residents bought cattle and rounded up strays that had multiplied on the prairies when access to markets was limited. Abel Head (Shanghai) Pierce took advantage of the times and acquired vast acreage on the west side of the Colorado, with a cattle empire that stretched over three counties, encompassing a half-million acres, of which 30,000 were in Wharton County. He saw the potential impact that the Brahman cattle breed could have on the cattle industry in the south, but his death in December 1900 left his nephew, A. P. Borden, to facilitate the first major importation of Brahmans to the United States, specifically Wharton County, in 1906. J. D. Hudgins had purchased some Brahman cattle prior to 1900 and later purchased some from the Pierce Ranch herd and imported Brazilian bulls via Mexico. The J. D. Hudgins Ranch in Hungerford eventually established the largest American Grey Brahman herd in the world. Wharton County became the second largest cattle producing area in the state.

The largest plantation and sugar mill in Texas were located in Wharton County prior to the Civil War, and the 1858 census reported 13,665 cattle there. Because of sugar cane production, Wharton, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Matagorda counties came to be known as the “Texas sugar bowl.” Completion of the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway extension across the northwest corner of the county by 1860 improved commodity prices, though roads to the railroad line remained poor. Some consumer goods were brought by riverboat up the Colorado River from Matagorda, but most came overland from Richmond or Matagorda. Plantations converted to other crops during the Civil War but slowly returned to sugar production in the 1890s, and sugar, cotton, corn, and hay became the county’s principal products. Other farmers turned to potatoes, spinach, broom corn, cabbage, figs, and honey. Cotton production took forty years to recover, due to the economy and the boll weevil, but a cottonseed oil mill in Wharton, organized in 1900, eventually became the county’s first long term major industry. Hay shipped from El Campo added to the prosperity of that community by 1901. A government sponsored experimental farm raised tea, camphor, and poppies in 1900 on the Pierce Ranch lands.

In 1910 the county reported 38,263 cattle, 14,500 horses and mules, 17,317 hogs, 2,136 sheep, and 96,033 poultry on 2,654 farms. Japanese families, brought to the area at the encouragement of the government, began rice farming on land just opposite Wharton on the west bank of the Colorado. Irrigation from three canal systems built from the Colorado River around 1900 helped farmers diversify and turn to rice as a dependable cash crop. During the late 1890s and early 1900s Wharton County had the two largest pumping plants in Texas, Waterhouse Irrigation Company and Southern Irrigation Company. Rice production centered east of the Colorado River near Lissie and Nottawa on the Lissie Prairie and Lane City and Magnet on the Bay Prairie and west of the Colorado near Louise, Pierce, and Danevang. Rice depleted the land rapidly, and rice farming seemed doomed. Farming grew with the introduction of deep water wells and the innovation of chemical fertilizers; land under irrigation increased to 21,384 acres, and one million bushels of rice was produced in 1930, making Wharton County a leader in Texas.

The arrival of railroads restored the farm economy by generating new capital investment in the region. Improved marketing made materials and consumer goods available and attracted new immigrants. The Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, later known as Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, established a station at East Bernard, traversing the northern section of the county by 1878, but did not result in significant local growth. In contrast, the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railway, which nearly bisected the county from north to south in 1881, and a connecting line west to east from Wharton to Bay City via Iago and Pledger had an immediate impact in economic growth and capital investment in the region. These lines became part of the Texas and New Orleans, and later the Southern Pacific Railroad system. The Cane Belt Railway was completed across Wharton County west to east in 1900; it was later controlled by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, which was under control of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway line cut across the northwestern tip of Wharton County but did not influence the economy.

In World War I Wharton County contributed men to the armed forces, and both black and white residents organized home guards. The Wharton County Fair, which began in 1912, was interrupted by the war, but resumed in 1929 and in 1940 became the Wharton County and Gulf Coast Livestock and Agricultural Exposition, with exhibits from five counties, but it was interrupted by World War II. The 1920 census recorded a population of 24,288, of which 13,720 were native born whites, 2,684 foreign born whites, and 7,884 blacks. One of the world’s largest sulphur deposits, the Boling Dome, was discovered in 1923 and first mined in 1928 by Union Sulphur Company. Texas Gulf Sulphur Company took over and established the Texas Gulf Sulphur company town, Newgulf, in eastern Wharton County. Drilling for oil began in 1904 southwest of El Campo, but the first productive oil well was drilled east of the Colorado near Iago in the Boling Field in 1925. Subsequent oil and gas fields include Withers-Magnet, Spanish Camp, West Bernard, New Taiton, Lissie, and numerous others. Between 1925 and 1973 over 230 million barrels of crude oil were produced in the county, with a peak year in 1947 reaching 8,341,000 barrels. Several natural gas transmission plants were built around 1944 near Nottawa and Hungerford, boosting pressure and sending natural gas north from the area fields.

Farm tenancy in the county peaked in 1930, when 2,815 farms were operated by tenant families and only 1,144 by land owners. Acreage in production increased from 23,675 acres in 1890 to 133,053 acres in 1930. In 1938 the Work Projects Administration in Wharton County employed 438 men and 235 women for efforts at school and road repair, drainage, water mains and sewers, tree planting, and malaria control. Stable farm and land prices brought about new security, and increased truck farming and dairying tied the area closer to markets in Houston, but from 1930 to 1950 the number of farms in the county gradually declined. During the Great Depression years of the 1930s, public works projects upgraded county and federal facilities, introducing streamlined and modern design and adding plain or art deco style facades to many buildings, including the county courthouse and its additions constructed in 1935 and 1954. In 1926 a new county jail was constructed, and in 1938 the old jail structure was redesigned for county, state, and federal agriculture agencies and the Wharton County Library.

Decline in the number of county farms slowed in the 1950s. From 1940 to 1950 cotton and rice acreage increased and corn declined. Grain sorghum became a major crop during the late 1950s, and during that period the county was second in the state in total number of beef cattle. Industries in the county included woodworks, creamery, canneries, and garment manufacturers. Population figures rose from 35,966 in 1950 to 38,152 in 1960, but only two towns claimed a population over 2,500; Wharton and El Campo. The number of farms continued to decline, while the size of farms increased as agribusiness grew. In 1960 there were 977 owners, 627 tenants, and 1,415 sharecroppers. Studies indicated that over 28 percent of all households in the county were indigent. The county remained a major cotton producer, harvesting 54,000 bales of cotton on 68,000 acres. County farms also grew 1,050,000 bushels of corn and 918,000 bushels of rice that year. By 1961 the county had twenty-nine manufacturing plants, 174 service industries, and 57 wholesale industries, but before the 1980s the county never had more than 700 persons employed in manufacturing. Lack of sufficient industry to employ those with college training and insufficient vocational training facilities caused many young people to leave the county in search of better jobs.

From 1960 to 1970 Wharton County’s population declined to 36,729, but between 1970 and 1982 it grew by more than 4,000, chiefly in the urban area. In this period 22 percent of the population was Hispanic, 18 percent German, and 17 percent black. By 1972 mineral income in Wharton County reached $53 million dollars, and the average annual farm income was $40.4 million. The county was the leading Texas rice producer and third among Texas counties in beef cattle; in 1970, 87,059 cattle roamed on 89,000 acres of county rangeland. In the 1980s, 94 percent of the land was in farms and ranches, and 64 percent of farmland was under cultivation. County-wide ranching continued, and the county was second in the state in sorghum production. Farmers also produced significant amounts of rice, soybeans, corn, rye, cotton, milo, hay, watermelons, peaches, and pecans; this production record continued in the 1990s. Scientifically managed farms and ranches replaced the county’s earlier plantation system. Wharton County ranked eighth in Texas in total agricultural receipts. Business establishments were chiefly related to agribusiness and oil and gas extraction, but included manufacturers of clothing, wood furniture, plastic, aluminum, and toy kites and sports pom-poms and a tire vulcanizing plant.

With the urban sprawl of Houston into surrounding counties, the agricultural quality of life is being threatened in Wharton County. The county has maintained its status in the state with rice, cotton, and cattle production, but many farmers had to declare bankruptcy during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Two Amish groups moved to Wharton County, one settling west of the Colorado near El Campo and the other east of the Colorado between Boling and Lane City. The rail line from Eagle to Wharton was removed, and the rail line from Rosenberg to Victoria has been discontinued. The only rail line in the county with daily use is the line from Rosenberg to Eagle Lake, which was the first rail line to be built in the county. Wharton County is only thirty-five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and minutes away from Houston, making it a prime location for a bright future in agriculture or industry and as a residential location for those working outside Wharton County.

For more history on Wharton County, TX see Handbook of Texas Online.

Merle R. Hudgins, “WHARTON COUNTY,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hcw06), accessed July 15, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.