Potter County History
Potter County, on the High Plains of the Panhandle, is bordered on the north by Moore County, on the east by Carson County, on the south by Randall County, and on the west by Oldham County. Its center point is at 35°25' north latitude and 101°53' west longitude. Amarillo, the county seat, is on the county's southern border, about 110 miles due north of Lubbock. The county was named for Robert Potter. It comprises 902 square miles of level to rolling terrain, with elevations ranging from 3,000 to 3,800 feet above sea level.
An Apachean culture occupied the Panhandle-Plains area in prehistoric times; the modern Apaches subsequently emerged but were pushed out of the region about 1700 by the Comanches. The area was probably crossed by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541, and Pedro Vial may well have traversed the region in 1786 as he searched for the most feasible route between Santa Fe and Natchitoches. The first known AngloAmerican expedition through the area was led by Maj. Stephen H. Long, who followed the Canadian River east to its junction with the Arkansas in August 1820. During the California gold rush, gold seekers passed through the area following trails blazed by Josiah Gregg in 1840 and by Randolph B. Marcy in 1849. Lt. James W. Abert and Lt. Amiel W. Whipple crossed the area during their surveys of the Canadian valley in 1845 and 1853, respectively. Comanchero traders and New Mexican pastores camped at Tecovas Springs, where the remains of a plaza are still evident. In the 1870s buffalo hunting decimated the herds that once roamed the area and forced the Indians, who were dependent upon the buffalo, to leave. In 1876 the Texas legislature formed Potter County from the Bexar District, and ranchers soon found their way into the area.
In 1877 David T. Beals and W. H. Bates established their LX Ranch headquarters on Ranch Creek, near the north bank of the Canadian. The range of George W. Littlefield's LIT Ranch extended into the western portion of the county. In 1880 the census found twenty-eight people, two of whom were black, living on the three ranches that had been established in the county by that time. The county had more than 14,000 cattle and 4,200 sheep that year; no crops were reported. In 1881 Henry B. Sanborn established the Frying Pan Ranch, with headquarters at Tecovas Springs.
Settlement of Potter County increased dramatically with the construction of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway across the Panhandle in 1887. A construction camp grew overnight into a tent and buffalo-hut settlement known as Ragtown. When Oldham County officials ordered an election held on August 30 for the purpose of organizing Potter County, several townsites vied to be county seat. William B. Plemons, the first county judge, had a prospective townsite near the head of Amarillo Creek. Two miles southeast was J. T. Berry's townsite of Oneida, in which Plemons soon merged his interest. Frank Lester, backed by Henry Sanborn, dubbed a third site Plains City, while Jesse Jenkins, a Tascosa saloon owner, promoted Ragtown under a new name, Odessa. To attract the support of the cowhands of the LX Ranch, who constituted the majority of the county's qualified voters, Berry promised each of them a business lot and residence lot in his town. The election returns favored Berry's townsite, which was renamed Amarillo. The railroad was completed into the town in October 1887, soon after the elections, and a post office was established there the next month. People from surrounding townsites began to move to the new county seat. The county's first newspaper, the Amarillo Champion, began publication in May 1888, and that same year a school was established in the town. Partly because of the efforts of Henry Sanborn, who had been establishing another townsite east of "Old Town" Amarillo, and partly because of flood dangers, most of the town was moved to a new, higher site by 1890. By that time cattle ranching had become firmly established in the area and dominated Potter County's economy and its culture. Twenty ranches, encompassing more than 511,000 acres, had been established in the county by 1890, and more than 44,000 cattle were reported in the county that year. By 1900 there were seventy-nine ranches in the county, and the population had increased to 1,820.
The county's economy grew and diversified rapidly during the late 1890s and early 1900s as new railroads built into the area. In 1899 the Santa Fe line established a large divisional office in the town and built an eight-stall engine house, a blacksmith shop, and a machine shop there. By 1904 the Southern Kansas, the Pecos and Northern Texas, and the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas railroads had also built lines through the county. In 1908 the Santa Fe extended a branch line to Canyon, Lubbock, and Sweetwater. Amarillo, already the marketing center for ranchers in the Panhandle, South Plains, and eastern New Mexico, grew rapidly during this time. Railroad employees and construction workers moved into the area, followed by an influx of "sharks, grafters, pickpockets and bums" who hoped to take advantage of the boom. As old ranchlands in the Panhandle began to be subdivided into farmland, the town also became the terminus of excursion trains carrying hundreds of prospective farmers, who were met by the agents of land companies and taken out to view property. Amarillo grew from a population of 1,442 in 1900 to about 5,000 in 1906 and 9,957 in 1910. Farms were beginning to be established in the county, but cattle ranching remained by far the most important component of the county's agricultural economy. There were 162 farms and ranches in the county by 1910 (more than double the figure for 1900).
The economy declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s as a number of oil companies were forced out of business. The area's farmers were particularly afflicted by the droughts and dust storms associated with the Dust Bowl. Cropland harvested in the county declined from 42,546 acres in 1930 to 38,037 acres by 1940, when only 302 farms and ranches remained there. Amarillo became the regional center for federal New Deal programs, however, which provided work and sustenance for many families; the Work Projects Administration, for example, helped to fund improvements of Amarillo streets and sewerage. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center was built west of Amarillo in the 1930s and opened in 1940. In spite of problems associated with the depression, the population of Potter County increased to 54,265 by 1940.
Agriculture revived during World War II. By 1945 there were 540 farms and ranches in the county. The local economy was also stimulated by the federal government's establishment of Amarillo Army Air Field and the Pantex Munitions Plant, which drew servicemen and new jobs to the area. Though the economy suffered when the airfield was closed in 1946, by 1950 there were 54,265 people living in the county. The establishment of Amarillo Air Force Base in 1951, combined with the continuing development of Panhandle mineral resources, helped to spur further growth, as Amarillo became one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States during the 1950s. Despite farm consolidations, the county's population rose to 115,580 by 1960. The closing of the air force base in 1968 was a severe blow to the local economy, however, and by 1970 the county's population had dropped to 90,511.
Since World War II, Potter County's manufacturing income has been derived largely from helium, natural gas, oil, and sand and gravel; approximately 60 percent of the world's helium has been produced there. Though natural gas has been produced in the area since before 1920, petroleum production was insignificant until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The county produced more than 250,000 barrels of oil in 1974, more than 436,000 barrels in 1978, about 382,000 barrels in 1982, and just over 198,000 barrels in 1990; by January 1, 1991, 6,351,486 barrels of oil had been produced in the county since discovery in 1925. Large cattle ranches occupy the greater portion of the county and in the 1980s accounted for 80 percent of the agricultural income. There are more than 20,000 acres of irrigated land in Potter County, mainly in the southern sections. In 1982, 304,092 bushels of wheat and 269,555 bushels of sorghum were harvested there. Dairy products and poultry production also contribute to the farm income. By 1982 the county had 178 farms, 163 manufacturing plants, and 872 service industries.