by Christopher Dow
Originally organized as a municipality of Mexico in 1834 under the auspices of Stephen F. Austin, the area that became Bastrop County was named for Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop, an early Durch settler. Bastrop County became an official Texas county in 1837. Its county seat, originally named Mina after the early Spanish explorer of Texas, Frances Xavier Mina, is now Bastrop, one of the major towns along US 290 and Texas State Highway 95. The county has 896 square miles, which includes about seven and a half square miles of water.
Bastrop County is characterized by rolling terrain and broken hills that abut the Edwards Plateau to the west, the Gulf Coast plains to the east, and the Blackland Prairies to the northeast. The county’s major waterway, the Colorado River, runs from the northwest to the southeast, and its valley is filled with nutrient-rich soils. Elsewhere in the county, the mostly sandy, loamy soils are covered with a mixture of grasslands and forests containing post oaks, cedar, elm, and walnut. A pine belt, some of which is known as the Lost Pines Forest, takes up a large portion of the central portion of the county. A devastating forest fire in September 2011, considered to be the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, destroyed large swaths of the pine forest as well as more than 1,600 homes.
Human habitation of the county goes back at least a thousand years. By the time settlers began moving into the area, it was mainly inhabited by Tonkawas, but Comanches also hunted here. To protect the settlers from the constant Indian raids, a fort was established by the Spanish on the Colorado River, and after Mexico won its independence from Spain, the town of Mina/Bastrop eventually grew up around this protective outpost.
Also in 1837, settlement began to grow more widespread, and by 1850, the population was 2,180. The settlers introduced slave labor to work the growing number of cotton fields, however, with the presence of the Lost Pines Forest, lumber milling was inevitable. The first major lumber operation—the Bastrop Steam Mill Company—began felling the forest in 1838 to supply lumber for the cities of Houston, Austin, and San Antonio and many smaller regional cities and towns.
During the 1850s, the population boomed with the influx of immigrants from the Southern States, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, reaching more than 7,000 by 1860. To the trend of agriculture, the new citizens added cattle ranching. But, as with all the counties of Central Texas, the Civil War and Reconstruction brought economic hardship.
Farming and ranching continued, but lumber production declined by about 1870, leaving agriculture as the county’s major industry, with cotton, corn, and sweet potatoes being the principal crops. To bolster the bad times, industry assumed greater importance, and by 1870, Bastrop County boasted 34 manufacturing companies. In 1871, a rail line that connected Austin and Brenham ran through the northern part of the county, bringing not only a means to ship out agricultural produce, livestock, and manufactured goods, but establishing whole new towns along its route. Throughout the following three decades, more rail lines were introduced. With all this growth in infrastructure came a growth in population, which reached 26,845 by 1900.
Inevitably, oil was discovered in 1913, but the county was not as rich in this resource as were many others in Texas. There were, however, mineral deposits of lignite coal, and clay deposits led to brick manufacturing, particularly around Elgin, which was dubbed the Brick Capital of the Southwest. However, these new industries did little to buffer the country from the Great Depression, which brought not only a reduction in the economy but also in the population, which fell to 21,610 by 1940.
World War II brought another economic driver to the county with the establishment of Camp Swift, between Bastrop and Elgin. Soldiers trained at this U.S. Army installation, and enemy prisoners of war were imprisoned there as well. But this boost proved temporary. After the war, the federal government ceased operating Camp Swift and turned it over to the Texas National Guard, which now utilizes it for training and maneuvers.
Map of Bastrop County by the Texas General Land office in 1879. (Source: Portal to Texas History)
The Bastrop County Courthouse, Bastrop. (Source: Portal to Texas History)
Around this same time, lumber and coal operations played out, and cotton production was reduced to one-sixth of its former glory. In addition, manufacturing was down to only 14 companies, although brick and furniture manufacturing did well thanks to the growth of nearby cities. New crops, such as sorghum, peanuts, watermellon, and pecans took up some of the economic slack, and cattle ranching increased.
Throughout this time, the population declined, and by 1960, it was a mere 16,925. But it wasn’t long before that number began to rise, and today, the county boasts a respectable population of about 58,000. With the growth of nearby cities, the bucolic county, which boasts not only interesting historic landmarks but lakes and scenic parks, began to experience a surge in tourism. Annual festivals and a number of societies and associations dedicated to preserving historical information and sites have helped make this new industry boom.
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