• History of El Campo

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  • Wharton County proper was created in 1846 from parts of Jackson and Matagorda counties and named after James A. and William H. Wharton, brothers who were active in the Texas Revolution.

    El Campo is situated in the center of an area, which is now known as the Coastal Plains of Texas. Because of the bountiful native grasses, these plains were used as open range for cattle by Spanish explorers, later by Mexican cattlemen and then settlers brought in by Colonist Stephen F. Austin. After Texas won its independence from Mexico, German, Irish and Swedish immigrants moved into the area and cattle production remained the principal income of the people.

    Cattle were driven to Indianola and Port Lavaca, where they were slaughtered - not for food, but only for hides and tallow, which were easily shipped by boat to foreign countries and northwestern ports of the United States.

    Between 1850 and 1865, trail drivers were slated along the old Atascosita and Opelousas Trail to New Orleans and Mobile to railroads where beef could be shipped to the south and to the northeast. Because so many rivers and forests hampered the driving of the cattle, as soon as rail was available, herds were driven up the Chisholm and other trail routes to Abilene and Kansas because of more suitable open country.

    In 1882, a railroad camp (section No. 230) was situated where El Campo now stands. The little camp was first called "Prairie Switch" because it served as a switching point on the Houston-Victoria Railroad and a shipping point on the New York, Texas and Mexican Railroad.

    In fact, during the mid-1880s, El Campo was the largest prairie hay shipping point in the entire United States.

    "The designation 'Pearl of the Prairie' was given to the site by American cowboys, perhaps because the light in the section house looked like a pearl across the prairie at night." In the late 1880s, railroads were becoming much more extensive in Texas. A continuation of a railroad by Count Telferner from Houston to Victoria allowed easier shipment of cattle.

    Herds to be shipped by rail were handled by predominantly Mexican cowboys who would camp for some time holding the herds for shipment at "Prairie Switch." In 1889, the settlement took the Mexican name "The Camp" and named it "El Campo."

    Since much land was originally under government ownership, railroads were given large grants of land in exchange for building roads in this county. In return, the railroads would sell this land to settlers in addition to homestead grants already given to the settlers. More and more fencing was done because farmers needed to protect their crops from the large number of cattle herds.

    Ranching became the chief industry and thousands of cattle were shipped yearly to San Antonio. Four large ranches - The Texas Land and Cattle Company (K.O. Ranch) to the south, Pierce Ranch to the east, Herder Ranch to the west, and Brown Ranch to the north, surrounded the new settlement.

    It didn't take farmers long to realize that the rich blackland and mixed soils along with an abundance of ground water,could be better utilized for other crops besides hay, although in 1901 over 1,000 cars of hay were bought by El Campo merchants. Soon cotton, rice and corn became the crops of choice.

    Settlers from other regions and countries began moving into the area and soon a cotton gin was built and the Farmers Warehouse established for marketing land and purchasing farm products and supplies.

    While the town was still in its infancy, the organization of schools and churches began. The first schoolhouse was a one-room shack, but by 1895 an independent school was created.

    Between 1890 and 1898, seven congregations organized their churches - Swedish, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and German Lutheran.

    The real development of El Campo did not begin until the destructive fire of 1896, in which the principal business section of the city was destroyed. By 1900, there were 130 businesses in El Campo. However, in 1901, just when the town had become prosperous again, another fire destroyed a large part of the mostly wood framed buildings. Brick buildings replaced the now charred long rows of wooden structures. The El Campo Brick and Tile Company, established in 1909 by W.E. Chandler, (located on west Monseratte at Palacios Street) provided building materials and bricks for many of the permanent structures at the turn of the century. The bricks can be found in some of the downtown buildings today.

    In 1901, a library was organized and in 1902, the first bank was established. The City of El Campo became "officially" incorporated in 1905. A municipal government was established and administered by a council composed of five aldermen and a mayor, who served as president of the council. The first ordinance was published in June of 1905.

    The El Campo Ice and Water Company (located in the 300 block of W. Monseratte) was established in 1907, which was a plant designed to light businesses, streets and homes. The facility also supplied ice for the entire city.

    In 1908 a train load of more than 200 homesteaders arrived to add even more people to the melting pot of immigrants, along with the establishment of the El Campo Volunteer Fire Department.

    The fire station was originally located on S. Mechanic in the J.B. Morford plot and still stands today.

    In 1903, the El Campo Rice milling company was established and by 1904 there were 70 rice farmers around El Campo with 126 pumping stations and another rice mill - the Broussard Rice Mill.

    1914 brought the consolidation of the two mills into El Campo Rice Milling Company (now known as Elco). At one time dried rice hulls were compressed and used as brick and experimental building materials.

    Medicine came to El Campo in 1890, with the arrival of two physicians and in 1912 the first hospital opened. The first newspaper issue was published in 1894 and came to be succeeded by two others.

    El Campo's birth into "civilized" wealth brought the building of an opera house, built in the late 1880s to early 1890s (located on S. Washington); a movie house, built in 1908 and known as the "Nickelodeon" located on N. Washington; and a gazebo for monthly wrestling matches, located in the now Alamo Park.

    A second theater was built in the 1920s and was called the Normana Theater.

    The Rice Hotel, located on E. Monseratte, was built in the 1880s and once was a hot spot in El Campo.

    1909 brought disaster to El Campo again as "The Great Storm" hit. Many El Campo businesses suffered greatly, but the perseverance and intestinal fortitude of the citizenry held true as they started over again.

    The mid 1930s brought the newly discovered commodity of "liquid gold" as oil and gas spawned the way of the petroleum and oil field related industries. The petroleum industry also brought new life and spurred on the development of new, more modern technology, as well as diversifying the local economic base.

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