Located in southwestern Oklahoma, Cotton County is bordered by the Red River on the south, with Tillman County on the west, Comanche County on the north, and Stephens and Jefferson counties on the east. The topography is typical of a plains environment, with a mixture of grasses prevalent. The western edge of the Cross Timbers invades the county's eastern portion. The creeks and streams, including Cache Creek, drain to the southeast into the Red River. Cotton County has 641.94 square miles of land and water.
Little archaeological evidence exists concerning Paleo-Indian or Archaic use of resources in the present Cotton County area. Although still underrepresented in comparison to other parts of the state, the Woodland and Plains Village cultures comprise the majority of the county's precontact sites. Protohistoric sites are also rare. The Great Spanish Trail ran through the southern portion of the county. Traders Holland Coffee and Able Warren occupied posts there. Many explorers traversed the county's Red River valley, including Capt. Randolph B. Marcy (1852).
In 1855 a Choctaw-Chickasaw agreement held that they would lease a part of their land, to the United States for the Wichita and other Plains tribes. After the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty the area became part of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation. Cotton County's eastern portion opened to non-Indian settlement in the 1901 Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Opening, which distributed land by a lottery system. In 1906 settlers claimed the remainder of the county's land when the Big Pasture, grazing land reserved for Kiowa-Comanche and Wichita-Caddo livestock (with many acres leased to white ranchers), became available through a sealed bid process. The federal government platted five townsites for the Big Pasture opening, Randlett, Eschiti, Ahpeatone, Quanah, and Isadore, with the latter two in present Tillman County. Randlett is the only original town still incorporated. Other incorporated Cotton County towns are Devol, Temple, and Walters.
After the lands opened, the present area of Cotton County was part of Comanche County. In 1910 area residents tried to form a smaller county, to be called Cache, but the proposed election was ruled illegal. In 1912 they voted on the idea again and succeeded, choosing the name Cotton, for the district's prevalent crop, from a list of choices. Cotton was the final county created in the Oklahoma. Gov. Lee Cruce assigned Randlett as the temporary county seat until an election could decide on a permanent location for government offices. On November 14 voters designated Walters over a proposed plan that would place a new town, Paris, in the county's center.
In 1901-1902 the Enid and Anadarko Railway, which was conveyed to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company in 1903, laid tracks from Lawton to Waurika, passing through the towns of Walters and Temple in the eastern part of the county. In 1907 the Wichita Falls and Northwestern Railway built through the county's southwest corner, establishing Devol. Railroad promoters developed several schemes to build a direct route from Lawton to Wichita Falls, Texas, advancing through Randlett. A proposed company, the Lawton, Wichita Falls, and Northwestern Railroad did grade a roadbed, but there is no evidence that the tracks were ever laid.
Local agriculture was diversified as early as 1915, with 46,814 acres devoted to cotton valued at $741,540, compared to 58,982 acres of wheat valued at $858,188, and 44,555 acres of corn valued at $474,956. Production of corn subsequently dwindled, but in 1934 farmers planted 59,363 acres of winter wheat, 58,329 acres of cotton, and 40,357 acres of oats. By 1990 agriculturalists cultivated 180,000 acres of wheat and 10,900 acres of cotton. In 1916 Cotton County ranchers and farmers ran 11,815 head of cattle, and owned 5,349 milk cows and 10,190 swine. In 1935 there were 26,506 cattle (total) and 3,645 swine. Poultry also achieved importance as an agricultural industry. In 1997 the county held 69,988 cattle and ranked eleventh in the state for poultry sold.
In the late 1910s an oil and gas boom hit the area, spilling north from the Burkburnett field in Texas. Wildcatters drilled throughout the county, but the Walters field produced the only marketable commercial success. In September 1919 the area averaged thirty-four hundred barrels of oil a day. In 1920 this field had 290 producing wells, of which 32 were gas. The county's southern portion took advantage of its proximity to larger oil pools, with Devol hosting refineries, pumping stations, and pipelines. Although most business and industry revolved around agriculture (mills, gins, creameries, grain elevators, and a poultry company), a large retail outlet made a significant financial presence. Temple's B. & O. Cash Store, said to have opened in 1906, not only drew customers from the surrounding counties and Texas, but shipped merchandise throughout the United States. In 1929 owners Bob and Ortho Mooney sold the business to Sears and Roebuck, which operated the store until it closed in 1954.
Transportation access has benefitted both agriculture and local businesses. The H. E. Bailey Turnpike, Interstate 44, opened in 1964, bisects the county from north to south. Also running north-south are State Highways 5B, 65, a portion of 36, and U.S. Highways 277 and 281. East-west roads include U.S. Highway 70, State Highways 5, 5A, 53, and parts of 36.
There are three Cotton County properties on the National Register of Historic Places: the Cotton County Courthouse (NR 84002990), the First United Methodist Church (NR 83002082), and the Walters Rock Island Depot (NR 98001147). At the beginning of the twenty-first century the depot housed the Rock Island Depot Museum, which was managed by the Cotton County Arts Council. A number of well-known people hail from or resided in the county, including Abe Lemons (basketball coach), Doyle Parrack (basketball coach), Fred Harris (politician), Toby Harris (politician), Pepper Martin (professional baseball player), John Mabee (oilman), Van Heflin (actor), Jed Johnson, Sr. (politician and judge), and Oliver Willham (president of Oklahoma State University, 1952-66).
In 1920 the county's population stood at 16,679. By 1930 the population fell to 15,442, and it continued to decline, reaching 10,180 in 1950 and 6,832 in 1970. In 1980 it climbed to 7,338. The 2000 Census reported a population of 6,614, with 84.6 percent white, 7.8 percent American Indian, 4.7 percent Hispanic, and 2.9 percent African American.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: David Boyer, A History of Walters and Cotton County, Oklahoma (Walters, Okla.: David Boyer, 1953). Oran S. Clark, "History of Cotton County, Oklahoma" (M.A. thesis, Colorado State College of Education, 1941). Charles M. Cooper, "The Big Pasture," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 35 (Summer 1957). History of Cotton County: Family and Area Stories (Walters, Okla.: Cotton County Historical Society, 1979). "Latest Change in the Map of Oklahoma," Harlow's Weekly 1 (Oklahoma City), 31 August 1912). Robert J. Stokes, Variation in Southern Plains Village Subsistence and Material Culture Patterns in Cotton County, Oklahoma: Archaeological Investigations at the Burton #1 Site (34CT39), Oklahoma Conservation Commission Archaeological Research Report 18 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Conservation Commission, March 1999).
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