Texas’ Last Frontier
Follow the road less traveled!
The story of Cochran County is the tale of Texas’ Last Frontier. When it was created in 1876, it was the last county in Texas to be established by the legislature. Thus, the phrase “Texas’ Last Frontier” was attached to it. Spanish Conquistadors passed through the area in the 16th century, and Native American Comanches roamed the vast prairie until the late 1870s. But it wasn’t until around 1898 that the expansive grasslands caught the interest of cattlemen looking for new range to graze their herds. By then, the last Comanche raiding parties had been subdued and the land was ripe for settlement.
Even as the cattlemen were beginning to acquire large sections of land in the county, the days of the American open range were rapidly drawing to a close. By the early 1920s, the large ranch holdings were being divided into smaller tracts that were sold to land speculators. From the beginning, they envisioned the county as having the potential for becoming a thriving center of agricultural production. The land agents believed that in order to make this vision become reality, they needed a rail line to bring new settlers and prospective land buyers into the county and also as the means for shipping livestock and crops to market.
The land speculators and other businessmen pooled their resources and convinced the South Plains & Santa Fe Railway Company to build a branch line to the county. By the end of 1925, a 65-mile-long rail line was completed, stretching west across the plains from Lubbock to an end point about 2 miles from the Texas-New Mexico state line. The line cut across the central portion of Cochran County, and four townsites were designated along this section of the line, three of which actually came to fruition–Whiteface, Lehman and Bledsoe. At the time, it was anticipated that the line would be extended further west to Roswell, New Mexico; but that never came to pass. Other communities sprang up in areas of the county far removed from the rail line, one of them being the town of Morton about 8 miles north of Lehman. Morton became the county seat and there were hopes that a rail spur would be constructed to connect it with the east-west line, but that, too, never materialized.
Still, the seeds of economic growth for the county had been planted and it wasn’t long before they began bearing fruit. Land speculators were soon marketing the area to would-be settlers who were themselves searching for a piece of the American Dream. An influx of settlers arrived, pinning their hopes and dreams on this new promised land. It was an exciting time when all things were new and the future looked bright. The lonely prairie gave way to entrepreneurs, bustling small towns, and the spirit of adventurous rugged individualism that was so instrumental in settling the American West. But like so many other areas of the fledgling southwest, this boom era for Texas’ Last Frontier would come and go in the blink of an eye by historical standards.
The beginning of the 1930s saw the convergence of two cataclysmic events that would send many of the settlers packing, never to return. The first was the oncoming Great Depression, and the second was the climatic events that brought on the Dust Bowl. Crops failed and livestock suffered as the sandy-loam soil was whipped up into monstrous sandstorms that obliterated the sun as well as the hopes and dreams of many of the settlers. Banks failed, as did many farms, and it was just too much for most of the fledgling communities to overcome. The discovery of oil in the county in 1936 and the introduction of new irrigation technology brought forth a period of renewed growth that lasted until the mid-1960s.
Declining oilfield activity and advancements in agricultural technology reduced the demand for workers, and with no other major industry to attract people to the area, the county population has steadily declined to a little more than half of what it was at its height in 1960. Much of the land that had been broken for farming has reverted back to prairie, the sparse rainfall and lack of adequate underground water supplies in some areas having made it impractical and environmentally destructive to continue plowing the soil. In 1983, the Santa Fe Railroad was given permission to abandon the 23 miles of track between Whiteface and Bledsoe. The rails and ties were removed and the right-of-way has since been reclaimed by the prairie or adjacent landowners, though remnants of the old rail bed are still visible along Highway 125 as you drive west to Bledsoe.
This is not intended to be a concise summary of the history of Cochran County. Instead, what I have tried to do here is to offer a glimpse of the historical currents that have shaped Texas’ Last Frontier, and provide a framework through which the rest of the world can come to know the courageous lives and enduring spirit of the individuals who dared follow the road less traveled. Texas’ Last Frontier is more than just a phrase or geographical location; it represents the spirit of renewal, new beginnings, and the hope for a better tomorrow that is alive in us all. TexasLastFrontier.com is dedicated to preserving the history and memory of those who came before us and who are the embodiment of that spirit.
The frontier is still open and beckons for all to come whose dreams propel them down the road less traveled. You’re invited to take a journey to a land of endless sky where the horizon is boundless; a place where one can dream new dreams as each new day dawns. That place is Texas’ Last Frontier.
Sources: Cochran County Legacy: Texas Last Frontier 1924-1986 ( Morton, Texas: Last Frontier History Book Commission, 1986).
Elvis Eugene Fleming, Texas’ Last Frontier: A History of Cochran County (Morton, Texas: Cochran County Historical Society, 1965).