Morton is located on State Highway 114, twenty miles east of the New Mexico border and 57 miles northwest of Lubbock in northeastern Cochran County. Morton is the county seat of Cochran County and the courthouse square sits at the intersection of State Highway 114 and State Highway 214. The town is named after Morton J. Smith, a land speculator and agent. In 1921, two years after the death of prominent cattleman Christopher C. Slaughter, Slaughter’s heirs dissolved his cattle company and divided his Cochran County land among the stockholders. Slaughter’s oldest daughter, Minnie Slaughter Veal, almost immediately began to colonize her part of the land by subdividing it into smaller tracts for farms and employing the services of Smith as her selling agent.
Smith selected his townsite in 1922, and showed it to prospective buyers who came to see the farmland. In June 1923, Smith and Lee Secrest staked out the actual townsite, and Smith built a small land office on the east side of the town square he had laid out. Later that same year, a small building was erected on the southwest corner of the square and became a grocery and mercantile business. In January 1924, J.L. Winder purchased the store and added a post office. His wife, Mary, became the town’s first postmaster. The first school was also built in 1924, starting the school year with seven students and growing to 33 pupils by the end of the school year.
New settlers continued to arrive in Morton, and Smith was anxious to have his namesake town become the county seat. However, the Slaughters had different ideas and wanted the county seat to be located at Ligon, a townsite they had established approximately 5.5 miles south of the Morton townsite. The county’s first major political battle erupted between the two factions. On March 17, 1923, an election was held, and Morton was declared the winner. But the Slaughters challenged the results and were upheld in court. On May 6, 1924, a second election was held and Morton was again declared the county seat, defeating Ligon by a vote of 79 to 20.
In 1926, George E. Lance published the first newspaper in Morton. It was called the Morton Monitor. It was followed by the Cochran County News, which had previously been published in Bledsoe and moved to Morton after being purchased by Joe Baldwin. Around 1940, A.C White began publishing the Cochran County Headlight. In 1944, the Headlight was purchased by Doug Meador who changed the name of the newspaper to The Morton Tribune. All eventually ceased publication, with the exception of The Morton Tribune, which went through several different owners over the years until it too stopped publishing sometime in 2011, leaving Morton and Cochran County without a local newspaper.
Morton continued to grow and by 1928, the population had reached 200. The first structure used as a church in Morton, called the Mule Barn because of its dirt floor and tow-sack curtains, was built in 1928, and used by various denominations. No fewer than a dozen churches had sprouted up in the town by the 1940′s. In the midst of the Great depression and the onset of the Dust Bowl, Morton incorporated into a city in 1933. Henry Cox served as the first mayor. The population was 210 by then, with 17 businesses established. In 1934, Roy Allsup’s garage, L.T. Doss’ Grocery and James St. Clair’s Department Store came into being as Morton’s population more than tripled to 699. That same year, F.F. Roberts received a franchise for the town’s electric and heating plant.
In 1935, Morton had 33 businesses and Wallace Theatres built a movie theater on the northeast corner of the town square. The following year, Southwestern Associated Telephone Company installed a switchboard for the town’s telephone service. In January 1939, a natural gas distribution system was installed. In 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps camp moved from Littlefield to Morton, employing about 175 young men who worked against wind and water erosion by building fences, planting trees, and developing farm and pasture lands. After the end of World War 2, Morton added a new hospital, airport, country club, high school and gymnasium, and bank.
By 1960, Morton’s population had grown to 2,731 and reached it apex in 1964, with 3,100. The AM radio station, 1280 KRAN, went on the air on December 6, 1961. The station broadcasted until the 1980′s. The 1970′s saw the beginning of the decline in Morton’s population, as well as the county as a whole, that has continued into the present day. By 2000, the population had shrank to 2,249. In 2010, that number had been further reduced to 2,006. Agriculture is the mainstay of the area’s economy, and oil production to a lesser degree. Over the years, many of the area’s small farms have been sold and incorporated into larger farming operations, resulting in an exodus of many families. The boom-bust cycle of oil production hasn’t helped matters any, and most oil field service companies are located in adjacent counties. The scarcity of water in the county is another impediment to economic development.
Though Morton is suffering through a decline in businesses and population, as many rural Texas communities are today; those who remain are determined to make it work and hold onto the same enduring spirit and rugged individualism that the early settlers of Texas’ Last Frontier brought with them when this land was nothing but a lonely, treeless, and wind-swept prairie.
Sources: Cochran County Legacy: Texas Last Frontier 1924-1986 ( Morton, Texas: Last Frontier History Book Commission, 1986).
Elvis Eugene Fleming and David J. Murrah, Texas’ Last Frontier: A New History of Cochran County (Morton, Texas: Cochran County Historical Commission, 2001).