Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


According to tradition, the land where the city of Wichita Falls is presently located, in southeastern Wichita County, Texas, was acquired in a poker game by one John A. Scott of Mississippi in 1837. In fact, Scott acquired the tract by purchasing Texas land certificates, which he packed away and promptly forgot. Years later the certificates were rediscovered by Scott's heirs, who commissioned M. W. Seeley to map out a town site in the tract on the Wichita River. As platted by Seely in July 1876, the town site included the location of a small waterfall on the Wichita River that was later washed away, several named streets, and a town square. In a fanciful drawing that accompanied the plat, Seeley also included an imaginary lake, a steamboat on the river, and warehouses laden with cotton and other goods. The town never became a steamboat shipping center, although railroads were later very important to its development.

The first permanent settlers were the Barwise family of Dallas. They first came to the town site on an exploring trip in 1878 and returned to stay the following year. The first public school opened in the fall of 1880, and the first church, First Methodist, was formally organized in 1881. By that time, according to various reports, there were between eight and thirteen families living within the town site.

In 1881 and 1882 the residents of Wichita Falls induced the Fort Worth and Denver Railroad, then building tracks west out of Fort Worth, to run its line through the town by offering substantial property concessions along the right-of-way. The arrival of the first train on September 27, 1882, triggered a boom in the sale of town lots. Also in 1882 the first manufacturing concern, a shingle and sorghum mill, was established along with the first lumberyard. J. A. Kemp, later to become one of the most prominent of the town's promoters, arrived in 1883 and soon established a general merchandise store. Wichita Falls became the county seat of Wichita County in November 1883.

The city of Wichita Falls was officially incorporated on July 29, 1889. Soon the economy was stimulated by the arrival of more railroads, making the town a transportation and supply center for northwest Texas and southern Oklahoma. By 1890 the population was 1,987, and as the town continued to grow its leaders recognized the need for a reliable water supply. The Lake Wichita project was completed in 1891. It remained the primary source of water for drinking and irrigation as well as a major recreation site until the 1920s. Lake Kemp was added during the twenties, followed by Lake Kickapoo in 1947 and Lake Diversion in 1960. Currently, the primary water supply comes from Lake Arrowhead, constructed in 1966.

By 1907 the population of Wichita Falls was 5,055, and the economy was firmly based upon railroads. The infrastructure was also growing: in 1909 Wichita Falls boasted 30 miles of sidewalk, 5 miles of sewers, and more than 100 businesses. A streetcar system also appeared with an extension to Lake Wichita, which made the lake a recreation center. Soon a hotel, domed pavilion, racetrack, boardwalk, and vacation cottages sprang up. The lake remained the center of leisure activity for the city until well after World War I, even though the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1915.

Wichita Fall's first newspaper was the Wichita Falls Mirror, printed by Steve Reynolds in the early 1880s. Dr. H. A. Lewis started the Wichita Falls Herald, which was later owned by F. F. Dougherty and Ed Howard. The Times, founded in 1887 by Sam Bell Thomas, was purchased by Howard in 1897. He organized the Times Publishing Company in 1904 and began printing the Daily Times and the Record News. Those two papers continued to appear separately until 1987, when they were combined into one morning paper.

The opening of the Electra oil field in 1911 triggered a shift in the economic base. By 1913 the North Texas fields were producing 46 percent of all the oil in Texas, and refineries began to appear in Wichita Falls in 1915. Then came the discovery of the Burkburnett fields in 1918. By 1920 there were nine refineries and fortyseven factories within the city. The oil boom also produced a building boom. More than a dozen major building projects were inaugurated in the downtown area during the early twenties. In addition, the city added a municipal auditorium in 1927 and an airport in 1928. It also adopted the city manager form of government.

The population of Wichita Falls in 1930, on the eve of the Great Depression, was 43,607. The Depression slowed growth but did not stop it, thanks in part to a major oil discovery at nearby Kamay in 1938. In 1940 the population was 55,200. Bank deposits exceeded $36 million, and there were 92 miles of paved streets, 77 manufacturing establishments, 127 wholesale outlets, and 741 retail stores. In 1941 the economy was bolstered by the opening of Sheppard Field, an army air corps training facility. By May 1945, when the base reached its peak strength, 46,650 army personnel were stationed there. The base was deactivated on August 31, 1946, but reopened as Sheppard Air Force Base in August 1948. It continues to function as a major training center for air force technicians and a flight training center for NATO.

Wichita Falls reached its peak population of 110,100 in 1955, then went into gradual decline. By 1960 the population had dropped to 101,724, and while oil production in the area still ranked eighth in the state, it would soon be eclipsed by other areas. Also, by 1962 oilrefining activity had practically ceased. Recognizing that change was in the air, the city's leaders formed Industrial Development, Inc., which sought to diversify the economy by attracting other types of industries. In 1970 Industrial Development, Inc., merged with the chamber of commerce under the name Board of Commerce and Industry. This organization was successful in attracting fifteen new industries during the 1970s, including Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Certain Teed, Washex, Howmet Turbine, AC Spark Plug, and Ciba-Geigy. These successes produced great optimism that the new trend would continue, but instead it had petered out by the early eighties. Meanwhile, because of the construction of a large shopping mall in the southwestern part of the city, the downtown collapsed as a viable shopping area.

Wichita Falls was devastated on April 10, 1979, by one of the largest tornados on record. Sweeping through the southern part of the city, the storm destroyed 20 percent of all dwellings in town, destroyed numerous business establishments, killed 46 people, and injured 3,200 more. Within three years, most of the damage had been repaired. Also, the boom in oil prices during the early eighties caused a brief flurry of activity in business. But in the mideighties, when oil prices slumped again, the economy stagnated.

In the 1990s Wichita Falls showed signs of recovery. New businesses entered the economy, there was a building boom, and the population soared over 100,000 for the first time in twenty years, reaching 104,192 in 2000.

See also INDUSTRY: Petroleum, United States.

Kenneth E. Henrickson Jr. Midwestern State University

Auty, Michael. Wichita Falls: A Century of Photographs. Wichita Falls TX: Midwestern State University Press, 1982.

Kelly, Louise. Wichita County Beginnings. Burnet TX: Eakin Press, 1982.

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