“McMullen County was named for John McMullen, the Irish empresario. The county comprises 1,159 square miles of usually flat to rolling terrain covered with mesquite, scrub brush, cacti, chaparral, and grasses. Elevation ranges from approximately 150 to 450 feet.”
“Though no permanent Spanish settlements seem to have been established in the area now known as McMullen County, Spaniards traveled across it at various times. Alonso De León, for example, passed through the area in 1689 and 1690, as did Diego Ortiz Parrilla in 1766. Since the old Presidio Road (Camino Real) passed to the north and west of the area, and the San Antonio-Laredo road cut only through its northwest corner, there was relatively little Spanish experience or interest in the area.”
“After the Mexican War of Independence the Mexican government used colonization contracts and land grants to promote the settlement of Texas. In 1825 the Mexican state of Coahuila granted a colonization contract to Benjamin Drake Lovell and John G. Purnell for a tract of land that included all of present-day McMullen County north of the Nueces River. In 1828, after Lovell and Purnell had failed to fulfill the terms of their contract, the same land was assigned to John McMullen and James McGloin, who contracted to settle the area with 200 Catholic immigrants.”
“Between the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War of 1846–48, most of what is now McMullen County lay in the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. Asserting its claim to the area, the Republic of Texas issued forty-five land grants to property in the area between 1841 and 1845, including a large grant to an English company. It is doubtful that any of these grantees permanently occupied their land, however. Neither the Republic of Texas nor the Mexican government could establish control over this strip of contested land, and it became a haven for outlaws and desperate characters.”
“Even after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgodefinitively assigned the Nueces Strip to Texas, outlaws and unfriendly Indians delayed development of the area for years. When McMullen County was officially established from parts of Bexar, Atascosa, and Live Oak counties in 1858, the area had only begun to be settled.”
“In 1858 a group of about thirty people established a settlement where Leoncita Creek met the Frio. By fall of that year they had built eight to ten crude dwellings and soon afterward began to cut a road to meet the San Antonio-Laredo road that lay to the west. Dubbed Rio Frio, later Dog Town, and then Tilden, this was the first permanent settlement in the county.”
“During the early 1860s the settlement had grown slowly. In 1862 Levi J. Edwards built the town’s first general store, and shortly after he added a saloon. About that time, too, the town built its first school. The settlement also acted as a home guard post for the Twenty-ninth Brigade of the Texas Confederate militia during the Civil War. After the war ended Dog Town grew fairly rapidly.”
“By 1870 there were about 190 people living in the town, and by 1876 it included four general stores, one grocery store, two saloons, a drug store, and a hotel. In 1877, when McMullen County was officially organized, Dog Town was chosen as the county seat. That same year, the town was formally surveyed, and its name was changed to Tilden.”
“Sheep ranching was also an important part of McMullen County’s economy for a time. Small flocks of Merino sheep were brought into the region during the early 1860s, and as the demand for wool increased during the 1870s sheep actually came to outnumber cattle.”
“For a number of reasons, including a sharp drop in wool prices, a severe drought, and the depletion of grasslands, however, sheep raising quickly declined in McMullen County, as it did in most parts of South Texas during the late nineteenth century. By 1887 there were only 37,000 sheep in the county, and by 1900 the number had dropped to only 1,036.”
“The county’s economic profile began to change in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as the oil and gas industrygrew in importance. Trace amounts of oil, sulfur, and natural gas found in water wells as early as the 1890s had encouraged wildcatters to search for petroleum deposits in the area, and by 1905 oil explorations were conducted in a number of locations along the Frio River. In 1908 a water well being drilled on the Charles Byrne Ranch east of Tilden erupted in a geyser of gas and water 100 feet high.”
“After Byrne’s son discovered an oil seep on the Frio River in 1915, the family reported their findings to William M. Stephenson, an oil entrepreneur. Soon Stephenson’s company, the Grubstake Investment Company, had leased 300,000 acres of land in the county.”
“Meanwhile, in 1922, the company also made the first major oil strike in the county on a ranch owned by Joseph T. Calliham. So many people had moved to the prospecting area by that time that Stephenson arranged to lay out a formal townsite on the ranch. In 1923 the new town-called Calliham, after the owner of the site- was granted a post office, and a boom town rose quickly on the spot. During its heyday in the 1920s Calliham had three two-story hotels, four cafes, a dance pavilion, a newspaper printing office, and a number of other businesses.”
“Unlike their counterparts in the Winter Garden counties to the west, most of the prospective farmers who came to McMullen County during this period found no reservoirs of underground water suitable for large-scale irrigation projects. And the reluctance of railroad companies to extend their tracks into the county made agricultural development all the more difficult. Tilden, the county’s first and largest town, lost population between 1900 and 1930.”
“The years of the Great Depression were difficult for the residents of McMullen County. An extended drought, low commodity prices, and a tick-fever quarantine devastated the county’s agricultural base; by 1939 only 162 farms remained. It has been estimated that 2,000 people lived in McMullen County in 1928, but by 1930 only 1,374 residents were counted, and in 1940 the population was 1,351.”
“From the Great Depression and World War II to the 1990s the population of McMullen County dropped slowly but steadily. At the same time, virtually all of the small towns established before the depression disappeared or shrank. In 1940 1,374 people lived in McMullen County; in 1950, however, the census counted only 1,187 people, and by 1970 the number had dropped to 1,095.”
“Tilden, with an estimated population of 500 in 1990, continued to be the principal town and county seat; its chief economic activities included kitty-litter production, tourism, and the processing of natural gas.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, “McMullen County“
I was the guest of Tilden and McMullen County on August 12, 2014.
McMullen County Courthouse – 1877
This was McMullen County’s first courthouse. It went up in 1877, and fire brought it down in 1929.
McMullen County Courthouse – 1930
(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)
Architect William Charles Stephenson sent plans to the tiny town of Tilden in the late 20s, and his design of this building was approved. The style is classified as Classical Revival, but with Mission influences. As a South Texas courthouse, a touch of the Mission style is almost an essential.
A rear addition was added in 1964, as was a set of AC units. 1987 saw the advent of an elevator.
Tilden & McMullen County
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