Central Texas Before Fort Hood
by David Yeilding
Delivered September 18, 2002
Fort Hood, Texas,
60th Anniversary of Fort Hood
Picture with me in your mind's eye: Two mules pulling a wagon loaded with a family's
worldly possessions. The husband and three sons walk beside the mules with the mother and
several daughters and a mother-in-law inside the wagon. Grass reaches the belly of the mules
as the family travels westward across a searingly hot Texas prairie in 1852. When these
mythical pioneers reach beyond the western bank of House Creek, they determine they have
traveled far enough and stop and begin life close to what later became known as the Antelope
Though my comments are fictitious, events like this occured over and over in the 19th
century as Anglos increasdingly moved into the area surrounding modern day Fort Hood. Early
day settlers surmounted hardships transporting themselves over inhospitable territory at
considerable risk and peril. Still, relentlessly, they came to forge small, rural settlements
dotting the countryside in Bell and Coryell Counties. Though this area had supported life
centuries with sporadic movement of more contemporary Native Americans, Anglos generally viewed
the land they settled as pristine and as virgin soil. The area abounded with natural resources
including animals, fish, and lush grasses.
Early settlers engaged in raising stock but with passage of time farming dominated. Dry
land farming cast a heavy cloud of economic brinkmanship upon citizens as wealth eluded almose
all of them. Only a few hundred slaves accompanied owners into the Fort Hood Area before the
Civil War. There were lively and spirited debates on the topic of secession here. Passions in
the Fort Hood area ran high on the issue as they did in other southern states. Governor Sam
Houston visited Belton speaking on the courthouse square opposing it as Texans debated whether
to secede from the United States in 1860 following Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency.
This area voted to support the Confederacy and many soldiers went to war.
Following the Civil War, tenant and sharecropper farming abounded in the region.
Manufacturing and industrialization generally went to other states bypassing most of Texas and
most of the south. Ths Fort Hood area, like all parts of the South, preferred to continue its
affinity for an agricultural-based economy.
As was the case in the United States post-Cuivil War era, railroads were the most
important economic innovation as lines sliced through Bell and Coryell Counties connecting
them with ports in Houston and markets in Kansas and in the east. The famed Chisolm Trail
crossed parts of the western Fort Hood region moving untold thousands of cattle to train
terminals in Abilene, Kansas, and other destinations.
Population in the Fort Hood area mounted slowly. Coryell County's population in
1880 was 10,846. It took 50 years for that number to double as the 1930 census reported
19,999 living in Coryell County.
The 1920 census of the United States startlingly reported that fot the first time in the
nation's history, more people lived in cities and towns than lived rurally, such was not the case
here. As late as 1940, 84% of Coryell County residents were rural and only 16% lived in urban
centers and in Bell County 58% lived rurally with 42% living in urban areas. These
demographic figures set the stage for the area into which the United States government would
venture to build what has become the nation's largest military installation.
To dramatize the rural nature of this area, listen to these details of
the hard souls who lived on farms in Coryell County in 1940 according to census returns:
96% of the 3,359 farms had no private bath or flush toilet;
20% had running water but no private flush toilet;
65% had no running water;
80.7% had an outside privy;
88% had no electricity (they used kerosene or gasoline for lights);
Mainly these people used wood for cooking with some using kerosene stoves
Travel within Bell and Coryell Counties was difficult in dry weather and impassable in
wet weather. Coryell County had no paved roads until construction of Highway 84 late in the
1930's. The road from Killeen to Temple was gravel. Temple had hospitals but there were none
in Coryell County in 1940 (the Coryell Memorial Hospital opened in 1942). Schools were small
and generally loosely organized. The State of Texas only guaranteed students twelve years of
schooling in 1949, well after establishment of Fort Hood.
Much of Bell and Coryell Counties clustered around rural communities such as Antelope,
Brookhaven, Ewing, New Hope, Palo Alto, Sparta, Stampede, and Turn over. All of these and
more vanished with the arrival of Fort Hood.
In 1942 the Fort Hood Area was, in some respects, much like it had been roughjly 100
years earlier. Life was hard, it had always been hard here. There was, though, a certain
difference in this area from its past evidenced by the presence, for example, of telephones that
were spreading in these counties even among rural residents. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal
was changing the landscape of the area bringing with it, among other factors, electrification
with Bartlett in Bell County being the nation's first Rural Electrification Administration project.
Certainly life would never be the same after the arrival of Fort Hood; however the truth
of the matter is that life would never have been the same in this region even if Fort Hood had
never existed. One can easily count ghost communities in both Bell and Coryell County
unaffected by the arrival of Fort Hood such as Coryell City, Osage, Waldo, Pulltight, Red
Ranger, Cyclone, Oenaville, and many others. All these communities died the 20th century death
of progress, progress occasioned by a variety of forces: school consolidations, movement of
people to other opportunities, and the growth of urbanization to list only a few.
This area gave birth to Fort Hood and its residents take justifiable pride in its growth
and vitality. Fort Hood has been an important military installation for sixty years, and
it has beeen an equally important and dynamic partner to Central Texans.