By John Ronan Broderick
EARLY NATIVE AMERICAN PRESENCE IN HILL COUNTY
As was the case with many if not most of the 254 counties in Texas, the earliest inhabitants were indigenous groups of Native Americans. In what became Hill County in 1853, when the Texas State Legislature carved it out of Navarro County, a common practice in the early days of Texas, traces of these peoples dated back to the early 14th century. About 400 years later, Waco and Tawakoni tribes of the Wichita Indians group established small hunting camps in the northeastern and southeastern parts of what would later become Hill County.
The first European to step foot into the area was probably a Frenchman named Pedro Vial, who had been hired by the Spanish to map out a route from San Antonio to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He reported staying in a Tawakoni village for about a week in mid-December 1786.
Five years later, Vial was followed by the arrival of the first Anglo, an Irish American named Philip Nolan, in 1791. Nolan was a mustanger (wild horse trader) and is credited with being the first filibuster in Texas, helping begin the movement to separate Texas from Spanish, and eventually, Mexican rule. On his final (illegal) foray into Texas in 1800 to gather mustangs, he established a small fortification and three corrals northeast of Blum on Battle Creek, a tributary of the Brazos River, in Hill County. In March 1801, Nolan was killed by Spanish troops stationed in Nacogdoches because he had been suspected by the Spanish of fomenting trouble between their troops and the local Indian tribes in the region and because he had failed to heed warnings by the Spanish government to stay out of Texas.
Subsequent to Nolan’s death, the famous empresario Stephen F. Austin arrived on the scene in 1822, with a survey map that included the Hill County area. There was a dispute between Austin and a lesser known empresario named Sterling Clack Robertson over the future Hill County in which Robertson prevailed. It was only the early part of the 19th century, and already the future Hill County was becoming hotly contested, initially between the Anglos and the Spanish, then among the Anglos themselves, and finally between the Anglos and the Native Americans migrating into the area.
Keep in mind that the Waco and Tawakoni Indian tribes were already established in the area. By the 1820s, the Towash and more war-like Comanches had also begun to move into the region, further threatening the new Anglo settlers also trying to establish a footprint in the area. During this period Austin attempted to establish treaties with the Native Americans, but his efforts were frustrated by his ongoing dispute with Robertson over present-day Hill County.
To add fuel to the fire, Hasanai and Andarko Indian groups had begun to depart East Texas by the 1830s, choosing to take up residence in Hill County by 1844, as well. In response to the growing threat from the Indians, the U.S. Army established a string of nine cavalry outposts to protect the incoming American settlers (the former Republic of Texas had been annexed to the United States in December 1845).
One of these pioneer forts was Fort Graham, established in 1849, located on the western edge of Hill County. It remained in service until 1853, when the more war-like Indians had departed the area. The mere presence of the fort and its complement of soldiers apparently dissuaded any depredations by the area’s various Indian groups. A rebuilt replica of the fort’s barracks on the original site 14 miles from Hillsboro is now known as Old Fort Park.
CIVILIZATION! (IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING)
It was in this same year, 1853, that Hill County was formed on February 7th. It was named after Dr. George Washington Hill, who had served as a surgeon for the Texas Army during the 1836 Revolution, and later, as President Sam Houston’s Secretary of War and Navy during the Republic of Texas era. In September 1853, three early settlers—Thomas Steiner, John Caruthers, and Jonathan Newby–donated 260 acres for the site of the Hill County Seat, which was named Hillsborough but in 1888 was shortened by the U.S. Post Office to Hillsboro. The town site was surveyed in February 1853; by November 1st, town lots had gone on sale.
According to an undated and uncredited article, “Founding Hill County,” which is posted on the website, heartoftexastales.com, “Initially, the county was similar to what was depicted on the mid-20th century television show Gunsmoke. Gunfights were common. Horse thieves were shot down whenever they were found—if the one who found the thieves was brave enough. Saloons prospered, there were few churches, and the towns were not family-friendly.” As a confirmation of this observation, it should be noted that the oldest building in Hillsboro is the 1876 Old Rock Saloon.
Even so, county officials were appointed or elected, and a form of government, as well as a semblance of law and order, began to emerge in this wild and woolly frontier town of Hillsboro. One can envision a town lawman, ala Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in the classic Western film High Noon, gunning down the four gunslingers of the deadly Frank Miller gang all by his lonesome in a town called Hadleyville. Such a showdown could just as easily have occurred in Hillsboro.
The first Hill County Courthouse, constructed in 1853 of elm poles around a dirt floor, was only 12’ x 12’. It was succeeded the following year by a frame structure, which lasted until 1872, when a two-story brick building replaced it. The third courthouse burned down and was rebuilt in 1874. Then, in 1889-1890, the fifth and last, and still extant, county courthouse was constructed of more enduring native limestone. More about this magnificent structure later.
The Texas State Historical Association website, from which I borrowed, summarized, and paraphrased much of the foregoing and following information via its comprehensive articles, “Hillsboro, TX,” by Lisa C. Maxwell, and “Hill County,” by Kenneth E. Austin, was a veritable fountain of facts. Mr. Austin states:
“By 1860 the county had 3,653 inhabitants, including 650 slaves. Hill County overwhelmingly approved secession . . . , and the county remained loyal to the South throughout the Civil War. Home guards were established in May 1861, and during the war Hill County supported three cavalry units. . . . During Reconstruction, when the Republican party controlled Hill County, its citizens faced serious political challenges. Power conflicts flared up occasionally between local citizens and . . . [the Republican] Texas State Police. Lawlessness increased in the postwar period. Outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in the fall of 1869 . . . and murdered a local citizen.” (I reckon Gary Cooper must have moved on by then.)
Hillsboro, like most small Texas frontier towns of the era, was dependent on a farming and ranching oriented economy, and cotton became the top crop. The town incorporated in 1881, the same year the first railroad laid track to the town. And, like other Texas rural communities, Hillsboro got a shot in the arm with the arrival of the railroad, the first being the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad (M, K & T), commonly referred to as “the Katy,” based on its trading symbol on the stock exchange, “KT.”
The Katy eventually connected the town to the larger market of Dallas 62 miles north of Hillsboro but immediately to Fort Worth 57 miles to its northwest. In truth, the Dallas spur was constructed in 1890 by the newly chartered Dallas & Waco Railway, which was incorporated into the Katy system in 1891. Railroad-oriented support shops brought jobs to the local economy and remained there for 50 years. The Katy also excavated and created Katy Lake so its locomotives would have an ample supply of water for their steam engines. In 1902, the Katy built the town’s train depot, which was restored and relocated to the main courthouse square in 1978.
In the following years other railroads eventually laid track to Hillsboro: the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas (aka the Cotton Belt) in 1888; and the Trinity and Brazos Railway in 1903. These disparate railroad connections enabled Hillsboro to ship cotton, grain, livestock, and wool in virtually all directions.
By 1890, Hillsboro had a population of 2,541 and was now a law-abiding community that could boast a half dozen churches, both private and public schools, its new limestone county courthouse, a cotton compress and several cotton gins, a flour mill, three banks, two newspapers, several retail stores, even an opera house. It was after all the county seat for Hill County and felt a need to set the pace for the rest of the growing county.
By the turn of the 20th century the town’s population had grown over 100%, to 5,346, during the previous decade. And the cotton industry produced a building boom for 20 years, between 1890 and 1910, which can be seen today in the many still extant Queen Anne homes that grace the Hillsboro Residential Historic District, several of these homes listed as Registered Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL).
The preservation and restoration of historic buildings in these small Texas towns founded in the mid-19th century has become a big deal with architectural history buffs, of which I am one. A survey of those sites in Hillsboro is most revealing and rewarding. For the townhas no less than 15 structures—residential, government, commercial—listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Of these, at least seven have also been accorded the dual honor of being listed by the Texas Historical Commission (THC) as RTHL, and one, the MKT Railroad Station, aka Katy Depot, is the only triple crown winner, having also been designated as a State Antiquities Landmark. Besides serving as a museum, it is also home to the Hillsboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to the above notable sites and structures, there are another dozen that are designated as RTHLs, among them eight houses, two churches, an alley, and a third bank. Moreover, there ae those structures that did not make either listing, probably due to modifications to the original structure that violate the THC’s stringent guidelines. They are nevertheless worth touring. In 1981, Hillsboro became one of the THC’s five original “Texas Main Street Cities,” a very special honor indeed.
There is neither time nor space to list all the sites I have mentioned generally, but several are worthy of recognition, which I will attempt to do here. Perhaps the most significant and venerable structure in the city is the 1890 Hill County Courthouse. For it was this singular courthouse that is credited with making Texans aware that their 19th-century courthouses were being threatened by the passage of time and inattention. It suffered a devastating fire in 1993 but was restored to its former grandeur by 1999 through combined community efforts and was recognized as the “Best Restoration 1999” by the Hillsboro Downtown Association.
Similarly, the 1893 Hill County Jail, only one block from the courthouse, and now known as the Cell Block Museum, is listed on both the NRHP and RTHL. One of its claims to fame is that Elvis Presley was once an overnight guest there when he was serving in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen. The 1913 Post Office is now home to the City Library; it was the first major restoration project of a public building in Hillsboro, in 1972. The 1887 Pioneer Bank Building likewise deserves special mention, as do is sister financial institutions, the 1912 Farmers National Bank and the 1893 Sturgis National Bank. Nor can we fail to recognize the oldest building in Hillsboro, the 1876 Old Rock Saloon. And I would likewise be remiss if I did not mention the 1911 St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
When it comes to retail establishments, there are four that are worthy of mention, the: circa early 1930s Montgomery Ward Building with its terra cotta “The Spirit of Progress” famous logo that sits atop the structure; 1925 Kress Building, now an antiques store; 1929 Texas Theatre, under new ownership, which is renovating it; and 1881 T.B. Bond Pharmacy, which holds the distinction of being the oldest pharmacy in Texas.
SOME BASIC VITAL STATISTICS
According to the World Population Review, Hillsboro’s 2021 population is 8,612, its highest number ever. It is the 264th largest city in Texas. Spanning over 11 miles, the town has a population density of 792 people per square mile. The population has remained fairly stable and consistent for the last 20 years.
In terms of languages spoken, 65.07% of Hillsboro residents speak only English; 33.01% speak Spanish; the remaining 1.92% of the population speak other languages. In terms of places of birth, 67.39% were native-born Texans; 15.88% were Americans born outside of Texas; 16.73% were foreign-born; 10.85% were non-citizens; and 5.89% were naturalized citizens. The overall poverty rate is 14.74%, and the marriage rate is 41.8%.
Based on the U.S. Census 2018 ACS (American Community Survey) 5-Year Survey, U.S. military veterans in Hillsboro numbered 326, of which 318 were males and 8 were females. Of these, 154, or 63.4%, were Vietnam vets; 43, or 17.7% were First Gulf War vets; World War II veterans numbered 29, or 11.9%; Korean War vets accounted for 10, or 3.1%; and 7, or 2.1% were veterans of the Second Gulf War.
THE 20TH CENTURY AND BEYOND
During the first half of the 20th century, Hillsboro had its economic ups and downs, like many other small towns, nationwide, in the wake of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Hillsboro Junior College, one of the first municipal junior colleges in Texas, was established in 1923. When the college was plagued with financial difficulties in the late 1940s, the county government declined to assist it, so it had to close its doors in 1950, not being able to reopen until 1962, under the name of Hill Junior College.
When the Katy [railroad] relocated its shops 30 miles south to Bellmead in 1930, many of those workers relocated as well, causing somewhat of a decline in the local population. By 1950, however, the town had diversified into numerous and various forms of manufacturing, and the population had risen to 8,352, approximately what it is today. In the 1970s, the old buildings on the courthouse square were renovated, and throughout the 1980s they were featured on a Heritage League Tour that coincided with the town’s art festival.
Among other sights to see besides those already alluded to are: the Roadside America Museum; the Texas Heritage Museum; the Texas Through Time museum; and the Hillsboro Antique Mall. There are at least a dozen locally owned fine restaurants and no less than 14 hotels in a price range to fit just about any budget. Nearly equidistant from Dallas, Fort Worth, and Waco, Hillsboro is a wonderful destination for a weekend getaway, especially those interested in Heritage Tourism and antique shopping.