In 1882, a railroad camp called Prairie Switch was situated where El Campo now stands and served as a switching point on New York, Texas, and Mexican railways. Cowboys called the camp "Pearl of the Prairies." Located in the midst of cattle country, the camp was used by Mexican cowboys who changed the name to El Campo in 1890. At that time, ranching was the chief industry, and thousands of cattle were shipped yearly to San Antonio. Four large ranches surrounded the settlement: the Texas Land and Cattle Company (KO Ranch) to the south, the Pierce Ranch to the east, the Herder Ranch to the west, and the Brown Ranch to the north.
For several years El Campo had no permanent structures except the section house and a switch serving the cattle-loading chute. In 1889 a general store was built. A post office opened in 1890. In 1892 the community had an estimated population of twenty-five, a general store, a mill and gin, and a justice of the peace. Settlers began moving into the area and planted rice, cotton, and corn. Hay soon became one of the chief products, and in the early 1900s the town was the second largest hay-shipping center in the United States. The Farmers Union Warehouse Company was established in El Campo. A one-room schoolhouse was built in 1891, and in 1895 an independent school district was established. By 1901 177 students were enrolled. Between 1890 and 1898 Swedish Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, German Lutheran, and Swedish Methodist churches were organized.
In 1896 a fire destroyed the principal business section. By 1900, 130 businesses had been rebuilt. In 1901 another fire destroyed a large part of the town, and this time the residents built brick buildings. El Campo Brick and Tile Company provided building materials for many of the permanent structures. In 1901 a library was organized. The first bank was established in 1902.
On June 19, 1905, El Campo was incorporated. The El Campo Ice and Water Company was established in 1907, which lighted businesses, streets, and homes, and made enough ice to supply the city.
The El Campo Rice Milling Company was established in 1903. By 1904 seventy rice farms and 126 pumping stations were in operation around El Campo. Broussard Rice Mills was established, and in 1914 the two rice mills consolidated under the name El Campo Rice Milling Company, now known as ELCO. At one time, rice hulls were compressed into bricks used as an experimental building material.
The first doctor in El Campo arrived in 1890. By 1906 two funeral homes had been established. There were 1,778 residents in 1910. The first hospital was established in 1912. The first newspaper was published in 1894. The El Campo News began in 1928 and has survived to the present as El Campo Leader-News. In 1931 a Czech-language paper, Svoboda, was published. It was later purchased by Culp Krueger and merged with the main newspaper.
In the mid-1930s gas and oil were discovered in Wharton County and spawned the local petroleum and oil-service industries. The Texas Company (now Texaco, Inc.) established a branch office in El Campo. In 1930 the town had a population of 2,034 and 160 businesses. In 1941 the town had 3,906 residents and 22 businesses. The population was 6,216 in 1952, 7,700 in 1961, and 9,995 in 1970.
The town's population has continued to grow in recent decades. Learn more about our population and the growing labor market.
- Karen H. Meinardus and Arliss Treybig