A Resilient Texan County on the Move
Lamar County, TX
Lamar County, Texas has endured its share of natural disasters and always come back strong. In addition to resilient residents, the county—located in northern Texas against the border with Oklahoma—boasts a bustling agricultural and manufacturing sector. Lamar also features ample recreational opportunities. Paris, the county seat, has a 65-foot high replica of the Eiffel Tower in honor of the city’s namesake, but topped with a red cowboy hat.
“We’re very fortunate to have a low cost of living here. There are lots of nice amenities and beautiful communities. There are good people,” states Ken Higdon, president and CEO of the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce. The low cost of living in Lamar is shown in median house prices of $100,000.
A 2014 census counted 49,523 people in Lamar County. Roughly 25,000 of these residents live in Paris, the largest city. The county has ample water resources – not always the case in inland Texas communities – with two lakes: Lake Pat Mayse and Lake Crook. The presence of so much water has proven a boon for both recreation and industry, with manufacturers tapping into local water supplies.
According to John Godwin, city manager of Paris, winters are mild in Lamar County. “We average two inches of snow a year, not much.”
Manufacturing, agribusiness and government services are some of the biggest employers in the county, and unemployment is under five percent. The Campbell Soup company employs 900 people in Lamar, while Kimberly-Clark, a Dallas, Texas-based company that makes paper products among other consumer items, employs 800. Turner Industries, a manufacturer of pipes and other industrial products, operates a fabrication plant in Paris employing 700 people.
Agriculture remains a mainstay with beef and dairy farms and crops such as hay, soybeans, wheat, corn, sorghum and cotton.
In 2014, The Results Companies, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida firm, opened a contact center in Paris. County boosters hope to attract other telephone call-center companies and expand Lamar’s manufacturing, retail and recreational sectors.
The county has a long history. Europeans began exploring the area back in 1600s. By 1720, there were small French settlements in what is now Lamar. In 1763, France ceded the region to Spain. Anglo-American settlement began around 1815.
By the 1850 census, the county had 3,978 residents, and at the start of the Civil War, the population in the county had topped 10,000. Lamar continued to grow steadily, reaching just under 50,000 people by 1900. At the time, the county was still primarily rural and agriculture, particularly cotton, was dominant.
Lamar County recorded 55,742 residents in 1920, but the area was hard hit by the Great Depression, and the population began to decline for a period.
In August, 1943, the United States Army Air Forces opened the Cox Field training base. Following the conclusion of the Second World War, control of the 1,600-acre site was handed over to the city of Paris, and it is now a municipal airport, about five miles east of the central district of Paris. There has been some musings to expand operations to include aircraft MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) services. Offering MRO services might be a way for Lamar County to tap into Texas’ huge aerospace sector.
By 1960, the county hit a low of 34,234 people. At this point, the population began to rise again, hitting 42,156 by 1980 (with 25,000 people in Paris).
Lamar County has been plagued by a series of disasters throughout its history. A big fire in August, 1877 destroyed nearly ten acres of the downtown business district of Paris. The city recovered and residents began erecting more structures made of brick. The 1877 fire proved to be a minor blaze, however, compared to the conflagration that struck Paris on March 21, 1916.
“More than 1,400 structures were destroyed, including most of the downtown business district. The total monetary loss exceeded $11 million. Miraculously, only four lives were lost,” reports the historical association.
Following the great fire, most of downtown Paris had to be rebuilt, and the current Lamar County Courthouse dates from this period. This striking structure, made in classical Revival style with Romanesque details, was built in 1917. Builders used marble and granite from the original courthouse, built in 1897 and destroyed in the great fire.
Lamar officials like to cite the rebirth of Paris as an example of the county’s fortitude. “It takes grit to rebuild like that. I think that spirit is still there,” says Michael Paris, the very appropriately-named executive director of the Paris Economic Development Corporation.
Unfortunately, the great fire wasn’t the last catastrophe to hit Lamar. On April 2, 1982, a huge storm system over Texas unleashed a series of tornadoes in Lamar and elsewhere.
“Tornadoes struck several towns in the county, including Blossom and Paris. In Paris, two tornadoes hit within minutes and leveled a path nearly 1,000 feet wide and five miles long through the center of town. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. Damage was in the millions, as 315 homes were destroyed, 800 more were damaged and another eighty buildings were destroyed,” reports the Texas State Historical Association.
Once again, Lamar residents mourned their losses then quickly rebuilt what had been destroyed.
Not all of Lamar’s heritage was wrecked by these disasters. The Sam Bell Maxey House State Historic Site, for example, is a popular tourist draw. The two-story home was constructed in high Victorian Italianate style in 1868. The owner was Sam Bell Maxey, a veteran of both the Mexican War and the Civil War (in which he fought as a Confederate general). Maxey also served two terms in the U.S. Senate. His well-preserved mansion can be visited in Paris.
Notable residents of Lamar include Duane Allen, a member of the Oak Ridge Boys country and western band; John Simpson Chisum (a famous, nineteenth century cattle baron, portrayed on screen in movies by John Wayne and James Coburn); and singer Cas Haley, the runner-up in season two of the TV show America’s Got Talent.
Higher education in the county is exemplified by Paris Junior College. Established in 1924, the college offers a mix of freshman and sophomore courses in arts and sciences, adult education and technical training. The campus consists of twenty buildings and residences spread out over fifty-four acres.
Lamar County has no shortage of festivals and fun. It offers fishing tournaments, square dancing events and an annual cycling race called the Tour de Paris. The latter attracts upwards of 1,000 riders and has been held in Lamar for over three decades. Newer events include an archery tournament hosted by the Archery Shooters Association (ASA) that features participants from as far afield as Europe.
Last year, the Southern Drag Boat Association (SDBA) held high speed boat races on Lake Crook. The race was a hit and now has the potential to grow into a huge annual event, say county boosters.
Lake Crook Park, meanwhile, was the site of another new event called the ‘Chisum Days Chuck Wagon Races & Cook Off.’ Said event featured hay rides, a dance and the highlight: teams manning old-fashioned chuck wagons trying to out-race and out-cook each other. Other popular events in Lamar include a pumpkin festival and Oktoberfest celebrations.
Paris boasts a recreational trail, called the ‘Trail de Paris.’ This path will eventually be incorporated into a grander, 130 mile plus Northeast Texas Trail (NETT), an ambitious project that aims to link nineteen cities in Texas via a multi-use trail.
Higdon says Lamar is privileged “to have two lakes and recreational parks, camping sites, those kind of things. And we have the Northeast Texas Trail and it’s a wonderful asset for us as well.” Popular recreational activities in Lamar include boating, hunting, fishing, swimming and hiking.
The county promotes its recreational charms in various Texas-based travel and tourism magazines, guides and promotional brochures. The industrial side of the county is promoted through a website, networking and attending conferences.
County boosters are particularly pleased with how downtown Paris is being built up. “We have 120-plus retail stores in the downtown district. That’s a major change in the last ten years. A lot of the downtown was abandoned … a couple developers are looking at some of our larger buildings. We have several restaurants in the downtown Paris area. We’re seeing some movement in the right direction there,” says Higdon.
As for the future of Lamar County, Michael Paris says, “I would say in a very fundamental way, we want to grow. We want to bring jobs here, we want to grow this economy.”