The History of Italy, Texas

Italy is at the junction of U.S. Highway 77 and State Highway 34, on the Blackland Prairie forty-five miles south of Dallas in southwest Ellis County. Although a few families had settled in the vicinity by 1860, the Aycock brothers built the first house on the present site of the town in 1879 and used it as a dwelling, grocery store, and post office. That year residents debated what to name the settlement. Some favored Houston Creek, because Sam Houston reportedly camped on the creek that flowed through town. Others wanted the name Egypt or Italy. The postal department rejected the first choice because of possible confusion with Houston Creek in Harris County. Gabriel J. Penn, postmaster in Waxahachie, named the town Italy in 1880 because the climate was much like that found in "sunny Italy." The population was 500 in 1890. Settlers found the land good for cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, and wheat. The greatest impetus for growth occurred in December 1890, when the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad arrived, and the town became a market center for the surrounding area. The next year the first newspaper was published, and Italy was officially incorporated.

Besides trade and agriculture, residents were attracted to Italy because of its many schools and churches. Italy Institute, Southwestern Normal College, and Hope Institute educated the youth of the community and the surrounding counties. By 1894 more than 350 students were attending classes. Six churches held Sunday services by 1900. In March 1925 the Italy Independent School District was established. The population grew steadily in the early twentieth century, rising from 1,061 in 1900 to 1,500 in 1925. The International-Great Northern Railroad reached the town in 1901. In 1913 the first cream and crimson interurbans opened service between Dallas and Waco on what became the Texas Electric Railway. Italy profited from this service, particularly when the Texas Electric made the town an exchange point for freight with the Katy. Cotton ruled the economy by the 1920s, when Italy had five gins, a compress, and a cottonseed oil mill. The main road through Italy, a graded dirt road stretching from Dallas to Waco, was known as the King of Trails Highway. Although the local ice plant produced some electricity for the town, most electricity was brought in from Waco by transmission towers built by the Texas Electric.

The Great Depression started a downward trend for Italy that lasted for thirty-five years. In 1930 the town had 1,230 residents and forty-five businesses. In 1960 the population was 1,183, and in 1970 the businesses numbered twenty. Throughout the period agricultural operations expanded and displaced much of the rural population. An upswing began in 1975, when milo and corn production increased. The town had become a bedroom community for the Dallas-Fort Worth area by 1980, when the population was 1,306. The town sponsors an Italian festival each June and supports the S. M. Dunlap Memorial Library. In 1990 the population was 1,699. In 2000 the population reached 1,993.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Edna Davis Hawkins, et al., History of Ellis County, Texas (Waco: Texian, 1972). Memorial and Biographical History of Ellis County (Chicago: Lewis, 1892; rpt., as Ellis County History, Fort Worth: Historical Publishers, 1972).

Article by: Texas Handbook Online