Grants began as a railroad camp in the 1880s, when three Canadian brothers were awarded a contract to build a section of the new Atlantic and Pacific Railroad through the region. The Grant brothers' camp was first called Grants Camp, then Grants Station, and finally Grants.
The town prospered as a result of railroad logging in the nearby Zuni Mountains, and served as a section point for the Atlantic and Pacific, which became part of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad empire. The Zuni Mountain Railroad short line had a roundhouse in town (near present day Exit 81 off Interstate 40) and housed workers in a small community named Breecetown. Timber from the Zuni Mountains was shipped to Albuquerque where a large sawmill converted the timber to wood products that were sold around the west.
After the decline of logging in the 1930s, Grants gained fame as the "carrot capital" of the United States. Agriculture was aided by the creation of Bluewater Reservoir, and the region's volcanic soils provided ideal conditions for farming. Grants also benefited from its location on U.S. Route 66, which brought tourists and travelers and the businesses that catered to them.
Perhaps the most memorable boom in the town's history occurred when Paddy Martinez, a Navajo shepherd, discovered uranium ore near Haystack Mesa, sparking a mining boom that lasted until the 1980s (see Uranium mining in New Mexico). The collapse of mining pulled the town into a depression, but the town has enjoyed a resurgence based on interest in tourism and the scenic beauty of the region.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 13.7 square miles (35.4 km²), all of it land. Grants is on the north end of the large and recent (youngest flows around 3,000 years old) lava field of El Malpais National Monument. To the northeast of town are the San Mateo Mountains and Mount Taylor, the highest peak in the region. West of the city is the Continental Divide and the Zuni Mountains, an eroded anticline with 2 billion year old precambrian granites and metamorphic rocks at its core. The region is primarily high desert country, dominated by sandstones and lava flows.
There were 3,202 households out of which 37.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 49.5% were married couples living together, 17.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 27.5% were non-families. 24.1% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.61 and the average family size was 3.06.
In the city the population was spread out with 28.8% under the age of 18, 9.3% from 18 to 24, 27.9% from 25 to 44, 21.7% from 45 to 64, and 12.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females there were 85.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 79.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $30,652, and the median income for a family was $33,464. Males had a median income of $31,870 versus $20,808 for females. The per capita income for the city was $14,053. About 19.4% of families and 21.9% of the population were below the poverty line, including 31.8% of those under age 18 and 11.1% of those age 65 or over.
Seven elementary schools, one mid school and two highschools serve Grants/Cibola County.
Los Alamitos Middle School and Grants High School serve Grants.
St. Teresa of Avila Catholic School is the only private accredited school in Grants and serves grades Pre-Kindergarten through Eighth Grades.
There is a branch of New Mexico State University. The branch offers a two-year postsecondary program as well as advanced degrees through distance education.