100 years on, chronicling the origin of Texas state parks
The renewal of a summer swim at Balmorhea. The awe of the night sky at a Davis Mountains campsite. The thrill of bison grazing the plains at Caprock Canyons.
They're all experiences available at state parks, which are among the glories of West Texas, and Texas as a whole. As the state-parks system marks its centennial, a new book chronicles its history. "Texas State Parks: The First 100 Years," from TCU Press, showcases the visionary Texans who birthed one of the state's most beloved institutions.
“Texas should have led all other states in ownership of state parks, especially in view of the fact that Texas was the only state that once owned title to all its lands. [But] Texas did not reserve one beauty spot or set aside any place to be used and enjoyed by the public.”
Those are the words of Governor Pat Neff, who, in 1923, created the state parks board. Texas's history as a republic had produced a singular situation – here, the state, not the federal government, owned public lands. But by the 1890s, nearly all of it — 172 million acres — had been sold on the cheap.
Neff wasn't willing to leave it there. An ardent Southern Baptist raised on a frontier ranch might seem an unlikely parks champion. But Neff's motivations ran deep.
George Bristol is the author of the new state parks history.
“First of all, he grew up in the country,” Bristol said of Neff, “and his mother was a great devotee of all things nature – the Leon River, the trees, etcetera — and she passed it on to all of her children.”
Bristol has himself been an actor in that history — a political consultant since the 1960s, he served on the National Park Foundation board, and has long worked to increase state park funding.
Neff's convictions were rooted in his upbringing — donated family land would become one of Texas's first parks, Mother Neff State Park. But broader forces were also at work. The National Park Service had been created in 1916, and its first director, Stephen Mather, encouraged governors, including Neff, to launch state park organizations.
And there was the impact of a new technology — the automobile. Surging car ownership was accompanied by a demand for improved roadways, and roadside parks. State parks could meet that demand.
Neff was a stern moralist — he was a Prohibition advocate — and his uncompromising attitude soon alienated state legislators. But public pressure — most importantly from women's clubs — ultimately had an effect.
“They finally figured out that they had to do something,” Bristol said, “so they set up a habit of the legislature that existed until a few years ago and that was — they passed the legislation setting it up, but then they didn't fund it, not a dime, except a little money for travel.”
The earliest parks were small roadside affairs. But even as funding lagged, Neff and his first parks-board chairman, David Colp, evolved a broader vision — of larger parks, preserved, in Neff's words, “just as the Great Architect of the Universe left them,” where Texans could connect with the natural world.
“Some of Pat Neff's most beautiful speeches were after he was out of office,” Bristol said. “He began to think of the position that, yes, you need to get people to come in and be part of it, but you had to preserve nature, and he became more of a preservationist than a conservationist.”
It would take federal investment during the Depression for Neff's hopes to begin to be realized. And Texas still ranks low in per-capita parklands. But a century ago, Neff laid the foundation for the parks we enjoy today.