To Love the Beautiful: The Story of Texas State Parks
"So Would Hell"
Texas State Parks Board, 1954. Left to right: Wendell Mayes, Raymond L. Dillard, L.A. Nordan, Frank D. Quinn (chairman), Maurice E. Turner, and Lonnie C. Fuller (vice-chairman).
Photographs, State Parks Board, Texas Parks & Wildlife Administrative Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
An old Texas joke recounts the arrival of a new settler in West Texas who admires the grasslands and notes, “This would be a fine country if it only had water.” A grizzled farmer packing up his things to leave his bankrupt land replies, “So would Hell.”
Texas was a land known for its repeated dry spells, but it had never seen anything like the drought of the 1950s. From 1950 to 1957, Texas baked under the most severe drought in recorded history. The total rainfall was off by 40%, and excessive high summer temperatures made the situation that much worse. In one year, 1952, Lubbock did not record even a trace of rain for the entire year.
The drought devastated Texas agriculture and greatly affected lakes and reservoirs. For example, Lake Dallas fell to an astounding 11% of capacity. Most of the state was under strict water rationing, and many cities had to truck in drinking water from Oklahoma. The High Plains endured dust storms for the first time since the Dust Bowl era. By the time the drought ended (typically, with a devastating flood), all but ten of Texas’s 254 counties had been declared federal disaster areas.
The drought, coupled with damage from Hurricane Carla in 1961, wrought serious damage to the value of Texas state parks. At the same time, the parks were facing a great onslaught of visitors, fueled by the construction of the interstate highway system and a higher standard of living that made vacations much more available to middle-class Americans. Suddenly, facilities that had met the needs of the traveling public in the 1930s were looking shopworn and inadequate. Legislative appropriations and revenue from park concessions did not come close to meeting the expenses for staffing and ongoing maintenance of the Texas state parks, let alone repairs and upgrades.
In spite of the lean times for state parks in the 1950s, a few new parks were added to the system, including the unique dunes of Monahans Sandhills near Odessa. The park received key support after Roy Bedicheck wrote a magical description of its stark beauty in his classic Adventures with a Texas Naturalist (1947).
Report on Monahans Sands, February 1953. Acquisition and development files, Monahans Sandhills State Park, Texas State Parks Board Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
Wildlife Conservation in the 1950's
Confiscated deer, early 1950s.
Photographs, Game warden activities, Administrative files, Texas Parks & Wildlife administrative records and other materials, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
In spite of the drought, the 1950's saw a rising tide in the popularity of hunting, fishing, and recreational enjoyment of the outdoors. By the end of the decade, the Game & Fish Commission (the word “Oyster” was dropped from the title in 1951) was selling an astounding 450,000 hunting licenses and 850,000 fishing licenses annually. Hunting and fishing generated more than $165 million of economic activity each year.
The 1950's were one of the most intense periods in law enforcement for the game wardens. About 210 game wardens patrolled the state, with over half of them now graduates of a professional training program at Texas A&M. Social changes, such as new stock laws and the end of the rural school system, were marking the end of the frontier way of life for good. The backwoods subsistence hunters did not go without a fight, and for a while the number of deer killed approached the days of the old hide trade. The “East Texas Game War” was rough while it lasted. The wardens would recall the need to defend the deer population “day and night. ”
The drought caused the temporary shutdown of fish hatchery work but laid the groundwork for the later boom in fishing. The realization that Texas had an unreliable and outdated water supply led to the planning of extensive new reservoirs that would be constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Today Texas has more surface areas of lake than any state except Minnesota.
A diverse group of Texans fishing at Rollover Pass on Bolivar Peninsula, May 12, 1958. A mere 1900 feet wide, Rollover had been once used by smugglers to “roll over” barrels of whiskey or other contraband from seagoing vessels to motorboats waiting in the bay. Controversial dredging by the Game & Fish Commission in the 1950s to improve fishing caused erosion of beach property and necessitated a costly reconstruction. Rollover Pass did become renowned as a great fishing spot, but marine biologists determined that the fish passes had no impact on the overall fish population.
Rollover Pass project photographs, Texas Game & Fish Commission Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
In addition, the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Act dedicated a tax on sports fishing equipment such as rods, reels, and lures to fund fish research and restoration. Explicitly modeled on the hugely successful Pittman-Robertson Act, Dingell-Johnson would have equally far-reaching impact in building or restoring more than 1200 fishing venues and paying for launching facilities, biological research, and stocking programs.
Texas expanded its wildlife management program to include nine areas, and federal money continued to allow Texas to implement scientific game management. On the coast, the Game & Fish Commission constructed fish passes and artificial reefs.
The drought led the city of Cisco to rethink the practice of supplying free water to the state fish hatchery. The dispute between the Game & Fish Commission and the Cisco City Council divided the town and led to name calling, threats of violence, and a complete cutoff of water to the hatchery, which eventually closed down.
As the civil rights movement gathered steam, Texas officials proposed to create a "separate but equal" state park system for African Americans. Bill Collins, executive secretary of the State Parks Board, would note a few years later, "The subject of segregation and desegregation can really make a problem at times. I can't say what the future will hold for us."
In 1957, a group of concerned citizens formed the Texas State Parks Development Association to educate both the public and the legislature on the value of state parks, especially the potential economic boon from tourism.
In 1949, the legislature began the transfer of all historic parks to the State Parks Board. Fannin State Park was still under the domain of the Board of Control when park commissioners prepared this report on the deteriorating condition of the park.
The federal Dingell-Johnson Act provided the funding for the Texas Game & Fish Commission to manage and conserve the state's marine resources. This report on the South Bay in Cameron County illustrates the progress made in understanding this ecosystem during the 1950s.
The Game & Fish Commission came under considerable attack for its spending on fish passes from taxpayer watchdog groups.