To Love the Beautiful: The Story of Texas State Parks
The Texas State Parks Board
David Colp, a San Antonio auto dealer who had managed several large highway projects, was named chairman of the six-member State Parks Board. Colp was to become the key figure in the establishment of a state park system in Texas. Neff also reached out to the women’s clubs, who had proved their ability to raise money and public support for the historic parks, by appointing three women to the board, two journalists and a south Texas rancher.
Neff and the board members went on barnstorming trips around the state to promote the wayside park idea and attract donations of beautiful spots for small parks. Following the wishes of his mother, Isabella, Neff and his family set an example by donating a small pecan grove along the Leon River that the family used for camp meetings as the heart of the future Mother Neff State Park near Moody. Eventually Neff would donate an additional 250 acres. He always sentimentally referred to Mother Neff as the first state park in Texas, although the historic parks had preceded it by many years.
Neff and the others soon discovered that they needed more than scenic spots. To create parks they needed roads, trails, bridges, hotels, sanitation, and maintenance—in other words, they needed money. But the State Parks Board was unfunded. The Board members served without pay and were authorized only to accept donations of land to be used as parks. They were not authorized to buy land or make any improvements for visitors.
Neither Mother Neff nor any of the other 23 sites donated to the state in the 1920s received any state funding to be developed for visitors, though a handful thrived under local management. In the meantime, commercial auto camps and motels filled the need for clean, comfortable lodgings for auto travelers. At decade’s end, the State Parks Board was a forgotten little agency without much to show for its existence.
Historic Parks in the 1920s
The historic parks under Board of Control management received some sprucing-up in the late 1920s. They were showcased at the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston, and more money was appropriated to get the parks ready for the Texas Centennial celebration in 1936. In addition, the Espiritu Santo ruins at Goliad were designated a state park.
Big Parks in the 1920s
As far as big, national park-style destinations went, local boosters made only limited progress in developing visitor facilities at several spots of extraordinary natural beauty. Big parks were proposed for the Davis Mountains, Big Bend, the Frio River, Palo Duro Canyon, and Caddo Lake. In 1927, the state approved the construction of a scenic highway in the Davis Mountains and reserved land for similar projects at Goose Island, Caddo Lake, and Palo Duro.
Wildlife Conservation in the 1920s
In addition to starting the State Parks Board, Pat Neff also rescued the Texas Game, Fish, & Oyster Commission from the near oblivion into which it had descended during World War I. Neff persuaded the legislature to restore the commission’s funding, dedicating the money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses for better law enforcement. With the increase in funding, the commission immediately raised the number of game wardens from a pathetic six to a more credible 45, and by decade’s end the department had 80 game and coastal wardens on duty. But with 254 counties in Texas, the department was still greatly understaffed.
Because of the automobile and better roads, sports hunting exploded in popularity in the 1920s. In 1925, Texas instituted the State Game Preserve system, allowing landowners to sell hunting privileges in exchange for actively managing their lands to protect game populations. The game preserve system drew national attention and proved wildly popular. By the 21st century, hunting leasing in Texas had become a lucrative business, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Texas landowners. Considering that almost all land in Texas was privately owned, the game preserve system may have been the most important step Texas ever took to preserve wildlife and habitat.
The legislature also restored the money from the state’s sale of sand and gravel for fish culture. By the end of the 1920s, six hatcheries were in operation, with the biggest success in the production of black bass and sunfish. In 1927, the department brought its first successful prosecution for stream pollution.
This note to David Colp about the efforts to get land for a park at Palo Duro Canyon gives much of the free-wheeling flavor of early Parks Board dealings.
The State Parks Board was not the only entity searching for ways to acquire parkland. In 1929, the city of Abilene donated 53 acres to the Boy Scouts for a permanent camp site. Eventually, the land was developed by the CCC and became Abilene State Park.
"Is a bear after you, Willie?" "No, but the game warden is." This 1929 playlet was just one of many publications that the Texas Game, Fish, & Oyster Commission produced to "pep up" young people about wildlife conservation.