The state parks department turns 75 years old this year and with it comes a 12-month celebration of special events designed to get the public into the parks.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TP&WD) got its start in 1923 when the state legislature created the State Parks Board to accept donations of land. The popular belief is that Mother Neff State Park on the Leon River south of Waco was the first state park. The state actually acquired several properties before Isabella Neff, mother of Gov. Pat Neff, donated six acres of land for public use.
In 1883, the state purchased the Alamo in San Antonio and 10 acres of land along the San Jacinto River where the Battle of San Jacinto took place in 1836. Maintenance of the properties was turned over to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT). Markers placed by the DRT between the 567-foot San Jacinto Monument shaft and the battleship Texas still tell the story of the battle that won Texas' independence from Mexico.
The San Jacinto battleground officially became a state park in 1907. In the next few years the state legislature began acquiring historical sites including Elizabeth Crockett's grave site, which is Texas' smallest park at .01 acre, and the burial sites of Texans at Monument Hill and James Fannin's men at Goliad and Washington-on-the-Brazos.
By 1927, the state had 24 state parks and historic sites totalling 1,858 acres - a far cry from the 123 state parks and 671,772 acres held by the state 71 years later. The first land purchase specifically for state parks occurred in 1932, when the state bought Longhorn Caverns south of Burnet. The latest was in 1988, when the state purchased the 215,000-acre Big Bend Ranch in Brewster County. That acquisition doubled the state's holdings to 433,365 acres at the time.
Paying for the vast network of parks and providing the public with adequate facilities has been a struggle from the beginning. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built 31 state parks including Bastrop State Park during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Entrance fees were initiated in 1968, and three years later a sales tax on cigarettes was dedicated to the state parks. With the decline of cigarette sales since 1983, the state added a tax on sporting equipment in 1993 to help shore up the falling revenues. By 1997, TP&WD estimated it had a backlog of $75 million in critical infrastructure repairs at the state parks.
Without the support of the state's general revenue fund, the parks department has turned to the private sector for help like it did when the DRT helped preserve important historical sites. The Parks and Wildlife Foundation of Texas helps raise funds for TP&WD projects. The recently organized Texans for State Parks is organizing volunteer groups to work at the parks.
Mother Neff State Park, outside of Moody, now encompasses 259 scenic acres. In the park are caves used by Native Americans, picnic areas, river fishing, and campsites (254/853-2389).
The Alamo in San Antonio is still operated by the DRT. The shrine opens Mon.-Sat, 9am-5:30pm, and Sun., 10am-6:30pm (210/225-1391).
The San Jacinto Monument and the battleship Texas park have picnic areas, museums, a snack bar, and an elevator to the top of the monument with a view of the surrounding area. The monument and battleship are open daily (281/479-2431).
Elizabeth Crockett's grave is in the Acton Cemetery north of Granbury. The grave is marked with a stone shaft capped by a statue of a pioneer woman searching the horizon. No facilities are available at the site.
Monument Hill State Park now includes the Kriesche brewery and homestead. A trail winds through the park with a grand view of the Colorado River and La Grange. The park is open for day use only, 8am-5pm with brewery tours on weekends at 2 and 3:30pm (409/968-5658).
The Fannin burial site is covered by a monument to the 342 men slain after they surrendered to the Mexican army. A re-enactment of the Battle of Coleto Creek will be held at the park on Mar. 21. Across the San Antonio River is the Goliad State Park that includes a 1722 Spanish mission. The park offers camping, fishing, and a swimming pool in the summer (512/645-3405).
Washington-on-the-Brazos, north of Brenham, was the site of the convention that declared independence from Mexico on Mar. 2, 1836. A new visitor center and other facilities include a full-service coffee and gift shop. Open for day use only daily 8am-5pm (409/878-2214).
No matter what the weather is like outside, it is cool in Longhorn Caverns. The CCC was responsible for much of the workmanship that still defines the park. No camping is allowed in the park, which opens daily 9am-5pm (512/756-6976).
Big Bend Ranch is one of the crown jewels of the state park system, but one that few Texans have seen because of its remoteness in West Texas on the bend of the Rio Grande between Lajitas and Presidio. The best way to see the park is on horseback during one of the trail rides Mar. 27-29, Apr. 3-5 and 17-19. Bus tours will be held Mar. 21. A spring photography workshop will be held at the park Mar. 31-Apr. 2 (915/229-3416).
The lost pines of Bastrop State Park east of Austin put you in an environment totally different than the Hill Country. The cabins, trails, and roads built by the CCC are still being used. The park plans a 75th anniversary party Apr. 22 (512/321-2101).
For more information on the state parks, visit their website at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us or call 800/792-1112. For overnight reservations at most state parks, call 389-8900.
Coming up this weekend...
Fountainwood Observatory at Southwestern University in Georgetown will be open Mar. 6, 7-9pm (Apr. 3 rain date). This will be the last chance to see Saturn until next fall. 512/863-1242.
Texas Polka Music Awards in El Campo pays ode to the music popularized by Czech and Polish citizens with a weekend of music, Mar. 13-14. 409/543-2713.
Wine and Food Pairing Seminar at Messina Hof Wine Cellars in Bryan helps you choose the food with wine instead of the other way around, Mar. 14. Saturday tours are at 11am, 12:30, 2:30 and 4pm. 409/778-9463
Texas State Railroad begin its 102nd year of service between Rusk and Palestine, Mar. 14. 800/442-8951.
Outdoor Seminars continue at REI, 9901 Capital of Texas Hwy. on Thursdays at 7pm with Mountaineering, Mar. 12 & 19; Volunteer Vacations, Mar. 26. 343-5550.