The Civilian Conservation Corps built the backbone of the Texas park system. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC worked on 31 state parks. In addition to these recreation areas, there were more than 30 other efforts that failed to be included in the state's inventory. Many of these parks are now administered by cities, or counties, or have just faded away.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in January 1933, millions of young Americans were out of work as the nation struggled with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. FDR's administration created an alphabet soup of federal agencies to help the citizens cope with the hardships. It wasn't until World War II that private enterprise began hiring back the unemployed.
The CCC was one of the first public work projects to get started; men were put to work four months after inauguration day. The Labor Department recruited young men from families on public assistance to work at backbreaking jobs for $30 per month; at least $25 of it was sent back to parents. The War Department organized the men, and for a time the assignments included military training. The departments of Agriculture and the Interior supervised the workday projects, according to James W. Steely, Texas' foremost authority on the CCC.
In his book published by the University of Texas Press, Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal, Steely follows the state park department through its formative years. The book is the most detailed picture of the events that created the nucleus of our current park system. A staff member of the Texas Historical Commission, Steely has been studying the CCC's contribution to the Texas landscape for more than a decade.
Public recreation areas are largely an American invention of the 20th century. By the early 1900s, Texas had acquired for the public trust a few major historical sites, such as the San Jacinto Battlefield, the Alamo, and graves of soldiers of the Texas Revolution.
First elected in 1921, Gov. Pat Neff promoted good roads and a series of public parks for travelers. His idea was to turn donated land into small roadside parks every 100 miles or so to accommodate intercity travelers. The first of these donations was his family's small camp-meeting grove on the Leon River south of Waco, which became Mother Neff Park.
By 1927, the first state park system included 23 sites. Only Big Spring, Kerrville, Buescher, and Tips continue as state parks today. (Although Mother Neff State Park was left to the "public service" in 1921, it was not transferred to the state until 1934.) When the CCC came to the state, the emphasis shifted to large parks. Neff's support for wayside parks faded, but his crusade for public areas continued through six years on the State Parks Board.
Steely has traveled around the state visiting former CCC sites. The young men's handiwork is still evident in many of the places, even if the area did not stay part of the state park system. In Central Texas there were several CCC projects not on the state park department's list.
Clifton City Park, a favorite fishing spot on the Bosque River, was one of the first areas in the state to secure a CCC camp. The state refused to accept the 80-acre park because of conflicting priorities with the New Deal bureaucrats. Off of FM219, there is still evidence of the early architecture of the CCC among the picnic and playgrounds.
Normangee City Park, north of Bryan on the Old San Antonio Road, was one of the first parks donated to the state. The small lake north of the town off FM3 on Running Creek was given to the state in 1933. Other than work on the earthen dam, recreation facilities were never fully developed. Being considered a state park until the 1950s, when it was returned to the city, probably saved the shores from being encircled by homes like other small reservoirs in the area.
Robinson City Park is one of the hidden jewels of Llano. On the banks of the Llano River, its 69 acres were donated to the state in 1927, but given back to the city in 1940. The site of cookoffs and family reunions, the park is popular for swimming and fishing and has a small campground. The area received little federal work other than the flood-control dam on the river.
Not all of the public works projects during the Depression went to establishing state parks. In Austin, improvements made at Zilker Park and City Park (Emma Long Municipal Park) are still evident. Crews also built municipal parks at White Rock Lake in Dallas, Lake Worth in Fort Worth, Franklin Fields in San Antonio, and Ascarate County Park in El Paso.
Steely's book gives the reader an intricate look at one of the biggest expansions of public property ever attempted. Besides the histories of state and local parks, the narrative includes an interesting timeline of the beginnings of Big Bend National Park. This book might contain more detail than the average reader wants about this active period in American history, but it does contain some interesting exploration prospects. For a quick look at the CCC in state parks on the Internet, go to http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/admin/ccc.htm.
Coming up this weekend ...
Yesterfest in Bastrop on the banks of the Colorado River turns Fisherman's Park into a playground of food and music, Apr. 24. 512/303-6283.
Fiesta San Fernando at Texas' oldest parish church in downtown San Antonio features music and food, Apr. 22-25. 210/227-1297.
Brazos River Festival in Waco celebrates the town's history as the largest cotton shipping point in the South with entertainment at Ft. Fisher Park, Apr. 24-25.
Germanfest in Muenster relives the community's heritage with sausage, polka music, and dancing, Apr. 23-25. 940/759-2227.
Coming up ...
Ace Reid Exhibit & Sale at the Hill Country Arts Foundation's Duncan-McAshan Gallery in Ingram will have 139 of Ace's cowboy cartoons on display Apr. 27-May 2. 830/367-5121.
White Shaman Tour at Seminole Canyon State Historic Park at Comstock hikes to the Pecos River canyon to see the pictographs. 888/525-9907.
413th in a Series. Collect them all.