The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, October 15, 1999, Columns

Old Settlers Park in Round Rock may not be as famous as Central Park in New York City, and it may not even have the diversity of Austin's Zilker Park, but it is one of the best small-town parks in Central Texas and getting better all the time.

The park originally occupied the southwest corner of I-35 and FM 620 where the McDonald's restaurant and a shopping center now stand. For more than 80 years the tree-covered property served the Round Rock and the Old Settlers Association as a meeting place with an open tabernacle, baseball field, and lots of open space. By the late 1980s the association realized the commercial value of the 25-acre tract and sold out.

"I really miss the reunions at the old park," says Irene Michna, president of the Old Settlers Association of Williamson County. "The truth is the place was getting difficult for the old people to get to." By the time the organization sold the property to the developers, the land was rutted by heavy rains, and the tall weeds were out of the reach of most mowers.

With the money from the sale of the lot the association bought 111 acres of the old Palm Plantation east of town. The historical organization kept about 30 acres and donated the rest to the city, says Sharon Prete, director of Round Rock's parks department. "They got an upgrade of association facilities and formed a partnership to benefit the community," Prete says. The park covers 485 acres and is growing with city bond money, grants from Texas Parks and Wildlife and other donations.

The association owns a building with two meeting rooms and a RV park with 40 slips on front portion of the park along U.S. 79. The centerpiece of the organization's part of the park is the A.J. Palm Farmhouse that once was the homestead for the original settlers on the land and is being restored. The group also has added their collection of log cabins, the old store from Rice's Crossing, and the original barn. Michna says the log cabins were moved from the old park piece by piece and rebuilt at the new site.

The purpose of the Old Settlers Association is to "perpetuate the history of Williamson County," Michna says. Along with restoring and preserving pioneer buildings, the association awards scholarships to area students and schools.

The biggest event of the year is the 95-year-old Old Settlers Reunion held the first week of June. The name was changed to Old Settlers Celebration because too many people thought it was a closed affair. Quite the contrary, it is a celebration of the family, all families, and the music, food, stories, history lessons, and just plain fun go on for a week. "It is very close to our hearts," Michna says. At its peak the celebration attracted more than 10,000 guests.

Michna has been going to the Old Settlers gatherings all her life. Her great-grandfather was a founding member of the group originally called the Williamson County Confederate Soldiers Association. Members later changed the name to Old Settlers to include more of the families in the area. Family names familiar to long-time residents, such as Mayfield, Berkman, Whitlow, Moore, Condra, and Henna, still fill the membership rolls nearly 100 years later.

Round Rock residents have a long history of maintaining community parks. With the tremendous growth experienced by Williamson County in that last few years, it is the second-fastest growing county in the country, and the city parks department scrambles to keep up with the need for recreational space. Of the 40 properties owned by the city, 34 sites have been developed.

Old Settlers Park may not be the crown jewel of the city park system yet, but it is getting better all the time. The park has a 100-acre lake, playscapes, soccer fields, softball fields, picnic grounds, and a world-class disc golf course. Prete and Michna agree that the prettiest part of the park is in the wooded area along Chandler Creek behind the old barn.

Perhaps the star of Round Rock's parks is Memorial Park. Along a beautiful stretch of Brushy Creek on Lee Street east of the interstate and north of FM 620, the park was originally called Lions Park for the organization that maintained it. The ballfield and bleachers were cut out of the bluff in the 1930s by Work Projects Administration workers. Donated to the city in the 1970s, the park is the home of the Sam Bass Theater, the community theater group.

The Round Rock Parks Department's current major project is the construction of a new recreation center at Greenslopes Park on Gattis School Road. For information about the city parks or to reserve facilities, call 218-5540. The Round Rock Chamber of Commerce can be reached at 255-5805.

Old Settlers Park is 2.5 miles east of Round Rock on U.S. 79. The RV park and meeting rooms help the association pay for the upkeep of their portion of the park and maintenance of the historical buildings. For rental information, call 388-1733.

Coming up this weekend ...

The Round Rock Express minor league baseball team's new stadium is being built at the entrance to Old Settlers Park. Plans call for the city-owned facility to open for its first game in April 2000. Visitors will get their first look at the site since construction began last spring at an open house, noon-3pm, Oct.16. 255-2255.

Greek Festival at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in San Antonio celebrates the Greek traditions of food, song, and dancing, Oct. 15-17. 210/735-5051.

Heritage Day Festival in Llano on the courthouse lawn combines the Old West with live music, Oct. 16. 915/247-5354.

Coming up ...

Texas Jazz Festival in Corpus Christi fills the weekend and the waterfront with free music, Oct. 22-24. 361/883-4500.

Classic Folk Art Environments Tour presented by the Orange Show Foundation visits The Beer Can House, The Flower Man's House, and several other unusual art locations in or near Houston, Nov. 14. 713/926-6368.

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