Mother Neff State Park—The Mother of the Texas State Park System

Written by Kay Boothe

November 11, 2021

The original gateway sign sits along the Leon River area of the park. credit: Catherine Parker

By Cathrine Parker

Along the Leon River in the rolling prairie of Central Texas, Mother Neff donated six acres of her land to be preserved for future generations. In 1921, her son, newly elected Governor Pat Morris Neff created the Mother Neff Memorial Park, making it the first state park in Texas.

The History of Mother Neff State Park

Before park aspirations, the Clovis people lived in the area 10,000 years ago. In the 1500s, the Spanish explorers met the Tonkawa people along the banks of the Leon River.

Though early in the 20th century, the newly formed National Park Service had an influx of touring cars at its park entrances. With new-found freedom, Americans climbed into their cars and headed for the hills and valleys to explore. Those places weren’t ready for cars full of people so the National Park Service urged the states to develop more state parks.

Before 1921, Texas didn’t have a park system. So Governor Neff capitalized on his mother’s gift. The Texas State Parks Board was born, with four men and three women. Soon after, they set out to solicit land and funds, traveling across the state in car caravans dedicated to that purpose.

The parks board was very successful in gathering donated land for a parks system in its infancy. Though it lacked funds to develop the land. So the parks languished until the Depression.

FDR and the CCC

Situated along the CCC hiking trail, the CCC table offers a place to sit and rest. credit: Catherine Parker

Newly elected U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to solve two major problems in the United States at the time—conservation and unemployment. The dust bowl was raging from improper agricultural practices, resulting in soil erosion. The U.S. forests were over-cut and needed replanting.

A whole generation of young men needed jobs and opportunity. So FDR created a work corps mirroring the military in the first few months of his presidency. With canvas tents for housing, issued uniforms and three square meals a day, young men arrived to park sites across the U.S. to work.

Find CCC work in the National Parks of course. Though a large chunk of Texas parks was built by the young men of the CCC. Described as just plain hard work, the CCC quarried stone, did concrete work and cleared land.

The Typical Day of CCC Company 817

At the end of 1934, CCC Company 817 arrived at Mother Neff. Their camp consisted of a mess hall, a recreation hall and canvas-sided tents for sleeping.

The bugle bought the camp to life at 6 a.m. and after dressing in their CCC uniforms, they headed to the mess hall. The rest of the morning, they worked until a lunch break for another meal. Work ended for the day at 4:45 followed by dinner.

When not working, the enlisted men could take classes to continue their educations or gain a skill like welding. On the weekends. some headed to neighboring McGregor or picked up a game of baseball, playing rival CCC companies.

Each enlistee earned $30 a month, with $25 sent home to help their families. The program was highly successful and continued until the outbreak of WWII.

The CCC Work at Mother Neff State Park

 The National Park Service’s architects oversaw the CCC state park projects across the U.S. Bringing their high standards for design and use of native materials, the new Texas State Parks benefited from the influx of infrastructure.

An original CCC building, the CCC cabin offers sleeping for eight. credit: Catherine Parker

For Mother Neff, native limestone, juniper and elm wood was fashioned into buildings that mirrored their surroundings. The CCC also employed local tradesmen to help with more complex building along with training the recruits.

Even decorative elements were crafted by the CCC like iron pieces, hinges or ornament iron trees, used to decorate the buildings. In addition to pavilions, park headquarters and camp grounds, the CCC built the water tower. Made of limestone, the round structure features an observation deck on top along with a decorative iron staircase climbing the side.

Unfortunately, several of the original CCC buildings were damaged in the 2007 flood and therefore inaccessible at the present.

The Flood of 2007

Much of Mother Neff State Park sits in the flood plain of the Leon River. In 2007, the latest flood submerged the part of the park, leaving the Mother Neff State Park shuttered for years.

With a damaged visitor center and camping loop, the park needed a massive redevelopment. Though in 2015, the park reopened with a new Visitor Center along with an interpretive area and native plant garden featuring seasonal wildflowers, water reclamation and native grasslands.

 Hiking in Mother Neff

 As a smaller park unit, the find 3.5 miles of hiking trails in the park. The Rock Tower Trail (.6 miles) offers a look at the CCC build water and observation tower, a must for any visit. The Wash Pond Trail (.5 miles) passes the small reflective pond and the CCC table.

Rumored to be home to a snake, Wash Pond is a popular destination at Mother Neff State Park. credit: Catherine Parker

Take the Cave Trail (.2 miles) to see the rock shelter cave used by the Tonkawa people. The Pond Trail (.6 miles) leads to the bird blind at the prairie pond. And just for the kids, the Playground Trail is .1 miles.

The Tonkawa People used the cave for shelter. credit: Catherine Parker

Camping in Mother Neff State Park

In addition to the Visitor Center a new camping loop was built in 2015. Campers find 20 sites with level pads equipped with water, sewer and 30/50 amp electricity at each site. Rounding out each campsite, find a picnic table, a lantern post and a fire pit with grate.

Located nearby, find a restroom with showers, including an ADA shower stall. Outside the building, sinks have been installed for washing dishes.

Climb all over an armadillo at the playscape. credit: Catherine Parker

Along the playground trail, kids run to two play scapes, steps from each other. Located next to the playgrounds, the day-use picnic tables can be found.

 

The CCC Cabin

Saved from the 2007 flood, the CCC Cabin offers sleeping for eight inside the cabin and space for eight more outside in tents. Find a furnished cabin with wood paneling on the interiors along with living room, dining room and a bathroom with a shower. The cabin offers four bedrooms, one king bedroom, one ADA full-sized bedroom and two rooms with two twin beds each.

The kitchen features appliances though lacks cookware and dishes. The CCC cabin also doesn’t include bed or bath linens. Though it’s outfitted with central heat and air along with some fans.

Those looking for a quiet and smaller Texas State Park, consider Mother Neff. It’s an easy hop from Interstate 35, and a comfortable drive from Austin and Waco.

Mother Neff State Park is located at 1921 Park Road 14, west of Moody in Coryell County.

 

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