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November - December 2008 Feature Park
Mother Neff State Park

One of Texas's Most Historic State Parks Drying Out, Welcoming Campers Again.

Mother Nature and Mother Neff State Park endure an uneasy truce.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
A popular attraction inside Mother Neff State
Park near Moody, Texas, is a rock shelter
where workers uncovered the remains of
three Native Americans during early 20th
century excavations.

In the case of the park, what makes for an idyllic setting for pitching a tent or grilling burgers beneath towering shade tree also means the scenic spot is prone to periodic flooding from the Leon River that courses along its western boundary. Such was the case late last year after an accumulated 18 inches of rain sent floodwaters surging downriver, inundating the state park and closing it for several months.

Mother Neff State Park, known as the first official state park in Texas, reopened for day use only in March after crews scraped layers of mud and silt from remaining park facilities and removed truckload after truckload of tree limbs and other debris from picnic areas and the riverside campground. This fall, the campground is open once again, though under mostly primitive conditions. There is still no electricity and the restrooms and showers are not yet back in operation.

But no matter. Park Superintendent Leah Huth says the campground is open and she is charging the $5 primitive camping rate until full services are restored. There is potable water at the park and the security light between the Recreation Hall and rock tabernacle illuminates most of the nearby 21 pecan bottomlands campsites. Each has a picnic table, fire ring, lantern post and waste-high grill. Persons 13 and older pay a $2 entry fee daily.

"If someone wants to come in a set up a pop-up or trailer, and spend a weekend hiking and fishing, they can do that," Huth says. "A lot of people prefer a smaller, more remote location and don’t want to be among hundreds of other campers. Mother Neff offers a bit slower pace than larger parks."

What that means is that once again what is arguably Texas' most historic state park is opening its gates to campers and day-trippers who wish to experience a slice of bucolic splendor seemingly not far removed from the halcyon days when the parkland belonged to the Neff family.

Mother Neff's donation of six family-owned acres along the Leon River in Coryell County in 1921 set the stage for her son Governor Pat Neff's crusade that led to the establishment of a state park system in 1923. Her legacy today spreads over 259 acres of pristine limestone hills, prairies, woods and Leon River bottomlands about 30 miles south of Waco near the town of Moody. Mother Neff State Park touts itself as Texas' first state park, though its inclusion in 1934 into the state park system was preceded by a number of other sites.

Historical nuances aside, the tree-shaded sanctuary built by the skilled hands of Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s represents one of the state's most alluring sanctuaries in the heart of the state. The park remains true to the Governor Neff's observation that: "Nothing is more conducive to the happiness of a people than to go where the bees hum, the birds sing, the breezes blow.... These places must be preserved, not only for the present, but for posterity."

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Mother Neff State Park's original rock
water tower built by the Civilian
Conservation Corps in the 1930s today
offers a tree-top view of the 259-acre
park just off Interstate 35 between
Temple and Waco.

For more than a century, Mother Neff has been a popular spot for family reunions, church gatherings, picnicking and, more recently, weddings. Excavations in 1935 revealed the area was also home to the Tonkawas, who left behind burial mounds and numerous artifacts. Isabella Neff arrived in Coryell County in 1854, herself a newlywed, who had traveled with husband Noah by carriage from Virginia to Texas. The family matriarch lived to be 91 years of age.

Much of park's appeal to brides, grooms and others are the rustic, rock and wood structures erected by CCC Company 817. From 1934 to 1938, the Depression era workers built a stone concession building (now utilized as a recreation hall), a large open-sided rock tabernacle and water/observation tower. A wood-frame tabernacle stands at the site of the original hip-roofed structure built by Pat Neff in a low pecan bottom on the family's original six acres. He officially deeded roughly 250 acres of land to the state for a park on, appropriately, Mother's Day 1934. Frank Smith deeded an additional three acres for the park, which opened in 1937.

The park's natural history, however, rivals its cultural past. Three ecological zones overlap within the park -- the rich bottomlands abut the limestone escarpment that merges with the upland prairies. Towering pecans, cottonwoods, sycamores and a variety of oaks cloak the river bottoms in a dark green canopy. The limestone hills, which define the edge of the Texas Hill Country, teem with white-tailed deer, roadrunners, armadillos and other wildlife inhabiting the cedar and oak ravines, and rock cliffs. The nearby prairies, being slowly converted to their native state by a series of controlled burns, beckon in spring with fields of waving grass and spring wildflowers like bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and evening primrose.

The park offers a 2.5 mile hiking trail that snakes its way from the river bottoms to a spring-fed area near an old Tonkawa Indian shelter and up to the Wash Pond, believed to have been used by Indians and pioneer women for washing clothes, and beyond to the prairie trailhead. The trail ends with a ridge loop that affords hikers a panoramic view of the valley below. Other popular activities include wildlife observation, riverbank fishing and camping.

While you're visiting Mother Neff State Park, you might want to stop off in Moody to see some of the Victorian homes and the 1881 Moody Drug Store, or head up to Gatesville to the Coryell Museum and Historical Center that includes a collection of more than 6,000 spurs.

Mother Neff State Park is located six miles west of Moody off FM 107. Take Texas Highway 236 for two miles to the park. It is one of 93 state parks and historic sites that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information visit the Mother Neff State Park web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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