People have lived near the Leon River for thousands of years. The rich land attracted Native Americans who hunted wild animals and gathered plants to survive. Evidence of camps, tool making and daily life is common. The Clovis people lived near here about 9,800 years ago.
In the 1500s, Spanish explorers met the Tonkawa people in this area. Settlers in the early 1800s wrote about the Tonkawa living along the Leon River. More settlers arrived, and eventually they displaced the Native Americans.
Shall We Gather at the River?
Noah and Isabel Neff from Virginia purchased 900 acres here in 1852, including all of what is now Mother Neff State Park. Their log home was ½ mile north of the park. The youngest of their nine children, Pat Neff, later became the governor of Texas.
Isabella Neff was well known and respected in the community. Her friends and neighbors called her Mother Neff. She often invited neighbors and friends to gather along the river.
The Neff family and their neighbors loved to picnic, swim and fish from the shady banks and grassy groves along the Leon River. Occasionally community groups would ask the Neffs for use of the riverbank area. Political rallies, family reunions, church events and other gatherings attracted visitors from miles around. Many visitors camped overnight. Mother Neff and her family refused payment for use of their special place.
Mother Neff’s legacy
In 1921, Isabella Neff died. In her will, she donated six acres of her favorite spot to the State of Texas for a park. Since there was no official state park system, son Pat took charge. He developed Neff Memorial Park with campgrounds, picnic spots and walking trails.
After the State Parks Board became official in 1923, it began accepting private land into the state system. In 1934, Gov. Neff donated the family park, totaling 250 acres, to the state. His neighbor Frank Smith donated 3.5 acres. Mother Neff State Park officially opened in 1937.
Building Mother Neff
Civilian Conservation Corps
Imagine yourself with little food, less money and no job. This was the case for many Americans during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. The CCC provided jobs and job skills by hiring young men to work on conservation projects. The program enrolled men between the ages of 17 and 25, who were given housing and earned clothing, food, medical care and $30 a month - they sent most of their pay home to their families.
The CCC built over 30 parks for Texas. Each park had a specific look inspired by its setting. The CCC used natural materials for rustic cottages, picnic shelters and other structures that blended into the surroundings.
CCC at Mother Neff
Civilian Conservation Corps Company 817, with over 200 men, worked at the Mother Neff park site from 1934 to 1938. They first lived in large tents and later in prefabricated buildings called barracks. The Corpsmen constructed park roads, walking trails, picnic areas and campgrounds.
They used materials from the park property and close by to build park structures. Limestone made strong foundations and attractive walls. Lumber and timber from many species of trees added a natural appearance. A pavilion, recreation hall, concession hall and other structures came later. They also built a beautiful stone water tower with an observation deck overlooking the valley. Designers, architects and skilled craftsmen (called Local Experienced Men, or LEMs) worked alongside the young men, teaching them valuable skills.
High Water in the Park
Heavy seasonal rain and human impact have caused the Leon River to flood many times. CCC park planners worked to protect the park’s buildings from floodwaters. The CCC built a riverside campground as high above water as possible. The Recreation Hall sits on a mound built up by the CCC workers. Despite these efforts, severe flooding has closed the park several times over the years for major repairs.
To reduce the impact of flooding, the park recently underwent major reconstruction. The new Park Headquarters and Visitor Center opened in January 2015. The buildings purposely echo the natural appearance of the historic structures in Mother Neff State Park.
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