As summer descends upon us and we feel the desire to travel and explore, let’s not forget one of the most easily accessible destinations we Texans can reach: our own Texas State Parks. One such park, with the honor of being called the first State Park of Texas, is very close to Waco and has historic ties to Waco and Baylor University. Mother Neff State Park, located in Coryell County along the Leon River, claims that title and is named after Isabella Neff, mother of former Governor of Texas and president of Baylor, Pat Neff.
Mother Neff donated about six acres of land (sources vary as to whether it was six acres or seven) with an eye toward a place for gatherings and other events. This land was beautiful and diverse with massive trees, bluffs, an Indian cave, and prairie land perfect for wildflowers. As Emma Morrill Shirley said (quoted in one of two Mother Neff State Park scrapbooks in the Pat Neff Collection), “There is no more typically Texas spot in all Texas than Mother Neff Park.”
Mother Neff insisted there be no fee for the use of the property and her wish was that the community make use of the land freely. And use it they did, with town meetings, picnics, political sessions, family reunions, prayer gatherings and camp meetings.
One of Pat Neff’s favorite events was the yearly chautauqua, the first one held July 5-12, 1925. In Neff’s words, the chautaqua was “a program of general information and inspiration.” Leaders in business, education, and religion came to speak to those who gathered during this time. Two of the talks Neff proposed for his first event were, “Triumphant Christianity in Texas,” and “The Public Educational System of Texas.” Neff’s fondness for these yearly events was widely known and anticipated.
After Isabella’s death in 1921, Neff donated the six acres to the state and named it Mother Neff Memorial Park. In 1934, Neff donated an additional 250 acres and the park became Mother Neff State Park, the first State Park in Texas. Mr. F.P. Smith also donated three acres to the park, bringing the total acreage of the park to 259 acres.
Neff realized that the park needed a lot of work to become the park he envisioned, so he turned to federal government programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, and had one unit of the Corps stationed by the park. The CCC, working at the park from 1934-1938, was responsible for many of the buildings and improvements on the park grounds. The clubhouse, park entrance, church, observation/water tower, and road system throughout the park are due to the Corps’ hard work.
On May 14, 1938 (Mother’s Day), the official Mother Neff State Park Dedication Ceremony took place. The Baylor University Golden Wave Band performed and Dr. J.M. Dawson gave the dedicatory address. Other state officials also attended and it was estimated that over 1,000 people came to the event.
More information on Mother Neff State Park resides in the Pat Neff collection housed in The Texas Collection at Baylor University, and in it are two scrapbooks dedicated to Mother Neff State Park. In their pages are photographs of Neff, Isabella, the park landscape, and animals that lived on the park land such as sheep, goats, and horses. Also contained in the scrapbooks are images of park buildings, Indian caves, and other features. We hope you’ll enjoy exploring these images in the Flickr slideshow at the end of this post.
One of the scrapbooks contains documents describing the park, correspondence and general statements about the park, birthday cards to Isabella Neff and, in particular, a poem. We urge you to take the poem’s advice:
To those who are traveling and pass this way, / I want you to stop and hear what we say. / The birds and the bees, and the squirrels when they bark, / All bid you come into the Mother Neff Park.
For more information on Mother Neff State Park, see :
The Mother Neff State Park home page,
The Handbook of Texas Online entry for Mother Neff State Park, or
the Pat Neff collection finding aid.
Alice W. CampbellJuly 10, 2013 at 8:42 pm
Great post! Love the pictures.
BennaJuly 11, 2013 at 7:42 am
Thank you! There are so many good photos it was hard to choose.