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An Open Heart

From a mother’s love and a small plot of land, the state park system was born.

By Dana Joseph

In 1935, Mother Neff State Park was the site of a Mother’s Day celebration that would have made any mother feel like a duchess for the day. It was a Texas-style, pass-the-victuals-and-hug-your-mom day like no other. Ten thousand townspeople from Central Texas and the young me of Company 817 of the Civilian Conservation Corps gathered on the tree-shaded grounds of the Leon River for the event. The throngs listened to the music of the Baylor University Golden Wave Band and a black quartet from the CCC unit at Abilene State Park. At a groundbreaking ceremony for a new clubhouse, then-governor James Allred described the love of a mother as the “golden chord that binds the earth to God” and Mother Neff State Park as “a monument to the motherhood of all Texas.”

The words must have brought a tear to the eye and a smile to the lips of former Texas governor Pat Neff. As chairman of the State Parks Board, he had organized the Mother’s Day bash both to honor the CCC members for their work in the first Texas state parks and to honor motherhood itself.

Pat Neff had done his mother proud. The youngest son of the family, Pat Morris Neff had grown up to be a lawyer; Texas governor (1921-1925); Baylor University president; state parks board founder, member, and chairman; park superintendent; activist; and orator. He was also the consummate mama’s boy, devoted son of the consummate mother. Though she didn’t live long enough to see the dedication of her namesake park, Mother Neff had seen her son become governor. She had died in 1921, at the age of 91, in the Governor’s Mansion.

When Pat Neff established the Texas state parks system, he began with the seed land of six acres his beloved mother donated to the public. Paying homage to the woman everyone knew as Mother Neff was the driving force in his life. In a book dedication he elevated his mother to mythic proportions: “To her who passed for me through the martyrdom of motherhood — to her who guided with a steady hand my erring feet from childhood to manhood — to her who during all these years has lived the simple faith of a simple life, far removed from the world’s ignoble strife, the noblest and best woman in all the world because she is my mother.” One could add, “To her who gave Texas its first state park.”

Who was this woman who inspired her governor son’s florid prose and his intense devotion? Though posterity remembers her as Mother Neff, she began life in 1830 as Isabella Eleanor Shepherd. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, she became a schoolteacher there and was said to have enjoyed comfort, culture and congenial associations. Imagine the hardship she was signing up for when she married Noah Neff on October 26, 1854, and set off just days later for a new life on the Texas frontier.

The newlyweds made the long, arduous journey by carriage on roads that were little more than dirt trails. Just 24 and brave beyond her years, Isabella sat — more likely bounced violently — beside her new husband in that carriage for two months as they climbed the Appalachian Mountains, passed through the dense forests of the South and finally crossed into Texas on New Year’s Day 1855. The young couple made their way to Dallas, then traveled south to Central Texas. They stopped first in Belton, where they stayed for three months. The trip was finally over when they put down stakes along the headwaters of Horse Creek in Coryell County.

Near a watering hole that would come to be known as Neff Spring, Isabella and Noah built a little log cabin. The landscape was idyllic — bottomland covered with oak, elm, pecan, hackberry and cottonwood trees. But the area was far from a peaceful paradise. As the first settlers on the land, the young couple lived at the edge of civilization, enduring a dicey subsistence existence in a constant battle against the elements — and more. The Tonkawa Indians, a tribe that occasionally practiced ritual can nibalism, roamed the prairie near the settlements, hunting and fishing.

Despite the Indian presence and growing conditions that were less than ideal, Isabella and Noah raised both cotton and a family of 12 children, three of whom were adopted. Existing on inadequate rainfall, tough moral fiber and solid Baptist faith, they persisted in a transitional place and a changing time.

The Civil War would wound the nation, the railroad would come, the bison would be slaughtered, the Indians would be forced elsewhere, the frontier would push ever westward. Cotton farming in Central Texas would ultimately give way to cattle ranching. An extension of the legendary Chisholm Trail passed just east of the Neff farm. According to a history of Mother Neff State Park by Pat Neff’s secretary, thousands upon thousands of cattle were driven by the Neff homestead on the way to Kansas markets. “The dusty, thirsty cowboys always stopped for a drink from the spring and often for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, brewed on the back of Mother Neff’s stove, where it is said a pot of coffee simmered for more than 40 years.”

The legendary pot of coffee that was always ready for cowboys, neighbors and travelers was also said to come with potato pies and egg custards. But Isabella Neff opened more than her kitchen to others — she also invited people to use her land.

In 1882, when Pat was only 11, his father Noah died, leaving the 52-year-old Isabella alone to raise the family, manage the farm and make decisions about the land. During the 1880s, she opened a lovely spot on the Leon River for the entire community to use as a picnic ground and gathering place for church groups, families and lodges.

When the Woodmen of the World chapter in Whitson approached her in the early 1900s about paying for the use of her family’s land for their gatherings, she is said to have stated, “As long as the Woodmen maintain a lodge, the picnic grounds shall be free to them, and they shall be open to songfests, revival meetings and other meetings that have a moral and spiritual community uplift.”

Her outstretched hand and open heart earned Isabella Eleanor Shepherd Neff the name Mother Neff. Like all good mothers, she left a legacy of nurturing generosity. She also left a son who was determined to honor her by bequeathing that legacy of love to the state of Texas.

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