Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   



Texas Trailblazers

Giving Birth to the Park System

Today, visitors to Mother Neff State Park in Central Texas enjoy picnicking, camping and hiking. More than 100 years ago, Isabella Neff and her family and friends enjoyed many of the same activities on this land.

Born in Virginia, Isabella Eleanor Shepherd married farmer Noah Neff at age 24. He had purchased a piece of Texas land, so three days after their wedding in 1854, the couple traveled here together by horse-drawn wagon. They eventually settled near the Leon River, where they planted cotton, built a log cabin and raised nine children. Isabella also taught area children and took in three orphans, earning her the nickname “Mother Neff.”

The Neff family picnicked on the shady riverbank with neighbors, swam and fished in the water, and occasionally hosted political rallies, family reunions, church events and other gatherings where visitors often camped overnight. Basically, the Neffs created a public park.

Isabella died in 1921 and left six acres of her riverfront property to the State of Texas so that people could continue to enjoy it.

No official state park system yet existed, but at the request of Pat Neff, Isabella’s youngest son and governor of Texas, the Legislature established the Texas State Parks Board in 1923 (it became the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1963). In the interim, the governor developed Neff Memorial Park on a total of 250 acres. In 1934, he donated it all to the state.

“Mother Neff is sometimes called the mother of Texas State Parks. Without Pat Neff, I don’t know if there would have been that push,” says Melissa Chadwick, park superintendent. “He was instrumental in getting the system started and in bringing the Civilian Conservation Corps to Texas.”

From 1934 to 1938, CCC Company 817 built roads, walking trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and an iconic stone viewing tower on the land. On Mother’s Day in 1938, about 1,000 people attended the Mother Neff State Park dedication ceremony.

The park now covers a total of 400 acres, taking in three ecoregions: limestone escarpment and canyons, Washita prairie and bottomland in the Leon River floodplain (river access is currently closed for restoration).

“There is some debate on who officially is the first, but we like to say that we are ‘one of the first’ state parks in the system,” Chadwick says.     

 Courtesy of the Texas Collection | Baylor University

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