THE PALO PINTO PROMISE
Newest state park offers a nature-filled getaway and economic boost in the ‘hill country of the north.'
Palo Pinto Mountains will soon be welcoming visitors to the newest state park in Texas.
Located near the tiny town of Strawn, 75 miles west of Fort Worth and 75 miles east of Abilene, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park encompasses rolling hills, a beautiful creek and a quiet lake surrounded by more than 4,800 acres of varied habitat that’s home to a diverse array of wildlife. Once the park is open, there will be backcountry trails to explore on foot or by horseback, shaded by stands of live oak, mesquite, cedar elm, native pecan and the “painted sticks” (junipers) that inspired Palo Pinto’s name. An accessible fishing dock will welcome anglers and paddlers. Dark skies will lure visitors from bright busy cities to serene campsites overlooking the tranquil waters of Tucker Lake.
While the area locals are looking forward to sharing what some call the “Hill Country of the North,” they are also eagerly anticipating what the new park could mean for their community and local economy.
THE PARK HAS been on the drawing board for more than a decade. With assistance from The Nature Conservancy of Texas, the land was purchased in 2011, using proceeds from the sale of undeveloped parkland at Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth. In 2019, the Texas Legislature provided funding for park development with the caveat that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation raise millions of dollars in private funds for all park facilities. The foundation is also managing construction of the park’s headquarters, pavilion and other facilities. The Texas Department of Transportation is building the park’s roads. Utility development began in 2022, and as the centennial of Texas State Parks unfolds in 2023, construction is in full swing.
No one is looking forward to the park opening more than Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Superintendent James Adams. He is overseeing the creation of the new park, which will be the first to open in North Texas in more than 20 years.
The sound of heavy construction equipment rumbling through the park, carving out roads and laying the groundwork for campsites and visitor facilities, is music to his ears. Adams knows there are tens of thousands of park lovers waiting for the gates to open.
“By the time this article is published, the utilities should be completed, and we’ll be gearing up to pave the roads and lay the foundations for park facilities,” Adams says. “We’re hoping to have a ‘soft’ opening later this year — we’re still figuring out what that will look like.”
Many nearby residents are also eagerly awaiting the park opening, including Strawn City Administrator Danny Miller and Strawn Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Hinkson. Hinkson’s family has ranched in Palo Pinto County for close to 170 years; Miller volunteers as president of Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Partners, dedicated to supporting the new park. The two men have known each other since eighth grade and recall boyhood adventures at Tucker Lake.
“We were out there a lot when we were kids,” Hinkson says. “At the time the lake was a private fishing club, and we’d pay a dollar to fish off the dock. In the springtime when the overflow came over the dam, we would slide down the spillway. That was our slip-and-slide, our water park. We’re looking forward to sharing this beautiful spot once the park opens.”
The two are hoping the upcoming park opening will spark economic development for Strawn. Hinkson was one of the ringleaders who got the town’s Chamber of Commerce off the ground in 2012.
“When the state announced they were going to build a park here, a few of us realized what a boon this could be for our little town,” Hinkson says. “So, we organized our first Chamber of Commerce to help promote area businesses and do what we can to attract more.”
Strawn’s best-known business is famous far and wide for enormous chicken-fried steaks. Mary’s Cafe has been attracting out-of-towners since 1986.
“We’re lucky we’ve got Mary’s Cafe, and that brings a lot of folks to Strawn,” Miller says. “She’s the main reason we’ve been on the map for the last couple of decades. The city is working with the chamber to encourage a business-friendly environment. Once the park opens and we have lots of new visitors, we hope new businesses will follow.”
In 2014, Miller helped mastermind the donation of 120 acres of city land around Tucker Lake to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to expand the footprint of the park. The gift deed stipulates that the park entrance will be in Strawn, ensuring that all park visitor traffic will be funneled through the town.
IN ADDITION TO PROVIDING recreational opportunities for future generations, the park will also preserve the stories of the area’s past inhabitants. The rolling hills in Palo Pinto County have been the backdrop for a vibrant history dating back thousands of years. Native Americans roamed here for centuries before settlers made their westward journey. The Comanche, Kickapoo, Wichita and Jumano tribes lived and hunted amid the region’s hills and waterways.
Descendants of many of the settlers are still in the area, like the Hinksons, with their family stories interwoven into the recent history of the region.
The area’s booms and busts have left their mark. Mining for coal in nearby Thurber began in the late 19th century, fueling the local economy and drawing workers from all over the world. As the demand for coal diminished, the industry sputtered out and the coal mines closed. The later discovery of oil opened up Ranger Field, fueling another economic boom. In fact, the first successful well at Ranger Field was drilled in 1915 on land that is now part of the new park.
“In the past 100 years, Strawn has been through several cycles of economic activity,” Hinkson says. “Up until the 1950s, it was a busy, thriving little town with lots of businesses. When we were in high school, most of the buildings downtown had businesses in them. But now we don’t even have a grocery store.”
Things are starting to pick up, however. A Dollar General opened up a few years ago, and a new daycare facility and a pharmacy recently opened, providing much-needed services for area families. A historic bed and breakfast, the Watson House, is another new addition to the town’s offerings.
“It’s been a privilege to bring the Watson House back to its former glory,” says Steven Cordrey, who bought the house in 2017 and lovingly restored it to welcome overnight guests. “It was built back in 1918 during the oil boom. We’re hoping the opening of the new park will be another boom for this area.”
A few miles away in Mingus, another business owner eagerly awaits the park’s opening. Jan Underwood’s great-grandparents immigrated to Texas from Italy at the turn of the 20th century and opened a grocery store in 1906. The building now houses Beneventi’s Italian Restaurant and the Mingus Job Accelerator, a nonprofit offering on-the-job training for adults with intellectual and developmental differences.
“We are so excited about the prospect of the park opening,” says Underwood. “The influx of tourism in the area is an opportunity for growth for nearby businesses. I hope to meet with park officials to discuss the possibility of training people with intellectual differences to work at Texas State Park sites.”
Parks officials estimate that 75,000 to 100,000 people will visit the new park annually, bringing much-needed tourism dollars with them.
“Texas A&M economic studies document the enormous impact a state park has on local communities,” Adams says. “The most recent report showed that Possum Kingdom State Park, with about 60,000 annual visitors, brought in more than $900,000 annually to the local economy. We’re optimistic that future visitors to Palo Pinto Mountains State Park will have a similar positive effect on Strawn and surrounding towns."
Longtime residents of the area are hopeful the new park will improve the quality of life for citizens.
“It will be a good addition to our community,” said Mary Tretter, owner of the famed Mary’s Cafe. “Supporting small businesses will help our tax base, and that will help our schools.”
At its peak in 1920, Strawn’s population was about 5,000 in a thriving town filled with businesses. A century later, the population is about 550. Hinkson and Miller hope the new park will spur a renaissance.
“It’s like priming the engine [of a car],” Miller says. “The park will bring new people. We see Palo Pinto Mountains State Park as priming the economic engine for Strawn.”
Hinkson agrees, noting that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“It’s going to take an influx of new people and investments to get things going,” he says. “We’re all looking for the opportunity to see Strawn thrive once again, with a boom that’s not going to bust anytime soon.”
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