Built Sturdy, Left Fragile: State Parks After the New Deal
This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks:Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Cynthia Brandimarte: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. And thank you all for attending this session.
There are a lot of people to thank this morning. You’re going to have to read my paper in the proceedings and look at all those footnotes, otherwise that might take up most of my time. I would like to thank some of my colleagues that are here. Dennis Jareau, Bess Graham, Jennifer Carpenter, and Jim Steeley, who kind of started all this.
To bring the CCC to Texas, the state only had to do two things. One, to work with the National Park Service professionals to plan the parks. And second of all, to operate the parks once they were constructed.
As you can imagine, the first was a lot easier than the second to do. Fulfilling the state’s promise to maintain the parks once they were set up was daunting, indeed. The state parks board, which I don’t really have time to go into today, but it was a small organization not funded at all, and they relied largely upon donations.
But their plight, they inherited really a small empire of parks once NPS shut down its Austin office in June of 1942. This was not unlike the plight of a lot of state park systems at that same time.
A lack of funding, a lack of planning, a lack of knowledge about managing parks dogged state park systems across the U.S. And all these deficits were interconnected.
And we have to ask if the tremendous infusion of personnel, of labor, of funding through the New Deal programs, then the relatively sudden end of NPS assistance, was an optimal way to jump start the state park systems across the nation.
Probably not, yet they probably would not have happened in any other way.
This is the small empire of parks as it was under way in 1936.
State parks were enormously popular in Texas, even before they were finished. People flocked to them, beginning days of summer, to Labor Day, July 4th, to all sorts of reunions and family events.
A lot of times during World War II, state parks suffered from lack of visitation. This was not true in Texas at all. Of course, the rationing of various commodities, tires, gasoline among them, made it difficult to travel. But close destinations like state parks were often times the destinations of vacationers.
Coming in large numbers, many visitors did not know how to act. For example, in 1939, the Tyler celebrants of July 4th left a mess and the cartoonist decided that he needed to remind them of their manners.Often subject to the actions of feckless visitors, state parks were also vulnerable to powerful individuals who wanted to use the parks for their own purposes or purposes that the park was not intended to be used for.
I don’t mean the military use, sometimes the parks were used for training camps, sometimes they were used as troop staging areas or actually recreational areas. That wasn’t the problem.
The problem really came in after the CCC left, and there were a lot of empty dormitories around. So the very powerful Commissioner Baker of the Texas Board of Control said, “I’ve got an idea about what to do with these buildings. Let’s put all the mental patients from Austin, and let’s put them in these abandoned CCC dormitories up in Inks Lake,” which is about 40 miles northwest of Austin. And he thought he could actually save the state money, furthermore, with raising leases on Inks Lake State Park, he thought that he could actually make money. Well, no matter. That’s not what the land was acquired. That’s not what the purpose of the land. And the Texas legislature came through and did not fund any of the repairs of the dormitories. Not to mention that the mental and physically handicapped, it was not a good idea to put them at Longhorn Cavern.
Now, the legislature knew well enough that a state park system had to be funded, but they were new to the business. So they got a legislator by the name of W.R. Chambers to look around and assess in 1945 what this park system was actually about, what it consisted of. Well, Baker, although very conservative, proved to be a very conscientious examiner. He looked at the 40 or so parks that the Texas State Parks Board was operating, he said, “Some of these have no recreational value. Some of them have no scenic beauty, and some of them have no historical value.” He thought that some could be returned and that there needed to be no more state parks, that this was sufficient. And he famously said, “It takes more than a cow pasture or a mesquite-covered hill and an excited Chamber of Commerce to make a park a go.” Despite his decision not to grow the state park system, the legislature in 1949 moved nine historical parks to state parks board. Formerly they had been governor-appointed volunteers that helped maintain the historical properties.
Now, it really didn’t matter what Baker or the chambers or other legislators said, cause the Texans just wanted more state parks. They wanted more, and they wanted better.
After the CCC finished, many of the projects were left in limbo. For example, to this day Garner State Park visitors, enthusiasts, want the 26 cabins that were in the master plan, to be built. Only 14 were.
But wherever you went, they wanted the dam, they wanted the lake, they wanted what was in that master plan. Communities across Texas regarded plans for nearby parks, as assets that had been promised and not delivered. And they sometimes did not fully appreciate the wartime exigencies that had caused their disappointment.
Any description of the trajectory of mid-20th century state park history must be characterized as resembling a rollercoaster ride. Political winds were strong and legislative support for parks was weak. Texans’ expectations for their parks were high, and often times fulfillment was minimal. Levels of planning and park management, expertise and funding were at their lowest points.
Now, after NPS left, the legislature did fund, to the tune of $100,000, the state park system. And that’s probably why they got chambers in a few years later and said, “We don’t want to keep doing this, so let’s try to cull our inventory.” But in any case, the $100,000 sounds generous for 1942, 43. But in actuality there were over three dozen state parks. And the $100,000 was nickeled and dimed. $1200 could be spend on Goliad for example. $500 could be spent at Tyler. So the money that was parceled out in such small allocations was hardly enough.
They did give some money from the general revenue and what that went to is some small amounts of travel for the governor-appointed board members, the state parks board. They had a very small staff there in Austin, it also provided for some caretakers that were in far-flung parks all across the state.
But with NPS gone, the State Parks Board had to concentrate on how the heck it was going to fund these parks, because it was clear that legislation was not going to fund them adequately. They reached two concessionaires, and this was pretty common among other state park systems, but people complained quite early on, saying that some of the concession projects ran counter to the park aesthetics and park values.
But the parks board defended using the concessionaires, because they said they needed the money. They got 20 percent of whatever the concessionaire made. Concessionaires typically would do things like jukeboxes and pinball machines that broke, but there were some pretty wacky ideas: airplane rides, and my personal favorite is the sad monkey railroad at Palo Duro. It was named for a rock formation, sad monkey.
The parks board defended its concessions, but in truth, they really couldn’t survive with what came from general revenue plus the concessionaires. There was no planning, either. Without a stable source of funding, how can you plan, how can you anticipate personnel? There was a limit on how many people they could hire, what they could pay.
And there wasn’t any possibility of a plan. The legislators, surely, they might be able to quote chambers and say it takes more than a chamber of commerce and a hill to make a park function. But exactly what more, nobody knew.
Texas state parks suffered from the ignorance of park needs, which limited legislators, park board members and managers. No matter how well-intentioned they were.
One individual by the name of Frank Quinn served as the executive secretary, or the director of the State Parks Board. He was a paid employee, and about 1945, the writing was on the wall. There was no funding, there was no chance of funding. So he left, and became a car salesman, he had been trained in business. That was a certainly more lucrative profession.
But he stayed very, very active and at one point he became the president of the National Conference on State Parks. And he actually brought the national group to Bastrop in the early 1950s. While still a paid director, Quinn did something about training. He knew that the caretakers and concessionaires needed some hospitality training so he even borrowed some training information from the Statler hotel chain, and had hospitality training. Managing park operations was another thing that he did.
But some of the training manuals, training papers that came out of that training were just really remarkable. There’s a two-pager, and we like to show this at our two-week training now, and it says “what to do every day.”What to do in the morning, what to do in the evening, and what to do weekly and monthly. And that was the extent: who does what, when. And this is a joint training conference with NPS and Texas state parks.
So this is what the Texas state park system looked like, and this was who was operating it in 1940 on my far right, and in 1960.
The general state of affairs in the 1950s was very, very clear to Texans. If you look at the state park’s board records, which are at the Texas state library and archives, they are filled with complaint letters during the 1950s. But I’m gonna share just one of them for you, it’s a Michigan family who came down, and they went to Daingerfield. And they wrote a letter on the back of a couple of these photographs on my near right. And they said, “We couldn’t help it. We had to take these pictures. We love camping, and even when there are no toilets, but give me a break,” basically. You need to chop up the picnic table and the outhouse, and the grounds would look a lot better. And he said, “I sincerely hope that this is the only state park like it in Texas.”
The absence of an effective strategy for park maintenance and repairs, a lack of trained work force, and two little funds allocated over successive legislative sessions, compared with the revenues it gave to other good causes and agencies, meant that Daingerfield was hardly the only one like it in Texas.
Internal forces on the state parks were very powerful, but didn’t mean that they were immune to things like really high visitation after World War II, as payrolls increased and as numbers of Americans increased, and got on the road and visited parks. So it really mirrored what was going on in the national parks, where there was 22 million visits in 1946 and 54 million eight years later.
They weren’t immune to things like the polio epidemic, which they had to remind people, “It’s okay to come to our parks, to our lakes.” And there were droughts periodically throughout that gave state parks a spin.
Nor were state parks immune from the civil rights moment. And there are all sorts of stories, one that we quote often in Texas park history and that is Millard Fillmore Rutherford, who was probably pictured in the upper image building the Ft. Parker dam. And after the CCC left, he was in the service, served in World War II and came back, married and could not take his bride to see the very park that he had helped build. He was not allowed to enter.
So from the 1940s until the Civil Rights Act was passed under the presidency of LBJ, racial segregation was prevalent in parks and other public places in Texas. The State Parks Board had no policy, and they set about finding out what was going on in the parks, so they sent out a survey. And it learned that in the absence of a statewide policy, these discriminatory practices varied very greatly.
Some parks had not been visited by African-Americans at all, or so they reported. Some simply accommodated African-Americans with no fuss, still others welcome “Negroes” and refused others. So long as they remained apart, was the usual refrain. The Board bowed to pressures of some outspoken whites and they basically kicked the can down the road. They asked the legislature to fund a parallel park system for African-Americans. And there’s a great new book out, William O’Brien, “The Landscapes of Exclusion.”I urge you to get a copy of that book, it’s University of Massachusetts press, it’s in my bibliography.
So the board basically threw the hot potato of what to do. But it’s really quite clear. They wouldn’t even fund one state park system, so what are the chances that they’re gonna fund a parallel one for African-Americans? I don’t think so.
So by the mid-1950s, few of the parks were capable of accommodating additional visitors, whether African-Americans or whatever. And it was clear to most observers that expanded park accommodations, especially those overnight accommodations, were sorely needed. But how to provide them in the face of chronic underfunding was not known.
Now, Texas state parks had their own version of Mission 66, and it was dubbed Operation 10/70. Not really the ring that Mission 66 has. But this was an effort by the State Parks Board to lobby for additional funding. And guess what? It really went nowhere. They wanted to improve and augment some of the facilities … a lot of the facilities that are residues in Mission 66 and the national parks, we have some 1970s buildings that we did in-house and they’re even worse. They were not key architects working on them, trust me.
So in 1955, there was another scheme to fund overnight lodging at several parks, but the bonds went nowhere when interest rates skyrocketed. And the requirement for operating lodges was really set very high. But there was a boiling point, and it was coming. And it came in the form, I think, of a road, actually, that we talked about a little bit yesterday. Skyline Drive at Ft. Davis, at Davis Mountain State Park at Indian Lodge. State parks had a 99-year lease on that property with the proviso that it be taken care of. And so in the 60s, what happened is, Skyline Drive wasn’t maintained, so the lessor closed the park off. And he was supported by a court action. The standoff persisted until key legislators intervened on behalf of the State Parks Board in order to accomplish the needed maintenance.
And this very public drama did a lot for the park cause. But there were other movements afoot as well. The Texas Research League had hired Texas Tech to do a study on state parks. And like others before it, it regarded greater support for repair and maintenance to be key, to rely on professionals, not concessionaires, and acquire additional public lands, and to cull the current system.
When Governor Conley came into office, he and LBJ shared a passion for the outdoors. I’m really abbreviating this, but Conley thought that marrying two agencies, the Fish and Oyster and Wildlife Commission with the State Parks Board, would help a great deal to fund state parks, that they would benefit from conservation monies. And then later on, you have the Land and Water Conservation Plan was passed. And without that, without those two things, Texas state parks might never have written land and water recreation plan, and might never have been alive to fight another day.
I’ve rushed through this, and when I applied to give this paper, it was going to be this wonderfully comparative thing. But there are a lot of books about state parks, but they’re guide books, they’re not great histories. So there were state parks systems before the New Deal, but it’s primarily through the trajectory of state parks systems post-1945 that we’re most interested in.
I’ve focused on Texas, I’ve tried to be somewhat comparative but I hope I’m leaving enough time at the end here to involve the other 14 states that are represented at this conference. First I have to say that Texas is typical and atypical. Like in other states, there were passionate people about parks in Texas. In that way, it was typical. In other ways, it really was not typical. It had a long tradition of economic conservatism, it had more than a tinge of grandiosity, and it had unusual access to political power at the national level during the 1930s.
Some 56 parks were constructed during the CCC and during the New Deal, and 29 of them, it’s our privilege to manage today. And they form the core of the Texas state parks system. In some states, I’ve learned that CCC made much less impact. For example, in Idaho, the CCC primarily did fire suppression because of the spate of forest fires and wildfires that it had experienced.
Not all states’ legislatures embraced the federal funds. It took Texas a while to get there, but once they did they embraced the financial support wholeheartedly. That was not true in Oregon. Apparently there was some push back early on, the engineer Samuel Bordman agreed with critics who accused the CCC of prettifying nature when it needed to be preserved. He complained about the National Park Service planners, whom he accused of “liking to hang the garland on a crag, and festoon the stars and the moon.”
So they weren’t really welcomed with open arms.
Again, planning was minimal and this was pretty much shared throughout state parks that I have been able to research. The big exception, of course, we heard about yesterday: California. Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. Doing a plan for California in 1928.
For most states, strategic planning was not even happening. And what Freeman Tillman said about Texas is typical. “Texas may be taken as an example of what can happen when enthusiasm for a state park system is not coupled with a well-developed plan.”
Nevertheless, the fact remained that a few states went ahead and enacted park plans during the 40s and 50s. Basically, it took some very powerful individuals, powerful leaders in the conservation field, and a combination of these two to make the plans. Again, the exceptions are California and Iowa.
Lastly, in matters of racial integration, overnight accommodation and launching a successful program to renew and refurbish state parks during the late 1950s and 1960s, Texas shared with most other states slowness to act. The basic situation was that without a secure and stable funding stream, the state parks system could not really progress. It took the federal government, again, to pass the Land and Water Conservation Act, that gave state parks around the country a brief reprieve, in their never ending struggle to obtain funds after the New Deal.
Cynthia Brandimarte earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She worked with regional historical societies and museums throughout Texas, joining Texas State Parks (TPWD) first as Historian and later as Director of the Cultural Resources Program. She established the new graduate program in Public History at Texas State University and served as its first director until she returned to TPWD as Director of the Historic Sites and Structures Program. She is the author of two award-winning books, Inside Texas: Culture, Identity, and Houses, 1878-1920 and Texas State Parks and the CCC: the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Her articles on Texas history have appeared in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and Journal of Big Bend Studies and those on American culture in Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture on whose Editorial Board she currently serves.