This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Cynthia Brandimarte
And the story goes . . . During the New Deal era NPS design professionals worked with state and local architects and planners to build state parks. Spread across the nation, some 800 parks were “gifts” to states. But this standard narrative can hardly describe the post-New Deal history of state parks as one characterized by high quality or smooth progress. Although state governments had welcomed federal aid from various agencies to help build parks in or near communities desperately needing economic assistance, by the early 1940s they found themselves holding bundles of unfamiliar assets. Suddenly responsible for operating and maintaining park systems, they faced a host of problems. Taking Texas as a case in point, this paper examines twists and turns in the creation and preservation of state parks.
State parks were enormously popular before, during, and after World War II. Even when still under construction, the parks had large numbers of visitors. Limited by the rationing of gasoline, tires, and other commodities during and after the war, Americans who could take vacations wanted destinations near their homes, and this often meant state parks. After the war parks became locations for entire communities to welcome summer, enjoy food and music, celebrate important dates with family and friends, and compete in athletic contests. The drawback was that state parks were subjects of contention. During and after the war, much federal funding went to national defense, and state monies for park operations were not on par with the earlier federal dollars; communities frequently complained that “their” parks were unfinished or they demanded additional park amenities; politically powerful legislators and constituents fought to re-purpose park facilities in order to meet other state needs; African Americans were excluded from admission to state parks they had helped build during the New Deal; and some parks and historic sites were grandfathered into the park systems, which meant that they expanded helter-skelter. In addition, some parks built with federal aid were attractive only to small numbers of local residents, and this tended to undercut support for state parks more generally.
These were situations in which neophyte state park administrators found themselves after the NPS withdrew. Holding the proverbial bag were persons who knew little about maintaining park systems. Few members of state park boards, superintendents, and least of all state legislators, knew the “park business.” Board members tended to consist of prominent business figures with limited political capital. The boards inherited park systems before they could develop strategies for managing park systems and employing trained park professionals. Park superintendents were little more than concessionaires, and their training was on-the-job. Legislators were not always persons who had welcomed New Deal programs in their states and many regarded parks as additional burdens requiring funds. Consequently, funding for state parks tended to be woefully inadequate and within a few years of their creation many were in shabby condition. Perhaps no state park system exemplified these difficulties more than the Texas system.
Still, their use and popularity remained unabated.
Drawing from the experiences of state parks across the nation, this paper will discuss some of the early plot twists in the almost century-long narrative of how state parks are still striving to fulfill the promise of the 1930s.
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.