Who Was Mother Neff, And Why Does She Get A State Park?

I’ve often seen the road sign pointing to Mother Neff State Park as I drove on Interstate 35 south of Waco, Texas. Being curious, I’ve always wondered, “Who the heck is Mother Neff? Why does she get a park named for her?” I always meant to stop for a few minutes and see if I could find out, but never took the time.

A few weeks back, I decided to have an adventure and I took exit 315 (at Eddy, Texas) to find this state park. I decided to answer my question, because this park is in my neck of the woods –and I should know the answer.

As I drove along surrounded by corn fields, grain silos, and blue Texas skies, I began to wonder, “What in the heck are you doing, Shelly?” The road seemed to go on forever, finally passing through the town of Moody, and then more cornfields. I had no idea it was a thirty minute drive from the main highway to find this place. Then, I started seeing signs that there was a river nearby — lots of trees. Maybe this was worth the side trip?

Mother Neff State Park Lodge

Mother Neff State Park Lodge

It took me a few minutes to find the temporary park headquarters — the Leon River has risen beyond its banks several times in the last few years and threatened the park’s very existence, so the headquarters aren’t at the entrance of the park. My first question (after, “Do y’all have a restroom?”) was, “Who was Mother Neff?”

The very hospitable staff tried to tell me as much as they could, but frankly there isn’t a lot of history about her available. For the most part, Isabella Eleanor Sheppard Neff was just a very generous housewife. She and her husband, Noah, owned a lot of land in the area and they welcomed families and organizations (like The Woodmen of the World) to picnic and camp on their land near the river. Her claim to fame is that she was the mother of Pat Morris Neff. Among many other occupations, Pat Neff was the Governor of Texas from 1921-1925. Later, he was president of Baylor College, and you can view some images at their Texas Collection.

Why does she get a state park named after her? In her will, Isabella Neff specified that six acres be given to the public. Governor Pat Neff honored his mother’s wishes and generously donated an adjoining 250 acres. It became the first “official, non-historical state park” in Texas. From 1934-1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the stone buildings and pathways that are still in use there today.

The Water Tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps

The Water Tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps

pathways at Mother Neff State ParkIt’s a lovely little park, even though all the damage from past flooding hasn’t been cleared. There were delightful pathways, dappled with sunlight, that beckoned me to follow them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time for exploration. I’ll have to save those hiking trails for another day. If hiking appeals to you, this park has plenty of options. But remember that this is Texas, and you can expect snakes! Also, if you are allergic to cedar, this park is NOT the place for you — cedar trees are everywhere!

I did climb down to view the “Tonkawa Indian Cave” at the park. It’s said that when the CCC was excavating to build the steps to it, they found the earthly remains of three native American men. The remains were estimated at the time to be 200 years old. How they knew that these skeletal remains were of the Tonkawa tribe is a mystery to me, but the Tonkawa did frequent the area. Two were re-buried at a nearby cemetery, but one was entombed near the mouth of the cave. That tomb was vandalized many years ago, and I saw no signs of it.

Tonkawa Indian Cave at Mother Neff State Park

Tonkawa Indian Cave at Mother Neff State Park

Another view of the Tonkawa Cave

Another view of the Tonkawa Cave

I also thought it worthwhile to visit “The Wash Pond.” What a lovely sight it was! This natural basin is filled with spring water, and from the rainwater that washes along the prairie. Park administrators speculate that pioneer women came to this spring to get their water and that perhaps the Neff family used it as a swimming hole. It’s very peaceful there, and would have been a wonderful place to meditate.

The Wash Basin at Mother Neff State Park

The Wash Basin at Mother Neff State Park

The Wash Basin looks like a swimming hole to me!

The Wash Basin looks like a swimming hole to me!

For those who enjoy hiking, birdwatching, fishing in a river or camping Mother Neff State Park might be of interest to you. It’s not THE most interesting park in Texas, but for its size it is quite beautiful. You can camp there, if you enjoy primitive camping, (the floods have destroyed most of the “facilities” which means you get a Porta-Potty and there is no electricity). You need to contact the park to make reservations before your visit, however.

If I lived nearby, the Mother Neff State Park would be a welcome spot to just sit and ponder. I guess that Mother Neff deserves a state park named after her, just for her generosity.

View of the trees at Mother Neff

View of the trees at Mother Neff

Now I have a trivia question for YOU!

There is a famous American folk musician who has a very convoluted “connection” with this park. Hints: It’s a man … he was born about 1888 and died in 1949 … he could play the guitar … he is from Texas (and that’s all you get!). If you are the first to name him and describe the connection (just leave a comment on this post), I have a $15.00 Amazon gift certificate for you. You only have until Monday when I’ll post the answer and announce the winner. Thorne, you don’t get to enter, because I’ve already told you, but you can enter to win a $5.00 gift certificate in a random drawing. If you have a Twitter account, come follow me and “tweet” this post. I’ll have a random drawing on Monday from all the folks who did an @ tweet with a link to this post (if you tweet more than once, of course you get more than one entry).

  14 comments for “Who Was Mother Neff, And Why Does She Get A State Park?

  1. May 30, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Well, it took some time but I did find a musician (guitar player) who fits the time-line you gave. His name was Lead Belly — born Huddie William Ledbetter. He was an itinerant musician during that time. Although he most commonly played the twelve string, he could also play the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, concertina, and accordion. I haven’t found a connection for him to Mother Neff but I am thinking it has something to do with Blind Lemon Jefferson.

    Carol G.s last blog post..Only the GOOD Friday #6 ~ catalogues

  2. May 30, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    I got the connection :o) … In 1915, Lead Belly was sent to prison for “carrying a pistol”. He escaped from the chain gang he was on and took an assumed name in a nearby town. In 1918, for the second time he was back in prison, this time after killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman.

    “In 1925 he was pardoned and released, having served seven years, or virtually all of the minimum of his seven-to-35-year sentence, after writing a song appealing to Governor Pat Morris Neff for his freedom. Lead Belly had swayed Governor Neff by appealing to his strong religious values. That, in combination with good behavior (including entertaining by playing for the guards and fellow prisoners), was Lead Belly’s ticket out of jail. It was quite a testament to his persuasive powers, as Neff had run for governor on a pledge not to issue pardons (pardon by the governor was at that time the only recourse for prisoners, since in most Southern prisons there was no provision for parole). ”

    Thank you Wikipedia… I just didn’t read far enough the first time.

    Carol G.s last blog post..Only the GOOD Friday #6 ~ catalogues

  3. May 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Leadbelly? Really? What was his connection to the park?

    I didn’t realize he’d spent much time in Texas, I knew more about his prison years.

    Off to go tweet this now :).

    Robins last blog post..Across the Neighbor’s Patio

  4. May 31, 2009 at 1:59 am

    Well even if I can’t play, may I pleeez jump into that swimmin’ hole? It’s so beautiful, and I think our swamp cooler just broke. I’m on my way to Mother Neff’s…

    • May 31, 2009 at 8:11 am

      Swamp cooler? You live in a desert! Yep, that swimmin’ hole beckons, doesn’t it?

  5. May 31, 2009 at 6:39 am

    On my way down there to visit this beautiful park, I’d have to stop at Heitmiller’s Steak House off of I-35 near Waco and have me a T-bone.
    Carol G. used research! Here I sat and tried to think of every Texas musician I knew. I was thinkin’ Bob Wills or someone like that. That’s what I get for thinkin’ instead of lookin’ it up:-)
    Thanks for this visit to Mother Neff’s. Ibcidently, I used to drive a bulk milk truck for a guy named Larry Neff, really!

    Peace to all

    • May 31, 2009 at 8:12 am

      Never tried Heitmiller’s, but you wouldn’t have to twist my arm :grin:. Carol used Wikipedia—which isn’t really research, and can’t always be trusted. But, she must have done something before she hit Wikipedia. She was pretty darned quick with it.

  6. September 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I, too, have wondered who Mother Neff was and what she had done to get a state park named after her. Thanks for the great explanation and the beautiful pix!

    • September 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm

      Oh, you are welcome. The pictures don’t do it justice, though. You have to walk through the woods there to really know what it’s like.

      • September 30, 2010 at 5:18 pm

        Sadly, I’ve been unable to walk distances for years because of fractures in my heels. It is very painful to walk, especially down hill. 🙁

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