Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Deal Legacy of Roadside Parks in Texas

 Hundreds of roadside parks were built in Texas by the National Youth Administration during the years of the New Deal Administration. The above markers commemorate the site of a former roadside park in Newcastle, Texas, next to the Newcastle Lake.  As a child, I had many a picnic at the site, which was constructed of locally quarried stone--simple tables and benches with a concrete slab top.  Of course, then I had no idea of the significance of those parks, which were a common feature along the highways of Texas.  I have no idea how many times my family and I stopped and used them, nor how many I might have stopped at as an adult.  I do not recall the exact year the Newcastle park was demolished, but I do remember the pang in my heart the first time I drove by and saw the tables gone.

Unfortunately, that was the outcome of all but 41 of the 674 roadside parks built by the NYA.  Nine of the remaining 41 are in Jeff Davis county, near Ft. Davis in far west Texas.  Lyndon Baines Johnson was the first director of the Texas branch of the NYA from 1935-37, during which time the first 200 of the parks were constructed in anticipation of the tourists to Texas for the 1936 Centennial Celebration.
 The original purpose of the parks was
...to provide cool shade alongside tortuous highways navigated by Depression-era cars without air conditioning. (Barnes, 2011)
While "tortuous highways" seems a bit of an exaggeration, certainly there were parts of Texas that did have long stretches of highway and in the hot summers, a roadside park was a welcome pit stop for a bit of shade and rest.  During the Depression, as well as later, travelers would pack picnic lunches and cool drinks in an ice chest for those rest stops.  Many had stiles to allow a traveler to cross the fence for a literal "pit stop" in a neighboring field or pasture.  While that might seem odd now, there were no convenience stores, McDonald's, or other readily available alternatives for either food or restroom options.  Many of the few stations available prohibited non-paying customers from using restrooms, and they were certainly not present along rural stretches of road.
 The NYA worked in cooperation with the Texas Highway Department and THD planner Jac Gubbels to construct the parks (Cushman, 2000).  Gubbels was a landscape architect, born in the Netherlands, but who traveled to the US and subsequently, to Texas, seeking work.
The Texas Highway Department constructed the first 200 parks for the Centennial commemoration in 1936, and marked those parks with a granite monument emblazoned with the Texas star.  These were placed in parks that were developed near significant historic sites, such as forts, stagecoach routes, and other places of interest tourists might visit.
The Newcastle park was constructed near Fort Belknap, which was also reconstructed and repaired with funds from the New Deal administration programs.

Sources: A Guide to Depression Era Roadside Parks in Texas. (June 1999). Environmental Affairs Division, Texas Department of Transportation.
Barnes, M. (April 17, 2011). The state's first roadside park awaits a mantle of flowers. Austin-American Statesman. Digital edition at statesman.com
Cushman, G. T. (2000). Environmental therapy for soil and social erosion: Landscape architecture and Depression-era highway construction in Texas.  In Michel Conan (ed.) Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture, Volume 22. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.
Hendrickson, Jr., K. E. National Youth Administration. Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association.
Steely, J. W. (1999). Parks for Texas: Enduring landscapes of the New Deal. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Williams, J. (2011). State's historic roadside parks, rest areas still serve a purpose. Temple Daily Telegram. Retrieved from Milam County Historical Commission at  http://www.milamcountyhistoricalcommission.org/newspaper_087.php


Lana Pugh said...

When we were traveling to Houston to see my mother in law while she was sick we would cut down through the country at Shreveport and down through the backwoods of Texas. There was one of those roadside parks along the way and I always tried to get the Hubby to stop and look. Neat post!

Suzassippi said...

Thanks, Lana. There are many of them throughout the "stomping grounds" that I traveled in Texas, and I stopped at a whole lot of them, and danced on a few of the tables. :) Ever since I found the list of the remaining 41, I have planned to try to get those that are close to my home base when I am there, and Ft. Davis is on my list for sometime in my life before I die.

Lana Pugh said...

According to my husband there was an old roadside park on hwy 45 between Columbus and Brooksville but it's gone. There is one small one on hwy 16 between Scooba and DeKalb. I don't remember seeing any tables left, just the loop where you could pull over and park. It definitely doesn't have the plaques that yours has above.

Suzassippi said...

I am not certain which other states may have used New Deal programs to build roadside parks. That is an interesting question, so I will have to see if I can find out.

Beth said...

Sigh! I remember many a "pit stop" at road side parks. So sad to see so many of them going away, especially in Louisiana. There was one along I-10 between Columbus and Katy that recently disappeared. It was in the middle of the interstate, nestled down in a little hollow.