By STEVE KNIGHT
WECHES — What Mission Tejas State Park lacks in size and amenities it certainly makes up for in history.
Located on the El Camino Real, Texas Highway 21, between Alto and Crockett, the 363-acre park sits at Ground Zero of the Caddo Indians’ and Spain’s role in Texas’ history.
The park includes a portion of the original footpath and the main road of the El Camino Real or the Old San Antonio Road. The road is best known for its use by Spanish priests coming to East Texas, but there is little doubt it was probably blazed by the Caddo Indians that had been in the area a thousand years before Europeans arrive. It later became a route into Texas for settlers.
“It goes back who knows when,” said Gary Coker, manager at Mission Tejas.
Coker said one of the earliest Anglos known to travel the road was Moses Austin, father of Stephen F. Austin. Moses Austin reportedly came through the area looking for areas to settle. However, he died after his return to Missouri and never returned to Texas. Settlement and ultimately Texas’ beginning, as history has shown, was left to his son.
The site was reportedly discovered by a group working together, including the late Dr. Albert Woldert, a Tyler physician and historian who was also part of a team credited with finding the nearby Santísimo Nombre de María. They placed the original site of Mission San Francisco de los Tejas based on a 17th Century Spanish cannon found in the area.
The park site was developed by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 888 and presented to the Texas Forest Service, which operated it as Mission State Forest. In 1957 TFS turned the property over to the Texas State Parks Board, the predecessor of the current day Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Among the CCC-built projects remaining is a 20th Century interpretation of the mission that is probably more like what country churches of the 1930s looked like. The original mission was less than a mile from the park headquarters, and Coker said it is believed the floor stones for the reconstructed building may have come from there.
The only other project remaining is a unique outdoor bathing system built alongside a nature trail that is still in use today.
Gone from the landscape is a massive wooden fire tower constructed while the CCC worked to reforest the area.
Another unique attraction that came to the park well after the CCC was gone is the Rice Family Log Home. Believed to be one of the oldest remaining structures in Houston County, work on the home was first started in 1828, eight years before the battle at the Alamo and just three years after Austin’s original Old Three Hundred settled in the state.
Originally located six miles east of Crockett, it served not only as the Rice family home, but also a way station for those traveling the El Camino Real. It was moved to the park in the 1970s and refurbished.
“It has a dog run (porch) and a saddlebag (two rooms separated by a chimney). A lot of houses have a dog run or a saddlebag. This is one of the few with both,” Coker said.
The visitation is a mix of those just wanting a place to camp and others who are exploring Texas’ history. A registration book in the book showed recent visitors from as far away as Australia. Because of its ties to Spain, the park has also drawn visitors from the Spanish Consulate’s office. The parks history is also a popular attraction for area school and home-schooled youth.
For those who come just to enjoy a weekend under the pines, park activities include a playground and small fishing pond, interpretive programs and an extensive system of trails. However, some of the trails, including Cemetery Hill and Olen Matchett, aren’t for the feint at heart. Both include a walk down into a surprisingly steep ravine and back up.
Attendance at the park is up this spring because the Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area is closed in the adjacent national forest (which are closed because of the danger of falling dead trees).
Day entrance fee to the park is just $2. Nearby is the Caddoan Mounds State Historical Site, a former state park. Admission there is $4.
Visitors to Mission Tejas should start the trip at least in Alto and be prepared to pull off the road to read the multiple historical markers and to learn about the Pepper Tree, believed planted in 1848 and found by highway department workers in 1929 while paving the modern-day El Camino Real.