The line of cars inches forward, allowing a slow trickle of visitors past the sandstone brick office. Eager families in minivans and sedans and outdoorsmen in powerful pickups accelerate gently as the car ahead passes through the gate, disappearing around a bend obscured by robust trees. Outside the heated vehicles, it is a brisk, clear Saturday in November – perfect for a day at Abilene State Park.
Hanging out around the office is Kim Vickers, patiently waiting for a van containing the rest of his family to arrive. In his hand he holds the windshield notice that will allow them access to the park – he’s already paid their entrance fee for them.
“We love camping,” he says, grinning slightly. “We’ve been camping here since my kids were very little.”
Most people in the rapidly growing queue of cars, however, are not here to camp. They are here for the Frontier Day event that is only hosted once a year.
“I’ve never heard of this event,” Vickers says, laughing. “Must be a pretty good event, though, because they’ve been packing them in ever since I came up here.”
Frontier Day was designed by the park to immerse visitors in the culture of the frontier, from the natives and the conquistadors to the soldiers once stationed at Fort Griffin and the settlers that moved in around the Abilene area. The event is held in early November, with the first day allotted for local schoolchildren to visit. Today, the park is open to the general public.
At the base of a hill, a few tents exhibit life and cuisine of the early settlers. The distinct woody aroma of campfires mingles with the acrid smoke of gunpowder – re-enactors dressed as gunslingers fire off over-loaded blanks, sending staccato cracks echoing through the woods behind them.
Several other tents have sprung up on the gentle rise in the northern area of the park. A buffalo hunter stands at his tent, explaining the early weaponry of the settlers. A woman at a teepee nearby adjusts a coyote pelt and other native symbols on a post. Further up the hill, soldiers teach children a sort of ball game while a pair of women demonstrate how to turn fibers into yarn at old wooden spinning wheels.
Park superintendent Rick Thompson stands behind the furthest table, explaining the era of the conquistadors to a group of families. He is dressed in the standard park ranger’s tan and green uniform with a brown vest, but instead of the traditional cowboy hat, he sports a metal helmet like those of the gold-hungry Spanish soldiers of the sixteenth century.
After completing the ancient history lesson, he moves on to more recent history – specifically, the history of Abilene State Park.
“The park’s been here since the early 1930s,” he says, adding that it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. “This was a product of that group of men that was going around the country building facilities like this.”
The CCC was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help combat the Great Depression. Like many of the CCC’s parks, the original buildings are made of sandstone and still exist today.
Among the structures built by the Corps is a swimming pool at the bottom of the hill. It’s normally open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thompson says, but this year it wasn’t open at all.
“It wasn’t open this last year because we had some repair issues,” he says, “but we expect to be up and running this coming summer.”
“We missed out on having the swimming pool open,” says volunteer Landon Cook, an August 2014 ACU graduate. “We get a lot of crowds for the swimming pool – probably a couple hundred people a day come in for the pool.”
But the swimming pool isn’t the only drained body of water in the area, he points out from behind another exhibit table. This table contains a variety of Comanche artifacts, including a flute, a ceremonial staff capped with antlers, a buffalo skull adorned with beads, and a large assortment of arrowheads and other thin stone tools.
“Our lake is completely empty right now, which is unfortunate,” he says. “We lost a lot of fish. A lot of people ask about the fish, which is unfortunate, because there used to be really good fishing.”
Despite the drought and the pool closure, though, Abilene State Park is still going strong. With the multitude of campsites and nature trails, all well maintained, the park draws about 60,000 visitors a year, Thompson says.
Most of those visitors probably can’t help sharing a sentiment with Kim Vickers, who has been one of those 60,000 for many years.
“This place is a wonderful, beautiful resource to be right here, this close to Abilene,” he says. “People need to learn about it. It’s a shame that it doesn’t get used more than it does.”