MINEOLA — Mindlessly wandering through trails of the Sabine bottomlands, one could easily lose his or her way among the deep hardwood forest spanning nearly 3,000 acres of the Mineola Nature preserve.
Mayor Bo Whitus, a cheerleader of sorts for the preserve, admits it happened to him a few times.
“Just keep going east, and you’ll run into the road; go south, and you’ll run into the river,” Whitus said, steering an open-air, utility vehicle through a maze of birch trees and creek beds.
For the majority of the tour, Whitus traveled under the canopy of trees along the abandoned rail-bed trail and a dirt pathway known as the Old Tyler Highway.
There is Bigfoot Bridge, and sarcastic rumors that Sasquatch lives at the preserve, and Whitus’ pride: a 28,000-pound, 90-year-old steel bridge the city relocated with two back hoes to the preserve.
The pristine Mineola Nature Pre-serve, bordered by Texas Highway 64 and the Sabine River, is an escape to nature’s calm, where the chatter of animals replaces the sound of passing vehicles.
The city purchased the preserve’s 2,911 acres under the direction of then-Mayor Celia Boswell in 1998 from the Dallas-based W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation at $400 an acre. Mayor Whitus said the city bought it to satisfy requirements for infrastructure upgrades, including a water treatment facility.
“There was a lot of opposition to it … (when) dollars and cents come into play,” city councilwoman Pat Wood said. “That’s a lot of money.”
Whitus admits, he “was a major opponent of retaining” the property,
“We had to buy the property, but I thought it was foolish to continue to own the property,” Whitus said.
He thought the city could sell off what they had not used and reduce the multi-million dollar bond debt, created partially from the waste water treatment facility built there.
When the city bought the property, it still needed a new water tower and street repairs – “we need, we need, we need,” Mrs. Wood said.
However, “you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody now” who does not appreciate it, she said.
Whitus agreed and now is a major proponent of the preserve.
“I started looking at the space and thought this place is probably worth saving,” he said. “That was my epiphany: We need to focus on what we have.”
The nature preserve is one of the largest city-owned parks in Texas for towns of Mineola’s size, about 4,000 people.
“I’m not sure anybody knew what it was going to turn into,” Mrs. Wood said.
The preserve is open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset. Local and national organizations use the space for campouts, business retreats, outdoor learning and trail competitions.
The American Competitive Trail Horse Association will host an event at the preserve May 21. The city hosts its annual Nature Fest May 27 and 28.
While silence replaces speeding cars on the roadways, Mrs. Wood said the preserve is never “quiet.”
The preserve is home to more than 193 species of birds, butterflies, many snakes, deer, turtles, buffalo, longhorn cattle and a pristine wetlands environment.
The city even humorously named an alligator after a local man.
“I think people here still don’t truly understand what a wonderful thing we’ve got,” Mrs. Wood said. “It may be 10 years, but I just think it will be one of the jewels of Texas.”
While the preserve offers an abundance of economic opportunities and city growth, Wood said she wants the nature preserved for future generations.
Whitus said, “We’re going to try to keep it as pristine as possible,” save for 100 acres manicured for people. The rest of the 2,811 acres “belongs to the critters,” he said.
The preserve was constructed with matching grants from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and others and maintained by funding from the City of Mineola. Ozarka Brand Natural Spring Water pledged $100,000 to support the construction of the education aquatic loop and the two-acre Pullen Pond visitors see when they enter the preserve.
However, the acreage is still a work in progress.
The entire preserve is turning into an unstoppable, community-wide movement with volunteers spanning across the region including local engineers, lumber yards, beekeepers, master gardeners and youth organizations.
“This place has endless possibilities,” said Lori Shipman, who has worked on the preserve since 2003. “You just have to have an appreciation for nature.”
As people leave the city for a taste of rural life, she said the countryside is being taken over with houses and developments
“Anyone who goes there and can’t see the natural beauty of this nature resource that we’re protecting, they just don’t have an understanding of what its future means,” she said.
The preserve lends itself to opportunities for picnics, family gatherings, weddings, Dutch oven cook-offs, fishing lessons, horse riding and more.
“Where else can you go and find 3,000 virtually unspoiled acres of land?” Mrs. Wood said. “I think it’s our endowment for the city.”
Published April 11
Tyler Morning Telegraph