An early history of the land
For thousands of years, the Katy prairie was home to Native Americans and longhorns, deer, wolves, ducks and geese, and in the winter, visiting buffalo. If you leave the park and go west down Kingsland Boulevard to the end of the road, you will cross a creek. This creek, historians say, has been around for 18,000 years. It looks very different today, and depending on the rainfall sometimes even runs dry, but it remains a link to the people of the past.
At some point, either Native Americans or early Spanish explorers planted tall cane in the creek. When the settlers began to arrive in the 1800s, they thought the tall cane looked like an island in a prairie ocean. They called the place Cane Island.
It was at the start of the 20th century that everything began to change. It began with the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) railroad that laid tracks through Cane Island. Trains brought more settlers, and the town of Katy was born, probably named after the KT in the railroad. At the east end of Kingsland Boulevard, the town of Barker was named after Ed Barker, the contractor who laid down the railroad. Land agents sold more settlers on the promise of fertile land.
The climate was unfamiliar to the new arrivals, and they tried many crops to figure out what to grow. When they discovered that rice would do well, there was no looking back. At one point, 60,000 acres of land in Katy were covered with rice fields. Every kid growing up in Katy in the early part of the 20th century has memories of cooling off with a swim in one of the rice wells.
Since this is Texas, we must mention the cowboys too. The prairie grass was great for cows, and the area’s most famous cattle rancher was Emil Henry Marks, whose grandfather arrived in 1843 on a ship from Germany. Emil’s parents died when he was 10 years old, and he learned ranching from an uncle. In 1917, he moved his LH7 ranch to Barker.
At its peak in the 1930s, the LH7 ranch covered 33,000 acres with close to 7,000 head of cattle. Dropping in to the Barker Post Office to pick up his mail, Marks would tell ranch stories and sing cowboy poetry. He entertained his neighbors with riding and roping contests, starting the tradition that is today the Houston Rodeo. He bred Texas longhorns just for the love of the breed, and actually ended up saving them from going extinct.
Along with the farmers and the cowboys in Katy’s history are the oilmen. In 1934, a gas field was discovered in Katy, and by World War II the Katy Gas Plant was indispensable to a war effort. After flooding in downtown Houston in 1935, the Army Corps of Engineers acquired a vast amount of property, including 450 acres of the LH7 ranch. The Corps used the land to create the Addicks and Barker flood reservoirs to mitigate flooding in Houston.
The Story of Rick Rice Park
The genesis of the park can be traced to September 10, 1974, when Interstate MUD was created to provide water, wastewater, and drainage services within its boundaries. Over the next few years, Homart Development Company constructed the infrastructure facilities for these services as it developed the land.
In 2003 and 2004 the Texas Legislature passed legislation, ratified by Texas voters, that gave MUDs the ability to finance, construct and maintain parks and recreational amenities. “As soon as the legal authority was granted, the Interstate directors began the preliminary work,” said Barry J. Kaplan, who served on the board of directors for 40 years before retiring in 2022. “We had the detention basin and we wanted to turn that into an amenity pond.”
The first step was to hire a landscape architecture company to design the park. The board chose the landscaping design firm TBG Partners in 2005. In 2006, a bond election was held, and voters approved $10 million in bonds to be used for park and recreational facilities. Kaplan said the board set out to create a park that “was unlike any other public park in design and especially maintenance.” So far, about $5 million has been expended on park construction.
The detention area was developed into an amenity pond with a walking trail, park benches and water fountains surrounding it. On the northeast corner of the trail, a terminal vista was created with the Veterans Memorial Plaza overlooking the pond and the park. Flanking the trail, intensive landscaping was installed to provide shade and beauty along with environmental art and educational signage. In 2012, the pedestrian bridge connecting the park to the Mason Creek Hike & Bike Trail was dedicated.
Shortly thereafter, Cory Hawryluk, who was a director at the time, put the board in touch with CanCare. The result is the CanCare Overlook, which was built in 2014.
The MUD board was, and is, actively involved in the park, its creation and maintenance. “Everyone on this board is very passionate about green spaces,” Kaplan said. “We think it’s vital to provide a place where people in this community can get outside and connect with nature, especially during these stressful times.”
It was former director Rick Rice who said that it was vital that the park be physically connected to the surrounding area. He also knew that cooperation with other public entities would boost development of the park. Under his guidance, Interstate MUD partnered with Commissioner Steve Radack of Harris County Precinct 3 to build sidewalks on the north and south sides of Kingsland. In addition to increasing access to the park, the sidewalks are widely used by area residents, including Taylor High School students.
Interstate MUD and the county also partnered with the Mason Creek Utility District to build underpasses and the trail under Kingsland and Westgreen, which connect the park to the Mason Creek Hike & Bike Trail. The trail terminates at I-10 to the north and George Bush Park to the south.
In 2015, Francesca’s Garden opened at the south end of the park adjacent to Kingsland Blvd. It is a beautifully landscaped area with a covered pavilion and picnic tables. It also has a small hill that children love to roll down. “People go there to relax, meet or attend boot camp, yoga class or concerts at the pavilion,” Kaplan said.
The park is also staffed with a professional security team of off-duty Houston police officers, many who live in the area. Additionally, cameras have been installed at strategic locations around the park to ensure public safety. There is a security building on site for the officers.
Maintenance of the park is provided by Terry’s Landscaping. The landscaping crew is there weekly if not more often because the board wants the park maintained like a private residence, not a public park. The flags are changed on a quarterly basis and any graffiti is removed within 24 hours.