Cameron Park was a shady place in more than one sense when park ranger Larry Simms started patrolling it in 1986, with nothing but a horse and a radio.
On the weekends, a loop road in Pecan Bottoms became so jammed with cruising motorists that police couldn’t get through. As a former Waco police officer, Simms knew that all kinds of rowdy behavior flourished there away from watchful eyes: heavy drinking, drug dealing, gambling, dogfighting, even horse racing.
“One of the things we found out when I was a police officer was that guys would go out on Saturday night and sleep on the picnic tables and use it to gamble on the next day,” he said. “Whoever had the table would control the gambling. … They knew there was no way to get a policeman down there without being able to see you, and they had people watching out for police.”
Those unruly crowds are gone now, replaced by picnicking families, disc golfers and cyclists. Simms, who retired late last month as supervisor of the park ranger program, likes to think he and his crew had something to do with the change over the last 31 years.
“I know where it was then, and I know where it is now,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my grandbabies down there. I wouldn’t have said that in 1986. The city has done a tremendous job with Cameron Park.”
A city of Waco study committee on Cameron Park proposed the ranger program out of desperation with the disorder in the Park. In previous generations, the park had been a source of civic pride. Other recommendations, such as creating Cameron Park Zoo and closing part of the loop in Pecan Bottoms, also would help tame the park in coming years.
Simms, 65, recalls that it wasn’t an easy task for him and the other two original park rangers to face the rowdy crowds. They weren’t police and didn’t carry weapons, so there were times when they had to avoid possibly dangerous situations and call the police. But he said just having a horseback presence in the park caused most people to shape up.
“There was no more gambling, dogfights or driving on the grass,” he said.
Simms said the gun-free patrols allowed the rangers to deal with problems on a friendly basis.
“I don’t think people felt as threatened,” he said. “I think people are more open and more willing to talk to you. … We want to tell people what they can do in the park, as opposed to what they can’t do.”
Over the years, the rangers expanded the public relations mission, organizing activities and nature hikes in the park.
The first group of rangers included Nora Schell, who is now coordinator of the Lake Waco Wetlands. She was 21, just out of college with a degree in forestry, and with no equestrian experience.
“I didn’t know anything about horses at all,” Schell said.
Nonetheless, park officials took a chance on her.
Schell said she learned a lot by doing patrols with Simms, who had experience with law enforcement and grew up around horses.
“I think he kind of felt responsible for me,” she said. “He had been with the police department and knew what to expect.”
Schell said that when Simms became her boss years later, she appreciated his support.
“He’s a very even-keeled guy emotionally,” she said. “It takes a lot to get him upset. But as a supervisor, he always had your back. Whether you were right or wrong, he’d back you up.”
Kim Jennings, who has been a park ranger since 2001, has taken Simms’ place as supervisor. She agreed that Simms’ background helped get the program off to a good start.
“When they started back in the ’80s, they had a basic idea of what they wanted but didn’t know the nuts and bolts of how to achieve it,” Jennings said. “Larry was instrumental with his background and he was able to carry over his experience.”
Simms had worked as a state trooper in Bell County before he came to the Waco Police Department. He decided he was tired of rotating shift work and quit to make more money at General Tire. But he was downsized out of that job just as the park ranger job came open.
Simms, the son of a single mother who worked a janitorial job at Waco High School, grew up in East Waco in the Estella Maxey public housing project. He said East Waco at that time was underserved for parks, and kids in the neighborhood around East Waco Park didn’t welcome kids from the other side of Waco Drive.
He said Cameron Park was not officially segregated when he was young, but black families like his were hesitant to visit, fearing that it would start a fight.
“There were folks in East Waco who talked about, ‘Don’t get caught in Cameron Park,’ ” he said.
Herring Avenue bridge, which connects the park to East Waco, did not exist until the late 1960s, when Simms was nearly grown. But as a child, he would sometimes take a four-mile bike ride to visit Cameron Park to range about in the woods or wade in Proctor Springs.
Simms said that after the decline of Cameron Park in the 1970s and 1980s, it is once again a safe and family-friendly place and now is more socially integrated than ever. He said the park’s progress has mirrored Waco’s social progress.
“I personally think a lot has changed,” he said. “I don’t think people view people the same as they did back them. I don’t think African-American people see the park as belonging to someone else. … Some of the same people I grew up with, I see in the park now, and I know they feel comfortable with it.”