Alto Frio back in the day

The Alto Frio camp site has just celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The first time I went to Alto Frio was as a YWA – Young Women’s Auxiliary — teen. At the time, I was a member of South San Baptist Church in San Antonio. Needless to say, that first encounter at Alto Frio has remained one of my best memories. Not only did I attend the camp with girlfriends from church, I made new friends, grew in my relationship with the Lord through Bible classes and worship services, and experienced the delight of the waters of the cold Frio (Yes, I know, that is redundant.)

The Runnels-McMurrey family cabin at Alto Frio.

A few years later, I had the privileged opportunity of attending camp services with the Runnels’ family who, along with the McMurrey grandparents, had a private cabin on the Alto Frio grounds. Back in those days, the emphasis at Alto Frio was family-oriented. Numerous cabins were privately owned, and many more cabins were church-owned. For example, there was the Nixon Cabin, the Pearsall Cabin (whose motto was “Pearsall Pills – Take one to every service”), Baptist Temple, Carrizo Springs, Crystal City (with a life-size statue of Popeye that once was stolen by the Carrizo Springs bunch and hidden in the Runnels’ cabin restroom), and Uvalde cabins. Because many of us camp attendees knew families and even relatives who attended churches in these various towns, we always found it exciting to encounter said families during General Encampment, an annual event held during the week of the Fourth of July.
In the early days, there were small wooden cabins down in the Grove (near today’s swimming pool – “Swimming pool on the Frio? Get a rope!”). Franklin’s grandparents, the McMurreys, stayed in a tent there in the Grove through 1948. Kids enjoyed playing under the trees and making new friends. One kid Franklin met was an older boy whose mother was a teacher in one of the camp Bible classes. They had a tent across the road from the McMurrey/Runnels tent. His name was Butch Roberson from Devine.
But, staying in tents could prove to be challenging. In the encampment of 1948, it rained and rained to the extent that the McMurreys pulled out and left because water ran through the tents. So, in the next year, 1949, the McMurreys purchased a little cabin on the west end of the camp grounds and named it The Whippoorwill. Granddaddy McMurrey, Franklin’s Uncle Roy Schweers, and father Frank C. Runnels built a porch and enclosed a restroom. Finally, these campers didn’t have to go to the brick outhouse! But, in that summer of 1949, Mrs. Frank C. Runnels did not get to attend the camp; Franklin stayed there with his grandparents until grabbing a ride home with the pastor from Palm Heights of San Antonio to meet his new baby sister, Martha Runnels!
A typical General Encampment week looked something like the following. We woke up early on a Monday and, after breakfast in either our private cabins (of which no other breakfast can compare), a church cabin, or at the cafeteria, some hundreds of camp attendees split up to attend Bible classes in various small, covered pavilions. Later, there was a noon church service, followed by lunch, then mandatory Quiet Time – where no-one could move! So, people took naps. Now, there was no air conditioning, so naps were generally sweaty, hot experiences. But, following that afternoon Quiet Time – note that one never, ever swam immediately following a meal – we were permitted to go to the Swimming Hole, albeit obeying iron-clad rules.
Boys and girls were strictly prohibited from swimming together! Girls were allowed to swim for an allotted hour; then, boys had their turn. And, there were camp counselors who were enlisted to strictly enforce those rules. I recall that on one occasion, after we were married, Franklin and I were actually swimming together – horror of horrors – in the river on the Alto Frio camp grounds and were told we had to get out. (No; we did not!)
Memorable activities included the Swimming Hole with a diving board, a trail along the river called Dead Man’s Bluff, which adventurous campers dared to navigate without falling in, the deep “Blue Hole”, (a bit scary for the less intrepid), and Honeymoon Mountain where some more athletic types scurried up and typically left a sign to mark their achievement – like staking a recognizable T-shirt or a helmet noting a favorite pro ball team. (Yes, Rodney Scantlin, you did that!)

From left to right: Mickie Hankamer Hines, Pam Smith, Kathleene Runnels, Linda Causey Byrom.

One can’t reminisce about those Frio experiences without recalling that the observation of wearing proper attire on the campsite was also strictly enforced. When we left our cabins in our swimsuits (one piece; no such thing as wearing a bikini there), we were required to wear modest cover-ups, like a bath robe, to and from the river. And we were expected to wear “church clothes” when attending Bible classes and the noon and evening church services in the big, open tabernacle by the “Big Bell.” Remember, there was no air conditioning, and, although the evenings were generally quite cool, where we always had to pull up the blankets of a brisk July morning, during the day time, the heat could get very uncomfortable. Never the less, when attending services, girls wore dresses, the boys wore slacks, the adult men wore suits and ties, and the adult women wore church dresses with hats! And, those services did not last the typical hour of today; rather, they might have run two hours and longer!
In the vicinity of the tabernacle, Hardin Simmons College provided a cold-water drinking fountain, complete with drinking cups with the college’s insignia. There was a gift shop (near today’s motel) and a concession stand that always had Buck Brand sodas. The shop was open only in the afternoon and after services, where everyone would rush down to get a soda, fraternize, and “find a girlfriend.” The Big Bell sounded to note the start of services; then, it rang at 10:00 pm sharp to note bed call. Folks were expected to already be in their cabins by then.
Back to the daily routine, following the afternoon swim, campers would attend more Bible study sessions before retiring to their respective cabins for dinner, followed by the aforementioned evening worship service. This routine lasted all week, culminating on Friday, but always including the observance of the Fourth of July with a campfire service down on the river. Then, for those fortunate enough to be residing in one’s family cabin, most families usually stayed over the weekend, going into Leakey on Saturday to enjoy the Fourth of July parade and festivities.
But, let us not overlook the much anticipated Saturday night trek to Garner State Park where couples enjoyed dancing on the open air patio and juke box music. Yes, I said dancing! How well I recall that the “old folks” severely chastised us “young people” for participating in such decadence – and that after a week-long barrage of lessons in proper Christian behavior.
These vacations spent at Alto Frio happened several times during the summer, beginning with Memorial Day weekend, followed by the General Encampment, and culminating with Labor Day weekend. But, families visited their private cabins several times in between these holiday trips. While Franklin, his sister Martha (who often took along her best friend, Vicki Gholson Steele), and cousins, John and Charles Schweers, grew up making indelible memories at Alto Frio, so did their children. The Franklin Runnels’ children, Vance and Vanessa, pretty much grew up on the Frio, and they enjoyed sharing those vacations with a buddy, like Vance’s friend Todd Herring and Vanessa’s friends Erin Alexander and Alicia Thompson. Families stayed in their private cabins but almost daily rafted down the Frio, usually beginning at the Rio Frio Crossing and traveling as far as the “Utopia Bridge” where they were picked up by the parents, that is unless the parents also rafted – then it’s anyone’s guess how the troop managed to make it back.
Then, often of an evening, after an amazing meal enjoyed at the picnic table on the porch, the kids would ride their bikes around the camp grounds (providing no encampment was in session). Around dusk time, kids and parents would take an evening drive up on the open range ranches and watch for wild life, especially deer.
When the 50-year leases were up in the early 90s, the family cabin became a thing of the past, as leases were not renewed, and private cabins were torn down. That was a sad development for the Runnels family and all those private cabin owners. Going to the Frio now and staying on private camp sites is just not the same.
In fact, the Frio today is quite commercialized. Back in the 50s and up until probably the early 90s, ranchers still ran sheep and goats along the Frio, and folks didn’t seem to have the flexible income they have today to spend on renting vacation sites and RVs. But, as ranches sold and campsites were developed, the Frio has come to look somewhat like the Guadalupe with wall-to-wall floaters. As a result, the waters of the Frio are seldom even cold. Times change, and today’s families are making their own Frio memories, but nothing will compare to those made on the Christ-centered Alto Frio camp grounds.