Keller Park: a place where friendships were begun or renewed

Keller Park in its heyday in the 1960s.

From 1956 to 1994, families from all over Medina County and parts of South Texas gathered for the St. Joseph Catholic Church’s Fourth of July celebration and fundraiser at Keller Park. The location is on Highway 173 at the crossing of Francisco Perez Creek. Prior to this location, the annual celebration took place north of Devine at Helen Schott’s farm located behind the Medina Valley Drive-Inn Theater. Bob says that as he recalls, some of the oak trees at the Schott location died during the 50’s drought; so, the new site was ideal because of the abundance of massive oaks that shaded revelers.
Paul and Frieda Keller made the sight available by clearing underbrush, building tables and booths, preparing the parking area, and creating the barbeque pit, which, during the Park’s heyday, was almost 50 yards long. The Kellers leased the Park to the church for a dollar a year, as did Henry and Henrietta Bendele after taking ownership in the 1970s. There was no charge for other nonprofit events.
Preparation for this massive event was quite an endeavor. Crews of parishioners took responsibility for cleaning up the grounds and setting up tables and booths. Then, afterwards, families returned to restore the park to its natural setting, which was no small feat, as booths had to be disassembled and removed, debris collected, and trash hauled off.
In later years, brisket was served cafeteria style, but, for decades prior, tickets were purchased for families to be served family style at picnic tables “loaded with beef barbeque, potato salad, beans, etc.” And, needless to say, beer was also served, this at a booth set up under “sprawling oak trees” near the creek. All of the food was provided by local citizens – beef and vegetables by parish ranchers and farmers. Many years potatoes were donated. Five pound bags were handed out the Sunday before the Fourth. Potato salad was made using everyone’s family recipe, brought to the Park on the Fourth, then mixed together and served.
Not only was a fabulous meal served, but many other activities took place. For example, there were booths for cakewalks, go-fish, ring toss, handmade dolls, handicrafts, raffle, bingo, and an auction, to name the most popular. The goodies for these booths were provided by locals, and the proceeds were added to the funds earned from the ticket sales. Homemade cakes were donated, as were prizes for bingo, go-fish and the auction. Plastic dolls were purchased by the church and sent home to be dressed. There was unofficial competition to see who could make the fanciest dress for the dolls. Many of them were mother-daughter sewing products.
Another attraction was the Francisco Creek. Some years there was water to splash in, and always there were mustang grape vines to swing on. And rumor has it that there were numerous places for young couples to “get away from the crowd”.
The amount of money brought in from these annual events was astounding. Considering that up to 4,500 people gathered for this annual celebration, it is no wonder that it produced a big pot for the local St. Joseph’s parish. The money raised was mostly clear profit, and these funds were used predominately for youth education and general expenses. But not only did these events help the parish, they brought people together as a community family. It was a reunion of sorts where folks “could begin or renew friendships or family ties.”
Not only did Keller Park host the annual Fourth of July celebration, it was also the location of many other gatherings. For many years, Devine’s Chamber of Commerce sponsored its Fall Festival there. The Devine Lions Club sponsored turkey shoots. Many family reunions were held there. There also were Boy Scout camp-outs and motorcycle rallies.
In 1995, St Joseph decided to move the celebration to the church site in town. Nature retook the sight. In 2012, the park took a direct hit from a tornado taking down many of the 100-plus year-old oak trees. Those that remain are making a comeback. In 2014, the underbrush was again cleared so that today if one drives by, he/she can remember or imagine the good times had there.
Bob reflects that the incredible work, cooperation, and good will it took by the parishioners of St Josephs to sponsor such a huge event each year should be remembered. He adds, “Yes, it was a fund raiser and reunion, but it was also a way to celebrate our country’s birthday.”
As told by Bob and Joyce Bendele
(Some quotes from History of Medina County, Texas Vol. II)