Rest Stops in Texas

Jessie Wilder Jones
In the quiet middle of Abilene's Elmwood Cemetery, eternally resting in a pretty, tree-shaded plot lies Jessie Wilder Jones. Surrounded by other members of her family who have also departed mortal life on earth, with the birds chirping and singing in the trees that protect her resting place from the hot Texas sun, one can imagine Jessie is very much at peace. No historical plaque or marker designates her burial ground and other than the occasional living relative, few visitors come to pay their respects. A good number of Texas travelers though should be offering up a thankful thought to her memory.

Jessie Kenan Wilder was born August 11, 1882 in Graham, Texas to financially blessed parents. She had a privileged, but unremarkable youth and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in music from Weatherford College. After post-graduate studies in music at the Sherwood School of Music, the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and the Bush Temple Conservatory of Music in Dallas, she established her own music school in Seymour, Texas. While operating her successful school, she met Morgan C. Jones, the nephew of a wealthy railroad builder. The two were married in October, 1902 and a few years later, the happy couple moved to Abilene. With their combined wealth, Jessie soon embarked on her subsequent life as a civic leader and during the Great Depression, was the founder of several charities which provided free milk to needy children and free child-care services for working Black parents.

As a civic leader in Abilene, Jessie served as chairman of the Home Service Committee for the Taylor County Red Cross during World War II. Then over the next 20 years, she served as president of the Abilene Museum of Fine Arts, the Abilene Garden Club, the City Federation of Women's Clubs, the Abilene Women's Club, the Abilene Parks and Recreation Board, and the Rosenfeld Music Club. She also served as the state treasurer of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs and served on the committee that wrote the city charter for Abilene.

So what does any of that have to do with travelers on the highways of Texas? Directly, not really anything, but in the early 1930's while driving alone with her five children for a vacation in Colorado, she found there was no shady spot along the road to spread out the picnic lunch they wanted to have. With her children hot, hungry, tired of riding in the car and clamoring with their lack of patience, in desperation, Jessie pulled over in the small shade under a train trestle. With cars passing on the road close by and with the stench and dirt of a train which passed overhead, the unpleasant memory was etched deep in her mind.

Upon returning to Abilene from their Colorado vacation, Jessie attended a highway beautification meeting and proposed an idea for roadside parks. With her credentials and with all of the influential people she knew due to her civic activities, she was able to get an audience with the Governor of Texas, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who liked her idea and began actively advocating for it.

Today, the Texas Department of Transportation maintains and operates 101 rest area's and 743 picnic area's along the highways and byways of Texas. Even in the vast empty expanse of west Texas, travelers are never more than 2 hours away from a designated stopping point along a paved Texas road. The next time you need a break from driving; the next time while traveling down a highway in the middle of nowhere and you need to re-leave yourself of that morning coffee; the next time you just can't keep your eyes open and need a safe place to get 40 winks, stop at one of those rest stops, take care of your needs and give a quick thought of thanks to a forgotten lady forever resting in Abilene and those five clamoring children.