Harry S. Moss Park: Sacred land with rich history and a few surprises

For a few, Moss is all of that and more — sacred land with an engrossing history and hidden surprises, such as a network of primitive footpaths and remnants of a short-lived horseracing track.
Harry Moss Park (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Harry S. Moss Park (Photos by Danny Fulgencio)
Harry S Moss Trails (Map courtesy of the City of Dallas at happytrailsdallas.com/trail-maps)
Click to see a larger map of Harry S Moss Trails at happytrailsdallas.com/trail-maps (Map courtesy of the City of Dallas)

The parkland, which runs alongside upper Greenville Avenue between Walnut Hill and Royal Lane, is, to youngsters, the soccer complex. To off-road cyclists, it is 5.46-miles of single-track dirt trail. The northern portion of the land offers parking and access to wide-open green space — for picnics or ball tossing — and White Rock Creek Trail, a bona-fide artery of Dallas’ extensive trail network. USA Today even noted, in its guide to honeymooning in Dallas, “lightening bugs who thrive in the margins between stream banks and damp, temperate woodland … The sight of tens of thousands of fireflies blinking in the dark night is magical,” the writer continues, “and a stroll through a vast meadow alive with their enchanting and captivating light is supremely romantic.”

For a few, Moss is all of that and more — sacred land with an engrossing history and hidden surprises, such as a network of primitive footpaths and remnants of a short-lived horseracing track.

A small group of neighborhood retirees, for example, have taken it upon themselves to care for what they say are the forgotten regions of the city-owned land. A native grassland portion of Moss occurs along Arborside Drive. Near a City of Dallas sign, usually obscured by overgrowth, a small, wooden bridge covers a deep, narrow gully.

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“Now this is the only way you can get in here. We put this here,” says Bill Grunnah, one of the grassland’s self-appointed caretakers, as he steps across the whitewashed planks, following his dog, Muttley. Over the bridge, an abbreviated path opens to a broad, emerald clearing.

“We call it the cathedral,” he says. Alone in the opening, the whistling birds and crunch of a few leaves underfoot might be the only sounds. Sunlight peeks through treetops. All around, a wall of towering grass — also a swing dangling from a branch — sways to a slight breeze.

Grunnah points at the tall thicket of intermingled stalks, sunflowers and weeds and says, “If not for Jim, all of this would be like that.”

The hollow, Grunnah continues, “is mowed by a gentleman named Jim. I don’t know his last name. I see him every week or two when he is walking his dogs, or mowing on his John Deere.”

Bill Grunnah is one of the unofficial caretakers of Harry S. Moss Park. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Bill Grunnah is one of the unofficial caretakers of Harry S. Moss Park. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

The surrounding area is one of Dallas’ few remaining swaths of native prairie vegetation. On temperate mornings, a handful of neighbors — their off-leash dogs typically nearby — greet one another and rehash recent coyote and snake sighting. They rest on benches situated against tree trunks. Grunnah and his neighbors installed the amenities — the seats and swing. “We had two more benches,” Grunnah says. But one was stolen and wild bushes obscure another. (City staffers have since removed the swing and remaining benches).

“It’s an unofficial dog park,” Grunnah adds. “People don’t pick up the poop, but it’s so big no one really cares.”

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Service area manager Jeremy McMahon says the dog park/cathedral, also dubbed the “wedding area,” is illegally landscaped; that is how the city views it until those responsible sign a beautifucation agreement that would approve them to mow that area. “We found out through the homeowners association who was doing it and sent them the agreement,” he says, “but they have not sent it back.” A tributary of the “cathedral” leads to a system of muddy, horse-hoof pocked trails Grunnah has spent many an hour picking up junk along the trails, which accumulates by the ton when it when it rains.

“I do the trash. A couple other guys do the mowing and weed-whacking,” Grunnah says.

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Grunnah shows off the clearing that neighbors (unofficially) maintain. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

There are others, people he doesn’t know, who bring tractors and mowers in an effort to maintain these old trails.

“Just the other day I saw a girl riding a white horse and then up behind her came this Bobcat-type tractor, and it scared the heck out of her, but that’s what it’s come to,” he says.

McMahon reiterates that none of these rogue landscapers (some in the Park department call them the “Sacred Moss Accord”) have an official partnership with the city, though they could if they went through the proper channels.

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“If they signed the agreement, they could even continue to maintain those trails if they like.” Some resist an official agreement, Grunnah allows.

“Some say they like it as it is, because they like no one knowing about what’s back here.”

But Grunnah at least likes to see the city mow and maintain the blackland prairie at Moss, which he says has “fallen through the cracks.”

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Rogue landscapers maintain the horsebacking, dog traveling trails at Moss. (Danny Fulgencio)

About that part, he’s correct, McMahon says. While the city has neither resources nor plans to maintain the so-called cathedral or the old trails, McMahon says, they are responsible for the 25 or so acres of blackland prairie. He says it has fallen by the wayside for the past several years, due to a lack of manpower and know-how.

“Right now we are working with a native restoration expert and the Office of Risk Management, and we are eager to get that started,” McMahon says. “It takes a special expertise to get that right — know what to pull, what to mow. All we want is for all of these things to be done the right way.”

As he leads us along the footpaths, Grunnah, enamored with the park’s history, points out that, for a brief period while pari-mutuel betting was legal, from 1933-35, a racetrack existed here. He points out the fossil of an antique structure he says was part of the track. An aerial photo from the 1930s (above) shows a circular track on the spot. Much of his Moss wisdom comes from the research of SMU professor and historian Ted Campbell, who verifies the racetrack story. It was called Hilltop Stables. Promoter R.B George in 1933 assured a Dallas Morning News reporter that “there is no guesswork to this at all. We are going to have one of the greatest racing stables in this country.” Campbell jokes that the name Hilltop Stables “ranks among dumb place names that must have seemed fanciful to developers.” The track was right in the flats along White Rock Creek, he says, “which we all know regularly floods the entire area.”

Fittingly, Harry S. Moss, who later acquired the property, was one of the “most colorful residents of this area in the mid-20th century,” Campbell says. The Canada native moved to Texas in 1906  and started the Moss Petroleum Company in 1920. He lived in Highland Park, but in 1930 he bought a bull at the State Fair and realized he had no place to keep it, Campbell says. So he bought and built the 400-acre Moss Haven stock farm. The Moss house still exists, albeit modified, near Moss Haven Elementary and was featured in the 1958 Architectural Digest.

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In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the City of Dallas purchased 54 and later another 225 acres of that farm, an acquisition that played a lynchpin role in then Park Director L.B. Houston’s green belt plan, the origins of today’s Dallas trail system. Dallas Arboretum founders briefly considered some of the land for the city’s botanical gardens, but ultimately deemed the DeGloyer Estate more apropos.

Over the years the land has seen its share of tragedy. Wooden crosses and a bench mark the location of jogger David Stevens’ senseless and violent murder last year. Grunnah months ago called in an apparent suicide after he says a man passed him, waving amicably, before he heard one fatal gunshot.

Sunflowers, their seed sprinkled all over the land by a woman years ago, once tall and prominent are now shrouded by weeds, Grunnah points out.

There is so much beauty here, he says, but you have to take care of it, look for it, appreciate it.

An aerial image taken by Lloyd M. Long between 1930-40, shows the outline of the doomed Hilltop Stables racetrack. (Edwin J. Foscue Map Library, Southern Methodist University)
An aerial image taken by Lloyd M. Long between 1930-40, shows the outline of the doomed Hilltop Stables racetrack. (Edwin J. Foscue Map Library, Southern Methodist University)
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  • For the record, Leigh Ann, I found Mr. Grunnah delightful, sharp and witty and I tried to convey that in the article. We wrote the story because we found their efforts to be so remarkable. Mr. Grunnah himself gave us the names of the people at the city, like Jeremy, to cross-examine, if you will, and he (Grunnah) told us he loves the story. “Rogue” was meant to be lighthearted and I think he and his contemporaries got that. Though I definitely can see how you would want to defend this charming man–I would too!

  • Clayton P. Henry

    Not all poop is from dogs….a neighbor observed a homeless man pooping on a side trail just this morning.

  • j.bushor

    “It’s an unofficial dog park,” Grunnah adds. “People don’t pick up the poop, but it’s so big no one really cares.”
    Actually I do care. Look around when you walk in the park, there is dog crap every where. It is disgusting. I do pick up after my dog and this park is a MESS. Everyone should pick up after their dog, especially if you enjoy this beautiful park.

  • Clayton P. Henry

    As President of the Oak Highlands Estates Homeowners Association I’m surprised Ms. Babbs did not not reach out to me and other local neighborhood leaders to get our perspective on the issues confronting this great community asset. I don’t know Mr. Grunnah (but would like to) and applaud his volunteer efforts to bring back the Blackland Prairie in ‘Section E’ – the area bounded by Royal Lane and Arborside (yes there are ‘official’ areas designated by the park department in the park-see attached). I found my initial conversations with Mr. McMahon to be very unsettling. The Park department has a history of not working well with local neighborhoods and leaders before trying to push their agenda. If it wasn’t for our council member, Adam McGough, and his appointee to the Park & Rec. Board, Robb Stewart, that relationship would have soured completely. Our neighbors are the ‘rogue’ folks that have taken care of Area ‘D’, a small area compared to the whole (most of which is flood plain), have kept it mowed for children to play, and one neighbor (a rather famous former Cowboy) has spent many hours removing the sharp little tree shoots (whatever they are called) that can puncture little feet. We have not completed the ‘Beautification Agreement’ because of the onerous insurance requirements that are completely untenable and ridiculous. Hopefully we will get that resolved with the help of Adam and Robb. McMahon had our Park benches (mainly placed by our neighbors) taken away and destroyed. He told me they did not ‘conform’ to requirements. Maybe not, but this neighborhood, and those nearby, have been doing what we have been doing for the good of the community since 1979 – for 37 years! The Park and Rec department has done little in all those years, and we really don’t appreciate any heavy-handedness now. We want to work together, but mainly we wish to leave the park as it is, open spaces, deep woods, natural trails…our little piece of untouched nature in the middle of a city.

  • Leigh Ann Hicks

    If not for the “rogue” mowers, no one would be able to enjoy this part of the park at all. We are all grateful for these men that adopted the land that was utterly neglected and abandoned by the City. Somewhat akin to a neglectful/abusive parent, some of us feel the City has lost all rights when it comes to this beautiful place. Taking away benches and such is petty and shameful.

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