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San Marcos: A Study in Contrasts

Written by Anthony Head. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

On a hot, muggy evening last summer, hundreds of people gathered inside the San Marcos Army Airfield hangar at the San Marcos Municipal Airport for the opportunity to go back in time. The day was June 6, and to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day, the Hays County Historical Commission premiered the 52-minute documentary Hays County in World War II. We all sat watching while surrounded by vintage aircraft, including a B-25 WW II bomber known as the Yellow Rose. The film included interviews with local veterans, and we gave those in attendance a standing ovation before and after the movie.

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Back in the days of Aquarena Springs amusement park and long before the clear waters of Spring Lake in San Marcos became the purview of Texas State University, visitors enjoyed observing the underwater realm via excursions on the park’s glass-bottom boats. Now that Texas State has refocused the park’s mission on conservation, the park—now know as Aquarena Center—has augmented the popular glass-bottom boat rides with glass-bottom kayak trips. You’re that much closer to the water!

The guided kayak trips, available by advance reservation only, offer up-close (and quiet!) views of the center’s more than 200 artesian springs, native fish, turtles, and aquatic plants, migratory and songbirds, and the center’s rich wetlands habitat. Tour guides can offer discussions of a number of topics, including the area’s geography, biology, geology, and anthropology.

You’ll need to book tours 72 hours in advance. One–hour tours cost $20 per person, two-hour tours cost $40. Call 512/245-7560, or fill out the tour reservation form.

The documentary also showed images of San Marcos (the Hays County seat) from the late 19th Century through the war years, including many of the buildings on and around the San Marcos courthouse square—although those buildings were still many decades away from earning their “historic landmark” designations. San Marcos is where I’ve lived for about six years, and I’m still thrilled to learn about my adopted hometown, especially its history.

The cavernous wood-framed hangar, which served as the evening’s theater, is part of that history. Built in 1943 for military pilot navigation training, it remains a working airplane hangar to this day, only now it serves the Centex Wing of the Commemorative Air Force Museum.

Wing Leader Colonel Richard Hall, a retired Air Force pilot and son of a WWII veteran, is part of the all-volunteer squad of pilots, mechanics, and enthusiasts who maintain the dozen or so vintage airplanes. “Our job is to keep the planes flying, educate the public, and tell the stories of the planes and the men and women who flew them. The B-25 is our most well-known airplane, and it’s a personal favorite of mine,” Hall told me as he pointed to the massive bomber.

Perhaps the real pride of the hangar, though, lies inside the Centex Museum. Propped against a wall among military photos, weapons, uniforms, and aircraft equipment is the armored plating from the pilot’s seat of the B-25 that General James “Jimmie” Doolittle flew during 1942’s
 Tokyo raid. I’ve checked around and there appears to be no dispute against the museum’s claim that the thin slab of metal is not only genuine, but that it’s the only part of Doolittle’s aircraft ever recovered after he ditched it in China at the end of his historic mission.

I’ve added that metal slab (and the whole hangar) to my boasts about San Marcos—although it doesn’t really need my endorsement. San Marcos claims bragging rights to a lot of Texas history, beauty, and attractions. Located about halfway between Austin and San Antonio, this city of about 45,000 feels removed from the accelerated speeds and congestion of the I-35 corridor.

Water recreation in San Marcos includes tubing down the San Marcos River.Yet, in spite of the city’s small-town pace, it’s home to Texas State University-San Marcos, the fifth-largest university in Texas. And the school just keeps growing—perhaps most noticeably with the $34-million renovation of Bobcat Stadium. In 2011, Texas State was invited to join the Western Athletic Conference—a step up to Division I-A—and for the 2013 season will be part of the Sunbelt Conference, which means tougher teams and much more attention. The Bobcats hosted Texas Tech University for the season’s 2012 home opener in September, and even though the final score didn’t favor the Bobcats, the sold-out crowd of more than 30,000 was by far the largest in the team’s history.

Texas State also offers literary and artistic treasures within its renowned Wittliff Collections. Found on the seventh floor of the university’s Alkek Library, the Wittliff Collections include three related bodies of material: the Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection; the Southwestern Writers Collection, which holds notes, manuscripts, and archives from such wordsmiths as Cormac McCarthy, Sam Shepard, and Rick Riordan, along with songwriters including Willie Nelson; and the Lonesome Dove Collection, which displays props, costumes, and photographs from the television miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Wittliff is free and open to the public, and regularly hosts author readings, book signings, and literary and photography exhibits.

San Marcos claims bragging rights to a lot of Texas history, beauty and attractions.

Notwithstanding such an  impressive scholarly attraction, San Marcos’ character remains rooted in Hill Country charm, with plenty of parks and trails to take advantage of. Although there has been business and residential growth on its outskirts during the last decade, San Marcos is still very walkable. Downtown is an-chored by the 1908 Beaux Arts-style Hays County Courthouse, which is surrounded by a spacious lawn and live oaks. Those old buildings I recognized from the documentary still frame 
the courthouse square, housing a mix of eateries and shops.

Among my favorite stops is the Coffee Pot Bistro, a coffee house with a menu of house-made salads and sandwiches. Nearby is Paper Bear, an irresistible gift shop packed to the rafters with jewelry, crafts, posters, candies, books, toys, clothing, and art by local artists. I rarely leave the store without buying something.

Texas State University Bobcats lost to Louisiana Tech on November 10, but ended on a high note, creaming New Mexico State during the final game of the 2012 season. Another courthouse square destination is the LBJ Museum, which emphasizes the years when Johnson attended college here. It’s open only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, but it’s well worth a visit, as it includes editorials and stories he wrote for the school’s newspaper, along with photographs from childhood, high school, and college. There are also artifacts from Johnson’s political career, such as campaign posters, one of the Stetson “Open Road” hats that he often presented as gifts, a “Great Society” comic book published in 1966 to promote his ambitious domestic programs, and pens used to sign legislation, including the Higher Education Act of 1965.

To attract more visitors to downtown, last year the Saturday-morning farmer’s market relocated from a nearby parking lot to the courthouse square. Year round, the tents and tables overflow with fresh produce, honey, jams, and other locally crafted items, often with musicians performing nearby.

On and near the square, the dining options have expanded since I’ve moved here. San Marcos recently jumped onto the nationwide food-truck trend, with mobile trailers offering pita pockets, burgers, fish tacos, and cupcakes. You’ll find one food court across from downtown’s post office; the other in a parking lot close to the San Marcos River; both are within walking distance of the square.

I’ve always appreciated the down-home appeal and eclectic menu at the longstanding Cafe on the Square (and I love the fact that it serves breakfast all day). And for more than 30 years, the casual Grins, located very close to TSU’s campus, has been a local favorite for fajitas and other Tex-Mex specialties like its roasted-habanero-and-jalapeño cheeseburger.

Open for lunch and dinner, Palmer’s features one of the prettiest dining courtyards in town, with tiki torches, large shade trees, and a bubbling fountain. I also love the indoor lounge with fire-place and club chairs; it’s a great place to enjoy cocktails with friends. If you’re staying for dinner, the menu covers just about every surf-and-turf choice imaginable, like seared tuna, Gulf Coast crab cakes, ribeyes, and pecan-crusted chicken.

Diners Tracy Witt, Katie Herzik and Ginger Thomas take advantage of a pleasant afternoon at one of San Marcos' two food-truck courts.A couple of miles south of downtown, Dick’s Classic Garage museum is a car-lover’s dream-come-true. This immense museum and showroom features more than 80 antique cars, along with vintage bicycles, nostalgic signs, gas pumps, and other treasures from America’s automotive history. On the third Saturday of each month, Dick’s invites the public to a party in the parking lot, where private owners show off their own classic cars and swap stories from the road.

Just a few more miles south, along I-35, the San Marcos Premium Outlets and Tanger Outlets may well be San Marcos’ most popular draw. Combined, these two adjacent shopping centers are home to more than 300 individual stores and attract millions of visitors every year. San Marcians will tell you that the outlets have brought unprecedented attention to San Marcos, especially after a 2006 shopping segment 
on ABC’s “The View” proclaimed them the third best place to shop in the world.

Before the outlets, however, San Marcos had been known and beloved for Aquarena Springs, a 1920s-era hotel built on Spring Lake that offered glass-bottom boat tours; later in the century, an amusement park was added and featured an underwater theater with underwater “mermaids,” Ralph the swimming pig, and other aquatic attractions. The park, which once drew more than 200,000 visitors annually, was purchased in the mid-1990s by Texas State, which began to restore the area to its natural habitat. Today the university’s Aquarena Center promotes environmental education, and still offers glass-bottom-boat rides on Spring Lake. The same clear waters feeding the lake also flow into the San Marcos River, which winds through town and—at a constant 72 degrees year-round—is popular for swimming, canoeing, and tubing.

Visitors observe aquatic wildlife from a glass-bottom boat at Aquarena Center.The picturesque river was the inspiration behind the name of the Crystal River Inn Bed & Breakfast, just a couple of blocks from the courthouse. The inn comprises three distinct accommodations: the two-story, 1883 Victorian mansion with beautiful ionic columns in front and antique furniture inside; a 1930s-style bungalow out back, past pecan trees and a rose garden; and four contemporary bedrooms at the adjacent Thomas House, which also offers massage, salon, and spa services. The inn’s 12 guest rooms have private baths and are individually decorated; some feature Jacuzzi tubs, private porches, and fireplaces.

Unlike many small Texas towns, San Marcos doesn’t roll up the sidewalks after sunset. On the square and off, there are plenty of sports bars, honky-tonks, and live-music venues, including Cheatham Street Warehouse. Opened in 1974, this legendary venue has hosted just about every Texas singer of note you can name. Kinky Friedman, George Strait, Flaco Jiménez, James McMurtry, Billy Joe Shaver—they’ve all played the Warehouse, and some of them still do.

There’s also the new Texas Music Theater, across San Antonio Street from the courthouse. For much of its life, this 72-year-old building was a movie theater. Renovated with state-of-the-art acoustics and a dance floor, the Texas Music Theater now hosts national, regional, and local music acts and continues the city’s live-music tradition.

And if you’re planning to take advantage of Saturday’s nightlife, you might as well linger a bit longer and experience a true San Marcos original: unicycle football. Most Sunday afternoons from mid-August through mid-April, the Unicycle Football League (UFL) holds free outdoor matches at the San Marcos Activity Center. It sounds peculiar—and it is—but the UFL is for real. This is American-style football played on one wheel, and the games are taken seriously by the players. (Well, as serious as it can get considering the UFL’s offbeat nature.)

Having played in and refereed games, Lee Wallace now helps publicize the league, and he filled me in on its background: “The UFL was born in San Marcos in 2007. [The UFL’s founder] Marcus Garland was a student here and was into riding unicycles. He was also an avid football fan, and he had the idea of combining the two. As far as we know, we are the only unicycle football league that exists in the country, if not the world.”

The UFL has grown each year, and there are currently six locally sponsored teams. On April 14, the UFL plays its eighth annual “StuporBowl,” and Wallace anticipates as many as 450 fans will attend. I hope someone from the Hays County Historical Society begins documenting this uniquely San Marcos sport. Future generations should have the opportunity not only to see the historical sites, but also to learn about some of the quirky men and women who’ve helped make my adopted hometown worth discovering. 

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