The True Story of San Marcos

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If location is the major factor in determining the value of property, then San Marcos has been prime real estate for thousands of years; the unique San Marcos River area is considered by many to be the longest continuously inhabited area in the Northern Hemisphere. To the east of San Marcos lies the vast black land prairie; the beautiful Texas Hill Country rises dramatically to the west. San Marcos is blessed with fertile fields, abundant wildlife, spectacular scenery and a never-ending supply of cool, clear water.

From about 1691 until the Mexican Revolution in the early 1800s, Spanish explorers and settlers used the nearby “Camino Real,” also called the San Antonio Highway, and several attempts were made to establish a mission around the remarkable San Marcos Springs, where millions of gallons of clear water from the Edwards Aquifer bubble up from the earth each day. The longest lasting settlement was San Marcos de Neve, a community of several dozen from 1807 until about 1812. By 1814, the area was once again “Indian territory.”

The Story of San Marcos

Photo: texasranger.com

The first Anglo-American settler in the area was Thomas G. McGehee, who had been issued a league of land by the Mexican government in 1835. He began farming north of the present-day townsite. Among the first to settle at the present site of San Marcos were William W. Moon, Mike Sessom, and Dr. Eli T. Merriman, who arrived after Texas joined the United States in 1845. The fledgling community received a huge boost in security and prestige when General Edward Burleson moved there in 1848. The war hero and former Texas vice-president worked to establish a new county, named for renowned Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee Hays, and (with Dr. Merriman) laid out the town of San Marcos as the county seat. He also built the first sawmill there. San Marcos became a stop on the stage line from Austin to San Antonio in 1848; the first church was organized in 1847, and the first school in 1849.

General Burleson died in 1851, but his son (also named Edward) went on to become a leading citizen. He built the first large stone house in San Marcos, and participated actively in the town’s growth; caravans of settlers arrived from Mississippi and Georgia; the population of the county grew from 387 in 1850 to 2,126 in 1860. And while the growth slowed temporarily during the Civil War, it resumed immediately afterward. Farming and cattle drives brought relative prosperity to Hays County. The private Coronal Institute was founded in San Marcos in 1868 to provide military training for boys; by the fall of 1869, it employed eight faculty members and 130 students were enrolled. The San Marcos public school system was organized in 1870.

The Story of San Marcos

Photo: texasbeyondhistory.com

The first trains arrived in 1880, when the International-Great Northern Railroad completed its line from Austin. The line was later extended to San Antonio, and the population of San Marcos grew rapidly from just 742 in 1870 to 2,335 in 1890. A fine new courthouse was built in 1882; by then the town boasted two banks, an opera house and dozens of stores and other businesses. In the two decades following the arrival of the railroad, whole neighborhoods of fine Victorian houses were built. The first electric company and ice factory were founded in 1883, to be replaced just ten years later with newer more modern facilities; the streets were graveled by 1890. In 1896, the population of San Marcos was estimated at 3,000, and there were two hotels, three newspapers, a bakery and a restaurant in town. The first telephone company opened in 1899.

Already a regional center for education, San Marcos received another boost with the chartering of the Southwest State Normal School in 1899, and its opening in 1903. The San Marcos Baptist Academy opened in 1907. Although the Coronal institute closed in 1918, the town continued to grow, and at the eve of World War II, it had 5,500 residents and more than 200 businesses. San Marcos was the commercial center for a large agricultural area.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the army chose a site six miles east of town for the San Marcos for a “San Marcos Army Air Field.” Navigators began training there in February of 1943, and continued through September of 1945. In May of 1946, the facility was put to use training helicopter pilots. In the early ‘50s, 21 squadrons and 4,800 personnel were assigned to the base, which was renamed Gary Air Force Base in 1953 to honor the first san Marcos resident killed in WW II, 2nd Lt. Arthur Edward Gary. In 1965, the base was converted to a career technical training facility. Today, Gary Job Corps Center offers the largest GED program in the state of Texas, and is the largest of all 124 Job Corps centers in the United States.

The Story of San Marcos

Photo: gobeyondblog.com

While the city was, for the most part, very civilized, there were a few rowdy incidents in its history. One such occasion was the 1924 robbery by the infamous Newton Boys at the old State Bank on the San Marcos square. Willis Newton poured so much nitro into the vault door that the side of the bank was partially blown away. The same building was used years later in the Steve McQueen movie, “The Getaway.” The most recent owners celebrated both events, calling their business “Newton Gang’s GETAWAY Saloon & Eatery.” (It is scheduled to re-open soon as “The Vault.”)

The Southwest State Normal School became a senior college in 1918, and the name was changed to Southwest Texas State Normal College. A similar name change was observed in 1923 when the college was admitted into the American Association of Teachers Colleges. President Lyndon B. Johnson graduated (from what was then Southwest Texas State Teachers College) in 1930 with a teaching certificate and a Bachelor of Science in history. In 1965, he returned to sign the Higher Education Act of 1965. By then, the school was known as Southwest Texas State College and had become an important regional institution.

Of course, the automobile had changed America, and San Marcos was already on the main highway from Austin to San Antonio (Route 81, built in 1926). The construction of the interstate highway system (I-35, in San Marcos) in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s brought many thousands of travelers through San Marcos each year. Entrepreneurs began to promote the natural attractions of the area, and San Marcos became known as a tourist destination; two already-popular natural wonders became San Marcos icons as more and more drivers heeded the billboards and pulled off the busy highway.

The Story of San Marcos

Photo: texasescapes.com

Aquarena Springs, now known as The Meadows Foundation, had been operated as a tourist attraction since 1926, when a man named A.B. Rogers purchased the property where General Burleson had built a dam downstream from the San Marcos Springs to form Spring Lake in 1850. Rogers built the Spring Lake Hotel (later Aquarena Springs Hotel) in 1928, and his son, Paul, introduced the first glass-bottom boat in 1946. The glass-bottom boats were followed by the Submarine Underwater Theatre in 1951. “Ralph, the famous swimming pig” made his first “swine dive” in 1969. At its peak, 250,000 people each year visited the resort, which included an “Alpine Swiss Sky Ride,” and “mermaid” performers that could be viewed from the submarine theater. In 1994, Aquarena Springs was purchased by Texas State University, which converted it into to an environmental learning center now known as The Meadows Center at Spring Lake. The center still offers glass bottom boat tours, plus environmental education tours, an endangered species exhibit and natural aquarium and scientific diving training.

Wonder World is a small theme park built around Wonder Cave, an earthquake-formed cave in the Balcones Fault Zone. According to legend, the cave was used as a campsite by Indians and Spaniards, especially priests. Outlaw gangs were rumored to have hidden booty there from robberies committed on the Camino Real in the 1820s. It was officially “discovered” by Mark and Elizabeth (Burleson) Bevers in 1896; W.S. Davis gave guided tours by candlelight around the turn of the century, making it the oldest commercial “show cave” in Texas. A.B. Rogers, who later would develop Aquarena Springs, bought the property in 1916 for $50 and a gray horse! In addition to cave tours, Wonder World offers a unique souvenir shop, an observation tower, an “anti-gravity house” and two miniature trains which take passengers through the waterfalls of “Mystery Mountain” and the Texas Wildlife Petting Park.

Much of the city’s history is illustrated by its wealth of historic buildings. One of the oldest is the 1847 log cabin of town founder Dr. Eli T. Merriman, now carefully restored at Veramendi Plaza, by the banks of the San Marcos River. Next to the Merriman cabin is the 1869 Charles S. Cock house, where the Heritage Association holds “Cottage Kitchen” lunches every Friday. Both are furnished with antiques and are open to the public as museums. In 1983, three blocks of Belvin Street were placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The concentration of Victorian and early 20th-century architecture developed between 1880 and 1910, as stockmen, farmers and town leaders built homes near the Coronal Institute. Several other streets and districts in San Marcos, including the town square, have received historical designation in recent years.

The Story of San Marcos

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A sobering reminder of a blight on Texas history is “The Calaboose,” officially called The Johnnie Armstead African American History Museum, for the remarkable San Marcos lady who founded it in 1997. Her husband, Albert Armstead, has run the museum since her death in 2008; a special exhibit commemorates her life. The Calaboose was San Marcos’ first jail, built in 1873; when a new jail was built a few years later, the original brick building became the segregated jail for African-American prisoners. During World War II, it was enlarged with a wooden addition and used as a USO center for African-American servicemen. The exhibits tell not only the story of segregation and persecution but the inspiring stories of survival and achievement in the face of great adversity. The Armsteads’ daughter was one of the first five African-American students to integrate San Marcos schools in 1968. Albert Armstead worked his way up from menial jobs to become the city’s first African-American electrical inspector and eventually the chief building official in San Marcos.

The area around the Calaboose was designated as the “Dunbar Historic District” in 2003. It includes the home of Ulysses Cephas, the son of former slaves who became widely known for his blacksmithing skills in the early 1900s. Preservationists hope to turn it into an “Eddie Durham” museum, to celebrate the life of the accomplished San Marcos musician. The historic 1908 First Baptist Church is slated to become the Dora Lee Brady Community Center (named for an influential and much-loved neighbor), and the 1885 jail to be the “Hays County Museum.”

While the official “Hays County Museum” is still in the planning stages, San Marcos has no shortage of quality museums. The Commemorative Air Force Museum, housed in a vintage 1943 wooden hangar at San Marcos Municipal Airport, includes the Stokes Memorial Library and several exhibit rooms in addition to its collection of World War II warplanes, both Japanese and American. The amazing museum called “Dick’s Classic Garage,” on the south side of San Marcos, features rare and beautiful automobiles, all in perfect condition, from 1929 to 1959. It was founded by San Marcos industrialist and civic leader Dick Burdick, whose love for classic cars will be apparent to any who visit this special place. Then, on the downtown square, there’s the Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum of San Marcos, which focuses on the future president’s time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College and his subsequent experiences as a teacher in South Texas.

The Story of San Marcos

Photo: smwatershedinitiative.org

The San Marcos River, winding through 150 acres of parkland, offers beautiful scenery and a wide variety of recreational opportunities. In addition to tubing, canoeing, snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, and fishing in the crystal-clear, spring-fed water, visitors enjoy picnicking, birdwatching, sunbathing, and many other activities. The city maintains three miles of jogging (or walking) trails, playscape equipment, basketball courts and volleyball set-ups in the expansive “green space.” There is a total of 1.191 acres of green space inside the city limits of San Marcos.

Texas State University is the city’s largest employer, with nearly 3,000 employees. Its campus, which began with the landmark Old Main building in 1903, now includes 457 acres and 225 buildings. Bobcat Stadium has become one of the dominant features of the San Marcos skyline, and the 30,000-plus students give the whole town an air of youthful exuberance. San Marcos has a wide range of entertainment options, including live music venues like the Cheatham Street Warehouse, where country music star George Strait got his start while a student at Texas State (SWTSU, back then).

It has a variety of lodgings, ranging from scenic campgrounds to the historic Crystal River Inn on Hopkins Street to the brand-new Embassy Suites Hotel next to Interstate 35. It has great shopping, including the famous outlet stores alongside I-35. You can even learn to sky-dive at Sky Dive San Marcos! With all its attractions, San Marcos is more than a “daytrip” destination; it will take a couple of days just to sample the highlights. So take a few days off; take the time to savor each of the attractions, and come away with a real appreciation for what San Marcos has to offer. We think you’ll be glad you did!