San Marcos, TX: A Grand Finale to the Texas Hill Country

San Marcos is unexpectedly interesting-a surprise because we didn't think Dick's Classic Cars would be the magnificent show it turns out to be, and we didn't realize the Commemorative Air Force Centex Wing would have such a moving tribute to Jimmy Doolittle, or that the town would have the largest collection of outlet stores in the United States.

This busy, busy place disappoints only because it is the end of our 6-town 12-day trip through the prettiest and most pleasing part of Texas, the Texas Hill Country. “San Marcos is unexpectedly interesting—a surprise because we didn’t think Dick’s Classic Cars would be the magnificent show it turns out to be, and we didn’t realize the Commemorative Air Force Centex Wing would have such a moving tribute to Jimmy Doolittle, or that the town would have the largest collection of outlet stores in the United States.” We did know the San Marcos River adds another dimension to this college town and that Texas State University housed the artifacts and props from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, in fact that was the original draw.

We had some interest in walking its historic streets and a lot of pleasure in dining in what was another surprise, its upscale restaurants—like Saltgrass and Palmer’s—with relatively inexpensive menus. And what a finale: the neat little Austin airport is only 45 miles away. We had a cheerleader session with 3 sisters who extolled the virtue of San Marcos; one was Cathy Dillon who with her husband Mike is the owner of the Crystal River Inn, and the other 2 were just visiting (and saying how nice it is to have a sister with a 12-room inn). One sister, Carol, is a family physician and the other, Connie, an equestrian professional.

Cathy is in center in small inset image and her doctor sister, Carol, is on her left. Cathy drops hints they’re ready to sell their inn to any interested doctor but Carol feels she already has a career.

Cathy and Mike came to San Marcos from Houston. Mike had been in high-rise management and Cathy with a Masters in cardiovascular nursing owned a cardiac monitoring company. They were adopting a baby and thought creating a country inn from a dilapidated old house would let Cathy be a stay at home mom. Sarah, the infant and the inn have the same birthday, Valentine’s Day 1984. The house had been the private home of a city father who had owned the first bank in town. A niece who inherited the house added Corinthian columns made of horsehair and plaster and it lost the inn its Historical Heritage plaque because its Victorian style had been altered.

“It really was an old falling-down house,” Cathy tells us, “And the first thing we had to do was take a shovel to the upstairs porch because pigeons had been the previous occupants.” Cathy is proud of her inn and of her city. “Many B & Bs are in quiet and remote places but we say to people thinking of staying with us, “Come here to have a great time!”

The Outlet Stores bring visitors in droves to shop. Way back in 2005 gotexas.about com reported they were the top attraction in Texas for in-state visitors (River Walk in San Antonio was No. 2 and the Alamo itself No. 3), and in 2006 ABC’s The View called them the third-best place in the world to shop. The Sam Marcos Outlets have significantly increased in size since then. Texas-sized, they now offer 350 stores.

“But our city has another record,” our innkeeper Cathy tells us. “For the second year running San Marcos is the fastest growing city in America with a population of over 50,000.”

She lists the reasons:

  • The location is perfect with its proximity on an interstate to 2 major cities.
  • It’s a college town, the third largest-university in the state, “the mother ship of Texas State University.”
  • Cotton farming brought wealth and jobs to the town and helped create the historic plantation homes.
  • It’s the oldest continuously inhabited site in the Western Hemisphere. Clovis Indians have lived here for 12,000 years. The Guadalupe River has an enormous amount of history. It’s claimed, “You can dig deep anywhere there along its banks and find arrowheads.” We find you can also find a lot of locals cooling off on hot days at favorite water holes.

We saw locals enjoying the river from a spot with the best view the restaurant near the university, Saltgrass. From time to time we would look away from our BBQ ribs and then a marvelous strawberry cheesecake to gaze at kids diving over a flume cascading beside our window or a man paddling a boogy board down river with his 2 dogs, one of which had thumbed a lift. Palmer’s, 2 blocks away from our inn, was another delight: 2 cocktails, crab cakes and steak, a glass of wine, and a shared ice cream—and a bill for less than $90. Inexpensive places for lunch are everywhere in a college town.

There are competing attractions in town: The Wetlands Floating Walkway with its boardwalk that allows visitors to walk on self-guided trails that offer close ups of the plant and animal life thriving here and the Glass Bottom Boat that offers a ride to marvel at the wonders found in the crystal-clear San Marcos River—and Wimberley Glassworks that has been crafting hand blown glass in its San Marcos studio for over 20 years.

And of course, LBJ taught school here at Texas State University at San Marcos. The Desk at which he signed the Higher Education Bill in 1965 as president is on display here, the same desk he used as a student assistant to the dean.

We moved on to Dick’s Classic Garage Car Museum at hard-to-find 120 Stagecoach Trail, [at (512) 878-2406; call to verify open] to marvel at the 80 cars from the years 1929 to 1959 that include a variety of Duesenbergs, Cadillacs, Chevys, Fords, Chryslers, and a Tucker. The word garage in its title is tongue in cheek; you’d think you’d drawn up to a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The curator, Tom Fortney, has been on staff since 2009 when the museum that had been in Rosanky, TX, an hour to the East for 30 years, moved here under the same owner. Fortney is a history major with a culinary background but his family has worked for GM since the 1920s. His grandfather blew up a GM 235 inline 6 testing a 1952 Corvette for its engine endurance.

Says Fortney, “I’m excited to come to work every day and meet the people who visit car museums. One day it was the grandson of Preston Tucker, John Tucker.” We had noticed the Jeff Bridges movie Tucker was not only playing on one of the many TV screens as he spoke but a magnificent 1948 Tucker Torpedo that cost $2,450 then was displayed before us. Like all the cars in this museum it was in immaculate condition.

“I asked John,” continues Fortney, “If his grandfather was really that over the top as was displayed in the movie and John said they actually had to tone it down a lot to make it believable.” Fortney explains that coming off the war years a ’47 Ford was really the same car as a ’42 Ford. Tucker pushed the envelope too hard at the wrong time making cars that were about a decade ahead of the industry so the Big 3 ganged up against him and put him out of business.

The 1927 Ford Model T in the lobby explains how this car museum began. Dick Burdick, a Theron representative attended a petroleum conference in 1979 and chatted to an industry representative, Sam Aubrey. He found that Sam had a Model T taking up too much space in his warehouse. Dick went with his brother Fulton who used to race Model Ts to see the car and traded for it with some Thermon heater cable and a developing passion created this museum.

The Commemorative Air Force—Centex Wing at Building 2249 on 1841 Airport Drive has 4 aircraft of the CAF. It houses also a small museum to military aviation including a tribute to Jimmy Doolittle.

The art that surrounds the Doolittle raid in this museum was painted (middle image) by C. Ross Greening who piloted and survived the eleventh B-25 in the operation but was shot down in action over Italy in 1943 and imprisoned in Stalag Luft I in Germany. He painted the scene “Jimmy Leads the Way” from memory in POW camp. He died in 1957 in Bethesda, MD, following open heart surgery. The lower image titled “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again” was painted by William S. Phillips and has been autographed by Doolittle.

It is a working hanger and some other aircraft in the hanger are stripped or otherwise undergoing restoration. Mechanics on stepladders amiably answer questions as we move below them. A B-25 similar to the 16 Doolittle used for his attack on Tokyo stands above us. The historic flight 4 months after Pearl Harbor had to take off early from the USS Hornet once it was discovered en route by a Japanese vessel. The aircrews knew they did not have enough fuel to make a safe return but 69 of his 80 air crew survived their crash landings in Eastern China.

We ask the typical questions of visitors and Ray Clausen, the maintenance officer of the Centex Wing comes over to help us.

He leads us into the museum and to its unique attraction: the armored seat back of Doolittle’s B-25. “I came here for the B-25 and to be part of the World War II history of the place,” Clausen says, “and it’s amazing to meet the gentlemen who took part in that history and hear their stories.”

The most amazing story is that of Doolittle’s navigator, Hank Potter. Col. Potter in 1994 went back to China to the area near Chuchow where Doolittle’s plane had crashed after the crew’s bail out from the fuel-starved plane. Potter managed to retrieve the 50-pound armored seat back from Doolittle’s seat.

Doolittle was born in Alameda, CA and died in Pebble Beach, CA at the age of 96. His life activities spanned the world. What had initially brought us to San Marcos was a tale that stretched from Texas to Montana, the story of Lonesome Dove. And that’s our next story from the Texas Hill Country.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.