The Pig That Stole Our Hearts
The Texas Story Project.
Glass-bottom boats, long-haired mermaids, and a swimming pig. Aquarena Springs had it all.
Arro Smith: I grew up in Fort Worth, but my grandmother lived in the Valley, so we would make the drive up and down I-35 a couple of times a year during the 1970s. As we approached San Marcos, there would be billboards advertising Aquarena Springs, and “Ralph the Swimming Pig.” This enticement was irresistible to my sister and me, and we would beg Dad to stop.
He did stop on a few occasions, and I have very fond memories of Ralph the pig, the submarine theater, the Aquamaids, and the beautiful lake. The audience sat in a theater that became partially submerged so we could see the action below the surface through large glass windows. Ralph the Swimming Pig did his “swine dive,” and then we were entertained by the pretty “Aquamaids” who performed underwater. All this was great fun for us children and our parents, though I feared for my family’s life when the theater began its descent into the water the first time. And although this diversion added a couple of hours to our journey, my dad still remembers those afternoons as a welcome respite during our drive.
When I came to San Marcos in the early 1990s to work at the library, the first question from my friends back home always concerned Ralph. The only thing most people knew about San Marcos was that it was home to a swimming pig. As the librarian responsible for collecting and preserving local history, I can attest that there are many interesting and diverse facets of life in San Marcos, but some of the most fascinating local history revolves around the San Marcos River and the Aquarena Springs Resort. Doni Weber— the great-granddaughter of A. B. Rogers, who developed much of San Marcos, including a furniture store, the city’s first mortuary, and an early version of the resort on the river, and the granddaughter of Paul Rogers, the creator of Aquarena Springs—tells more of the story.
Doni Weber: Throughout the decades, visitors flocked to Aquarena to enjoy all the park’s attractions, but it is safe to say that Ralph the Swimming Pig would top almost anyone’s list of fondest memories. As the underwater show evolved, it featured pigs with various names, but Ralph became everyone’s favorite. From the moment he entered the water, performing his trademark “swine dive,” the swimming pig kept visitors of all ages spellbound. Over the years, Ralph’s popularity grew. He appeared in a segment of Walter Cronkite’s CBS news, on the television show That’s Incredible, and at the New Orleans World’s Fair. His trainer even stumped the panel on What’s My Line?
But Ralph’s biggest fans were the people of San Marcos. Local residents visited Aquarena frequently, visiting Ralph “backstage” in his very own “Pig Palace.” Children delighted in watching the tiny “Ralphs-in-training” toddling around on the grass, being fed from bottles. The nostalgia for Ralph is still evident in the continuing popularity of memorabilia with his image—from T-shirts to coffee mugs to the “floatie pens” that were once sold in the Aquarena gift shop.
Of course, change is inevitable, and Aquarena Springs is now the Meadows Center, an environmental research facility owned by Texas State University that serves an important purpose in ecological and environmental stewardship and education. Today, visitors receive valuable insights into the critical nature of protecting and preserving this marine ecosystem, but many of them will never stop missing the pig that once stole their hearts.
Arro Smith, PhD, has been the local history librarian in San Marcos since 1990. Doni Weber, an author and the granddaughter of the developer of Aquarena Springs, feels like she practically grew up at the resort. She has had the privilege of living in the wonderful city of San Marcos since 2007.
Posted April 17, 2015