The Allure of Aquamaids: Pioneering Maidens Further Mission of Mermaid Society SMTX

July 31, 2016

Lori Steindorf, Features Editor | San Marcos Daily Record 

Timeless, graceful and ethereal, the pioneering Aquamaids from over the years are elegantly and playfully setting the tone to usher in Mermaid Week 2016.

 Ambassadors for San Marcos, they are heralding the Mermaid Society SMTX’s mission of placing the mermaid on a pedestal to be admired and serve as a beacon in embodying the San Marcos’ vibrant community. These dignified ladies, led by the elegant grande dame of the mermaid culture, Shirley Rogers, actually swam through the cool, clear, mystical waters of Aquarena Springs to the delight of generations of families since the genesis of Aquarena Springs in the 1950s.

 Rogers is the granddaughter of A.B. Rogers and daughter to Paul Rogers, creator of Aquarena Springs. She is the original Aquamaid from the '50s and has treasured memories of the popular underwater picnic where she mastered the art of delicately eating and drinking underwater through the use of breathing compressed air through a hose to the amazement of tourists and residents who frequented the amusement park. 

 As an Aquamaid, she was required to be under water for 45 minutes, and she visibly accomplished this seamlessly.

She said of the underwater picnic, “That was the one that seemed to create the most interest. People wondered how you could drink underwater – how you could drink and eat a snack underwater.”

 Rogers recalls her attire before the arrival of mermaid tails years later. It was a modest one-piece with a ruffle, she recalls, and she served as an Aquamaid for two years while in college.

 “Back in the heyday, it was quite the tourist destination in Texas so I think it’s important to keep that alive. It’s a part of our heritage and promoting our heritage,” Rogers said of Aquarena Springs.

 Participating as an Aquamaid was a fun diversion for her, and though she earned a little money along the way, she, along with the other Aquamaids, said they would have done it for free.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I had been swimming in the river all my life. I just enjoyed the whole experience. It was something I wanted to do my entire life,” she said.

 As 2016 Queen of the Mermaid Court, Rogers said she is overjoyed that the Mermaid Society is resonating with the community in a positive fashion.

 "I am so pleased that the Mermaid Society is making such a big splash in San Marcos, and I am honored to play a part in the inaugural Mermaid Week to be held in September. The mermaid as our city's mascot is a fun, meaningful way to preserve the legacy of Aquarena Springs and to help promote awareness of our river and the need to protect and preserve it for generations to come,” she said. 

 Another exuberant pair of Aquamaids who  swam through the waters of Aquarena Springs to the delight of generations of families in different time periods are Sherry Henderson, from 1967 through 1979, and Pam Gill-Kimrey in 1969. 

Gill-Kimrey, whose family has the two Gill's Fried Chicken locations, said before her family moved to San Marcos from West Texas, just like other young girls, she envisioned becoming an Aquamaid. 

She said it was an awesome experience because her girlhood dream of serving as an Aquamaid ultimately materialized, and it was all that she had hoped it would be. After all, she met her lifelong friend, Henderson, and the two routinely hang out together to reminisce about their blissful times at Aquarena Springs. They affectionately refer to each other as matching bookends.

 A longtime educator, Henderson, who in later years facilitated the university seminar, educated students about the city and environment through glass-bottom boat tours. She remembers fondly the many splendid times she spent as an Aquamaid and describes Aquarena Springs as sublime.

 “Everybody was happy there. You couldn’t wait to get there. You never wanted to leave. I would spend 12 hours a day there, and I didn’t care. You’d meet people there who are your lifelong friends, and at the end of the day, the boys would finish, and we’d go somewhere and have good, clean fun. It was such a happy place to be and work. You never thought about the money. Families would come happy and leave happy. I haven’t ever sensed anything like that since maybe it would be when we took our grandkids to DisneyWorld. You sort of get that family sense, but it was so commercial. At Aquarena Springs, you were surrounded by the serenity of nature,” Henderson said.

 She continued that Mermaid Week 2016 captures the essence of the community in bringing people together to celebrate fellowship and the San Marcos River.

 The trio of women recollect cherished memories of the park’s general manager Gene Phillips who ensured everyone visiting the park had a fun-filled, hassle-free time. “If you were not happy, he was not happy,” they said.

 They remember rock, candy, the underwater submarine theater, Ralph the Swimming Pig, underwater volcanoes, light shows, the Polynesian Garden, sky rides, golden geese, and eating cheese in a treehouse. 

 The Aquamaids are largely responsible for branding San Marcos as a hospitality/tourism hotspot before the advent of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, which they are fiercely proud to support.

 As executive director of The Meadows Center, Andrew Sansom, Ph.D., said he is proud to pledge his support for the mission of Mermaid Society SMTX.

 “I am excited about the formation of the Mermaid Society in San Marcos as it promises to keep the legacy of Aquarena Springs alive, provide a meaningful connection between art and the environment, and help strengthen the community’s commitment to be good stewards of the river,” Sansom said.

 Environmental stewards with a deep-rooted love for their community, the Aquamaids to this day are ambassadors for the city and educate others about this city’s ecosystem that is resplendent with flora and fauna such as the blind salamander and stands of native grasses such as Texas Wild Rice. In addition to the environment, they are particularly vocal about bolstering the city’s community spirit and camaraderie. 

 They are also steadfast in continuing the legacy of Aquarena Springs for future generations unaware of the theme park’s glorious past and people’s cherished memories.

 To build momentum for Mermaid Society SMTX, community pillars Ron Coley, filmmaker, underwater archaeologist and author of The Fountains of Saint Mark, along with artist Janet Hardin, who was an Aquamaid in 1970, have generously offered a stay at their vacation home in Playa Blanca, Mexico where Coley reassures that the recipient of the trip will be surrounded by mermaid art.

 “We’re going to give them a platform to where they can come and be surrounded by mermaids the whole entire time they are there,” Coley said.

 In his book, he raises awareness about the majestic San Marcos Springs to help raise awareness of them for the river’s protection. Hardin provided the paintings featured in Coley’s book. “She is a magnificent artist,” he said.

 The vacation includes seven-day and six-night accommodations at Casa de la Sirena and  round trip airfare for two adults from Houston International Airport. The lavish vacation includes airport pick up and return to airport for departure. Private guest house with two twin or one king bed, private bath and terrace overlooking the ocean.  Accommodations have small refrigerator and a coffee maker.  Stay includes use of beach, owners lap pool and outdoor kitchen facilities.  Taxies are available for trips at the expense of the guests to go into Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa, Barra de Potisi and other places of interest. Trip is for two adults and does not include pets of children under 18 years old. The exact details on purchasing tickets to obtain the trip were not available as of press time, but will be clarified closer to the event.

 The Mermaid Society “Art” Ball is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 16 from 7 to 11:30 p.m. on the grounds of The Meadows Center located in San Marcos.  

 This private evening includes starry night rooftop views, sunset glass bottom boat cruises, live music, dancing, dining, specialty cocktails, live art performances and the crowning of the Society’s first Queen, Shirley Rogers, and her Mermaid Court, all former Aquamaids. Mermaid-chic attire is suggested. This is a ticketed event and attendance to this art-inspired event will be limited.

 Rogers and her Mermaid Court will be present during the Mermaid Parade planned for Saturday, Sept. 17 from 10 a.m. to noon. 

 Other members of the Mermaid Court are Peggy Fairey, Kim Riley Whitbeck, Toni Scaggs Burton, Jamie Underwood, Robin Daniel-Ward, Kimi Phillips and two other Aquamaids, whose names weren’t confirmed at press time.

Other honorees include grand marshals Billy Ray and Beverly Mangham of Eye of the Dog Art Center, Julie Balkman, owner of Wake the Dead Coffee House, Derrick Lee, Zach Halfin and Nathan Lawrence, co-founders of the Eyes of the San Marcos River, and Dr. Mario Garza, founder, and Maria Rocha, executive director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute. SPLASH King is Chris Rue of Stonewall Warehouse.

 Following the parade, The Mermaid Splash Festival will take place from 1 to 8 p.m.in the San Marcos Plaza Park. There are also several other mermaid-inspired events scheduled. 

 In coming weeks, the San Marcos Daily Record will feature stories in Sunday’s MyTown section that focus on the different facets of Mermaid Week SMTX 2016.