Post Cards From The Past

Area residents recall Crystal Beach
as Madison’s social hub

Park officials undecided on pool’s future

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

(April 2001) Madison, In – Hot summer days, snow cones, large dill pickles, swimming lessons and girls at the beach – these are just some of the images that come to mind when recalling the Golden Age of the Crystal Beach Swimming Pool and Recreation Center.

Crystal Beach Pool

Many considered it to have once been the social hub of Madison. Since its inception in 1937, Crystal Beach has become a landmark that area residents have grown to cherish as more than just a place to swim. Now the Madison Parks Department must decide the future of the pool. It held a public forum in March to gather input from the community.
Options include renovating the current pool or building another one, either on the present site or the hilltop near the Rucker Sports Complex. The parks department had outside consultants assess the situation, and parks director Dave Munier said nothing has been decided yet.
Today, such discussions under way to either repair or replace the aging pool have not only sparked debate but also memories among the many who have grown up around it.
Crystal Beach was born as a project of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which had the objective of improving public facilities while providing jobs for people after the Great Depression. Its existence as a public pool was at a time when pools were scarce. This was even the case 20 years after it opened in the 1950s.
“No one else had pools. If there was anyone, I don’t know who,” said Harold Lakeman, who started working at the pool in 1956 before later becoming parks director. “It is not like today where you see two or three pools in the neighborhood.”
Madison native Mary Louise Eisenhardt remembers going to the pool in her junior high years when it first opened. “Everyone was there. If you weren’t there, you were kind of left out.”
Though the style and shape of the pool at Vaughn Drive and Broadway has remained the same, many recall certain features that no longer exist. For example, the name Crystal Beach had literal meaning, since sand used to line the borders of the pool. Showers stood on the edges of the pool for swimmers to rinse the sand off themselves before diving in the chlorine-filled pool. The sand was removed in 1955 because of sanitary reasons outlined by the Health Department.
Five diving boards of varying heights were set in pyramid formation, while water slides lined the east and west ends of the pool. The slides were removed in the fifties and the diving boards in the seventies because the nine-foot depth of the pool was not regulation for the height of the boards. Just last month, park officials were notified by insurance company officials that the only remaining low diving board must be removed because of such depth regulations.
In the early days, the large upstairs room of the bath house was once used as a skating rink and dance hall. Exact dates on the presence of the hall and rink are not known, but as Lakeman recalled, “I do remember going with my mother in the late 1940s to get my sister from the skating rink.”
The closing of the skating rink, though, did not close the upstairs space. The Boys Club moved there in 1953. In 1957, John Paul became not only the Boys Club director but also the director of Parks and Playgrounds, and the club used the upstairs until 1968. Paul’s widow, Sue, still resides in Madison and recalled his generosity to the local children who wanted to swim.
“Any kid who wanted the opportunity to go swimming at Crystal Beach could,” she recalled. “If you could pick up sticks or clean up an area, you could get into the pool.”
A season pass to the pool would run $7.50 under normal circumstances.
The pool started out as a recreational entity but soon grew into an educational one as well. Swimming lessons became a permanent fixture in 1953. Eisenhardt spent almost 40 years coordinating swimming lessons with the assistance of high school students. The lessons would take place in the morning, and many of the young children taking lessons would stay to swim recreationally in the afternoon.
Eisenhardt recalled some evening classes that took place for adults in the areas of life-saving and instructing. The swimming lesson sessions would end at the close of the summer with an evening presentation by those taking the classes.
“Anything the child could do, we would work around a theme, like a circus theme,” Eisenhardt said. “We’d have probably 500 to 600 people down there watching.”
The pool also provided many people who still reside in Madison with jobs. Bob Kirkpatrick, now an optometrist, took his first job at Crystal Beach in 1966 as a lifeguard before “graduating to pool manager.”
“Back in those days, Crystal Beach wasn’t just a city pool, it was a social gathering place,” said Kirkpatrick. “People not only went there to swim but to catch up on local issues. We had a mixture of all sorts of people. It was nothing to have 1,500 swimmers a day there.”
Kirkpatrick recalled the bench on which all the doctors’ wives sat daily to converse. “All the swimmers knew it was their bench. They came every day without missing a day.”
He also recalled the fringe benefits of being a Crystal Beach lifeguard. “Back in those days, the authority of the lifeguard was absolute, the highest law.”
The lifeguards would run the show at the pool, making misbehaving swimmers sit on the low wall against the bath house and calling 10-minute breaks for all swimmers every hour on the hour. It was during these breaks that swimmers were supposed to rest and could get food from the concession stand.
“You had to have a dill pickle every day,” raved Connie Combs of the popular treat that became a regular staple there. Combs, now executive vice president of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, worked at the pool as a basket girl. Those who worked in the basket room would provide swimmers with a basket for their clothes. After the swimmers had changed into their swimwear, they would give their baskets to those working the basket room. They would in turn get a number to exchange for their basket. A swimmer would also wear a leather triangle tag, which allowed them to go in the nine-foot deep water. “That was status. That made you bigger than life,” said Combs.
“You literally grew up with that pool because the older you got, the deeper you could go,” recalled Pam Moon, a local business owner who used to be a swim instructor.
A fond memory of many swimmers were the evening hours. The porthole lights underneath the water allowed nighttime swims.
“It was almost tropical with the petunias in flower pots and the smell of the summer air,” recalled Linda MacLeod, a local caterer who spent many of her teenage days at the pool.
Such luxuries as electricity, though, could not withstand the pool’s age. The shakiness of the wiring and leakage in the pool led to the removal of the underwater illumination.
Crystal Beach also withstood two floods: one in 1964, the other in 1997.
“I remember when the flood came up,” recalled Paul of the 1964 tragedy. “John and I had to get down to the club early but couldn’t get in on Vaughn Drive. We had to go in through the side on Broadway in order to save some picnic tables.”
Despite such events, though, one surviving constant exists in the continuing friendship of those who grew up together at Crystal Beach.
“All the employees of that pool bonded like family,” said Kirkpatrick, who to this day keeps in contact with those with whom he lifeguarded, even though some live out of town.
“We became really close friends because we lifeguarded several summers together,” said Karen Burkhalter, who lifeguarded with Kirkpatrick and now is a Spanish teacher in Douglasville, Ga. Three years ago when Burkhalter was visiting Madison, she ran into someone who remembered her as a lifeguard 25 years before.
Burkhalter’s two sisters, Sally and Margo, also worked as lifeguards there.
“We were there every day when we were kids,” recalled Combs. “My mom and dad said they started going to the pool when they were 7 or 8 years old.” Combs’ father served as a lifeguard and worked in the skating rink upstairs in the late 1940s.
“It was the focal point of life in Madison during the summer,” said Moon. “You didn’t have organized sports for kids. We did our own thing.”
“You just don’t see pools like it,” said MacLeod, who has lived in many places besides Madison and returned. “All over the world you see square pools. What amazes me is it was built by the W.P.A. at a time without any money, and it had style and still does. Now that’s class!”
“We had people coming from everywhere,” said Eisenhardt. “They came from Versailles, Scottsburg, across the river in Kentucky. There weren’t too many other recreational places. In the summer, that’s where you were.”

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