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Drowning is the fifth leading cause of accidental death in the USA. It is the second leading cause for those between the ages of one and fourteen. In the 19th century, it was worse, accounting for as many as one out of three accidental deaths.

And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.

James Whitcomb Riley, one of America’s worst famous poets, wrote his ode to “The Old Swimmin’ Hole” in 1883. Norman Rockwell and other artists romanticized swimming holes in their artwork for decades. But the truth is that swimming holes, like much of the rest of the nostalgic “good old days”, were just one more way to die young. In the latter part of the 19th century, 20% of American children did not live to start school. Most died from disease caused by bad milk and bad water and untreated sewage, but thousands, mostly boys, drowned at the old swimmin’ hole.

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When it opened in 1900, Nissen Park in Waughtown had several ponds for viewing pleasure only. About 200 feet east, outside the park boundaries, there was a sizable pond with a maximum depth of about 12-15 feet. It was a popular swimming hole for boys. In 1904, the Fries Power & Manufacturing Company, which operated the park as a way to increase ridership on its electric streetcar line, acquired the land with the idea of turning the pond into a modern swimming pool. But before they could even announce their intent, a teenaged boy drowned in the pond.

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Nissen Park offered free “moving pictures” several nights a week. Hollywood had not yet begun producing real “movies”, so they showed a number of “gee-whiz” shorts. Nevertheless, for the first time, many Americans got to see Niagara Falls, China and Jerusalem. #3 above should be “conjurer”.

The Fries quietly dropped the pool idea. They posted notices forbidding trespassing, fishing and swimming. And they implanted a syphon pipe in the pond to lower the depth to about two feet. A year later, they again began planning a pool at the site. But local boys had stopped up the syphon to deepen the water, and yet another teenager drowned. The pool idea was dropped for good.

In 1907, the Winston-Salem YMCA acquired a lot at the corner of Fourth and Cherry Streets for $12,500. Excavation for their first building began on Thursday, July 11, 1907. The building was completed in early 1908 at a cost of $41,500. It was a fully fitted out, modern YMCA building. In the basement was a bowling alley, changing rooms and showers and the Twin City’s first real swimming pool.

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But the pool was for members only and the dues were $10 a year. Men and women working 66 hour weeks in the factories for 10-14¢ an hour did not have that kind of money to spare for their sons. So the YMCA decided to launch a campaign to teach every boy in the city to swim, for free. By the summer of 1910, about 75 boys were receiving swimming instruction at the Y. That was great, but only a tiny percentage of the boys between the ages of ten and eighteen. And women and girls were completely left out.

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Granville School, c 1915

The new Granville elementary school, at the corner of Granville Drive and Academy Street, was completed Easter week, 1915. The dedication ceremony was held on Easter Monday, and the school opened the next day. It was the finest facility yet completed by the local school board. And in the basement was a swimming pool. At first, the YMCA established a Granville Branch, so access to the pool was still restricted to boys and men.

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The Forsyth Country Club pool was built in 1915-16. Of course it was only for members and guests, so had no imapct on the vast majority of local citizens.

In late 1915, the local YWCA began a fund drive to build a permanent home for its operations. They acquired a lot on East First Street at Church Street and had an architect design a building. By February, 1916, over $35,000 had been raised, which triggered a $5,000 donation from R.J. Reynolds. In February they elected Katharine Smith Reynolds, one of the founders of the YWCA, as president. A few weeks later, Katharine’s husband, R.J. Reynolds, made a second offer to the members. If they could raise another $5,000 for their building fund, he would match the amount. That was soon accomplished, increasing the total to over $50,000. On Saturday, May 22, 1916, the YWCA board awarded the construction contract, at $25,175, to W.L. Harbin of Lexington.

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In the late spring of 1917, their magnificent new Spanish Mission style home opened at First and Church Streets. The second floor was devoted to dormitory space. The first floor contained a circular reception area, offices, the dining room and kitchen. In the basement were a gymnasium, lockers and changing rooms and a swimming pool, or “plunge”, as the local newspapers called it.

The setup was similar to that of the YMCA. The pool was for members only, but at least some white women and girls had a safe place to swim.

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Chanticleer, 1921

The public swimming situation remained pretty much the same for several years. In 1919, the city of Winston-Salem created a new position known as director of parks and playgrounds and hired W.E. Vaughn-Lloyd. In 1921, the public school system hired Lloyd Hathaway, a star athlete and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Trinity College (Duke), to head the physical education program at the Winston-Salem High School. Hathaway immediately began promoting the importance of public parks and swimming facilities. He and Vaughn-Lloyd worked closely in that area, and when Vaughn-Lloyd left in 1923 to head the Tar Heel Council of the Boy Scouts, Hathaway added the title of director of parks and playgrounds to his existing job.

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Meanwhile, a whole new area of town, known as Skyland, was being developed by the R.J. Reynolds Real Estate Company along East Fifth Street. The city opened Skyland Park, with an extensive playground on Saturday, September 24, 1921. Architect C.W. Faw was hired to design a 38-40 classroom school to be built within the park boundaries. Bids were taken for the school in the spring of 1922 and in July a contract totalling $110,000 was awarded to Frank L. Blum, general contractor, and L.B. Brickenstein, for heating and plumbing.

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Skyland Pool

Around the same time, the Civitan Club, devoted to the well being of children, decided that the working class east side needed a pool. They acquired land in the park. C.M. Thomas began work on the pool in October, 1922 and it was dedicated on Labor Day, Monday, September 3, 1923 and handed over to the city, fully paid off by the Civitans.

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RJR High School gym…the pool was in the basement at lower right…

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R.J. Reynolds High School girls swimming team at their pool…from Black & Gold, 1928

The following year, the R.J. Reynolds High School gym opened on Northwest Boulevard, with a pool in the basement. And plans were afoot for another school in another working class area, on Waughtown Street, near the old Nissen Park. Again, the Civitan Club stepped up. They bought adjacent property and built another pool right behind the new Forest Park School. Both opened in 1925.

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Forest Park map, 1928…pool & bathhouse at upper right…Sanborn maps on NCLive

By then, the school pools were being operated by the city’s parks and playgrounds folks. For the first time, all white citizens, men, women, boys and girls, had free access to swimming pools, and more importantly, free swimming lessons. The pools were jammed on weekday afternoons and evenings and all day on Saturday. Skyland and Granville led the way. At Granville, Wallace Reynolds was put in charge of the men and boys and Doris Chipman in charge of the women and girls. Doris found a particularly responsive following in her under 14 girls group.

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Winston-Salem Journal, Friday, June 26, 1925

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By 1926, a dazzling array ot programs was being offered at all the schools…from swimming and diving exhibitions to fiercely fought competitions pitting the teams of the various schools against each other. All this was bound to spark a movement of privately owned, for profit pools, and it did. By the end of the summer, 1925, Burke’s Pool, Meadow Park Lake, Holton’s/Halcyon Pool, the West End Lake and Crystal Lake had opened as admission charging spas for white citizens. The Old Town Lake on Bethabara Road had opened for black citizens and another at the newly developing Dreamland Park was promised for the following spring.

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Old Town Lake was located on land granted to former slaves by Dr. Beverly Jones of Bethania in 1865. Crystal Lake was behind the residence of  W.T. Davis on Reynolda Road, a few hundred feet past the intersection with Polo Road. The base is Miller’s 1927 map of Forsyth County.

But the king of the hill had opened quite a few years before. In August 1919, G.C. Shelton announced the opening of Cliffside Lake, off the Old Salisbury Road in Swaimtown. He had dammed a spring fed stream and promised a seven acre lake for boating and swimming, with men’s and women’s bath houses, a refreshment stand, a dance pavilion, picnic areas and strolling paths through the woods, all lit for night time use, but not too brightly to accommodate romantic couples. He pretty much delivered on those promises and Cliffside became an instant hit that would dominate the private lake scene for the next dozen years or so.

It is not a coincidence that this sort of place, what some might call roadhouses, developed just as national prohibition was taking force. Prohibition had little effect upon the rich, who always had their safe places…country clubs and other club-type setups, luxury hotels and resorts where drinks were served one way or the other…nor did it much affect the poor, who had their drinkhouses scattered throughout the working class neighborhoods…but the middle class, who could not afford the clubs and would not be caught dead in a working class neighborhood, flocked to the “suburban” lakes.

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July 4, 1920

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Cliffside is the proof in the pudding. They made a big point of noting that a retired deputy sheriff was on hand to keep order. But numerous arrests were made in their parking lots for “violating the prohibition law”. It was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde situation, because Sunday schools and civic clubs and professional organizations flocked to their swimming and picnic facilities in huge numbers during daylight and early evening hours. But the real crowds came for the dancing…four nights a week with live bands, with the Saturday night dances often running to sunup on Sunday.

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For a time in 1923, the local sportsman’s club staged boxing matches at Clffside. The most popular attraction was local boy Frankie Lewis (l), the reigning state champion, who fought Bobby Woods (r), Battling Mason and a number of others.

We are not sure about the exact location of Cliffside. It was always described as being in sight of the Old Salisbury Road, three to four miles south of downtown. There are several lakes that could have been Cliffside, but that particular lake might not exist any more. We know nothing about Burke’s Pool, mentioned in the newspapers only once in passing. Meadow Park Lake was in Waughtown. The directions said to “turn right” at the Nissen Wagon Works. The West End Lake was “two miles past the country club”, or maybe only one mile, depending upon the source. Dreamland Park was never mentioned again after its original announcement, but from oral history we know it was built and we know where Dreamland Park is. We find the location of Old Town Lake noted on a 1927 county map.

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Holton’s Pool in the Southside would briefly be renamed Halcyon before reverting to its original name. It was located on Holton Street, which later became Konnoak. It was obliterated in the 1950s by the construction of Corporation Freeway, now Silas Creek Parkway.

The two that we can pin down are Holton’s/Halcyon/Holton’s and Crystal Lake, located at almost opposite ends of the city, one in the Southside and the other in the northwest. It appears that Holton’s opened first, but barely ahead of Crystal. The only one we know the precise opening for is Crystal. And since it was the only one to survive the Great Depression and World War II, Crystal Lake has become the one that everyone remembers.

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Crystal Lake opened on Friday, June 12, 1925. Within a few weeks, it closed, because cracks had begun appearing in the concrete. Repairs took a while before the lake reopened on Friday, July 31. During the closing, the waterflow had also been improved by adding pumps and a filtration system, and private dressing stalls were added in the women’s changing room.

The city operated pools offered the basics. A basin to swim in, changing rooms, lessons and competitions. To survive, the private lakes had to offer more. For Cliffside, that became the dances. Oldtown went for a more family image, urging patrons to come out and ride the hobby horses on their carousel. Holton’s had a small dance hall, but focused on big sliding boards and the convenience of the nearby Main Street / Sprague Street streetcar line. At first, Crystal Lake emphasized health…constantly refreshed spring water and a requirement that before entering the pool all customers had to present a current health certificate ensuring that they were disease free…but by the second season, Crystal Lake was competing to build bigger slides than Holton’s and offering a diving tower with springboards at three, eight, sixteen and twenty-four feet and a fifty foot platform.

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Crystal Lake, second season opening, 1926. The view is from the pavilion end. Note the towering fountain at center. A contest was held to try to guess the height of the fountain, with the winner receiving a free season’s pass. 

Competition was fierce. A favorite tactic was bringing in “acts”, which might or might not have something to do with swimming…anything to attract a crowd. There were high diving horses, bathing beauties plunging through rings of fire, fancy divers and floaters and a lot more.

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In mid-summer, 1925, it was announced that in late August, the amazing Hayward Thompson would drive his car blinfolded through the streets of the Twin City. The initial announcement said that he would end his drive at Crystal Lake. But by the time he had arrived, the owners of Holton’s Pool had outbid the Davises. The drive would end at Holton’s, and a contest to rename the pool would be decided by Thompson.

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Hayward Thompson’s drive began in front of the Winston-Salem Journal offices, where a crowd had gathered, on August 28, 1925. Prominent and ordinary citizens were chosen to don the blindfold and declare it authentic.

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Thompson’s drive ended at Holton’s Pool, where he “selected” the winning entry submitted by Miss Lolene O’Neal and the pool was renamed the Halcyon Pool. The Journal reported that “Halcyon” was a Spanish word, which, of course, it was not, having come to English directly  from Latin. And, of course, Thompson was a fraud…his “blindfold” was constructed of a number of layers of silk…when the “local” witnesses tried it on, they could see nothing…but when Thompson put it on, he needed only to push the layers a bit to provide himself with a clear view of the roadway. The Halcyon name lasted barely a year before the pool reverted to Holton’s.

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Perhaps the best promotion was accidental. In 1927, the Davises engaged mechanical and electronic genius Doug Lee to design a searchlight to be mounted on top of their diving tower. Lee, whose brilliance inspired the creation of the Twin City’s first radio station, WSJS, was just testing his new device when this article appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal. Some of the really old folks around town certainly remember when searchlights were used to promote all kinds of business ventures.

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One thing that might have surprised the owners of the early lakes was  the popularity of baptisms on their sites, in this case, one held by the downtown Methodist Episcopal Church.  Crystal was never open on Sundays except for such services until well after World War II.

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This 1926 ad is a bit ironic. Running at Crystal Lake was always forbidden…ask my friends who got thrown out for doing so. Note the slogan “Conducted for the better class”, which remained a part of the lake’s image to the very end.

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One of the earliest Crystal lake attractions was the water wheel. You could climb up its ladder and stand on top while your friends spun the wheel, hoping to throw you off. Indera Mills, on South Marshall Street, made swimsuits. In the 1920s, few people could afford the luxury of owning a swimsuit. When you arrived at Crystal Lake, you paid your admission, then a small rental fee and were given a suit and a wire basket, which had a large safety pin attached, with the same number as the basket. After changing, you put your street clothes in the basket and returned it to the desk, retaining the safety pin which you attached to your rented suit. This system persisted well into the 1950s. After each rental, the suits were laundered to sterile standards before the next use.

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Perhaps the most important attraction at Crystal Lake for many years was the diving tower. It had springboards at three, eight, sixteen and twenty-four feet. A ladder extended from there to the fifty foot diving platform. By 1927, the fifty foot platform was eliminated, replaced by Doug Lee’s powerful searchlight. Legend says that someone was killed diving from the fifty foot platform, but there is no evidence that that ever happened. More than likely, the insurance agent quoted too high a price for fifty foot dives. The twenty-four  foot board  persisted into the 1950s, becoming an important rite of passage for certain boys, although I saw more girls than boys diving from that height.

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Around 1930, R.J. Charles opened a public gun range at Crystal Lake, where he taught Zachary Smith Reynolds, the youngest child of R.J. and Katharine Reynolds, how to shoot. After Smith’s mysterious death at Reynolda in 1932, Charles offered a crucial piece of testimony to the coroner’s jury. The entry wound was in the right temple and the coroner had already ruled suicide. But Smith, Charles told the jury, was left handed, pretty much ruling out suicide in the case.

The killer for the lakes came in 1929 with the arrival of the Great Depression. Few survived. Holton’s pool soldiered on into the 1940s. But the only one truly still operating past the end of World War II was Crystal Lake. It remained a popular spot well into the 1970s, but by then its owners had had enough and were ready for retirement. Several people investigated the possibility of keeping Crystal Lake alive, but once they discovered how much work went into it, they stepped back. The lake passed to heirs who had no interest in swimming holes. They demolished the lake and pavilion and built an apartment complex on the land and a beloved era ended.

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Holton’s Pool, with vegetation growing in it, just before it was demolished in the 1950s

All photographs are from the Forsyth County Public Library collection, except where noted. Other images are from the microfilmed archives of the Winston-Salem Journal and the Twin City Sentinel as stored at Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.

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