“No, I didn’t. I caught you fair and square.”
I loved daily visits to the pool when we stayed with our grandparents during the summer. From the moment sunlight flooded into my upstairs bedroom to pop my eyelids open in the morning until the lifeguards opened the doors, I had only one thought on my mind--to swim until my swim-suit wearing, whistle blowing heroes shut lights off and locked gates. It didn’t take long after I’d checked in with my season ticket before I was out the dressing room door and in head tuck-diving position near the deep end ladder. Kansas summers were for swimming, and I lived to splash, race, and dive in those refreshing blue waters.
As a youngster in the 60s and d 70s, I thought everyone took Red Cross swimming lessons and could stroke their way across the pool so they were allowed to go off the diving board. What a surprise when I discovered that many older people weren’t swimmers. When I innocently asked why they hadn’t gone to the pool to learn, the answer startled me.
As youngsters, their community didn’t have a pool. Oftentimes, it wasn’t until the WPA built one that folks could enjoy seeing the bottom of a swimming hole. Those elders had done their splashing in creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes if they swam at all.
During those dry years, many didn’t have a pond where they could dogpaddle on a hot day. As a result men like my uncle in Southwest Kansas joined the navy during WW II and learned to swim as an adult in military training. He wasn’t alone in this experience. What I considered a childhood rite of passage didn’t occur because there wasn’t anywhere to swim.
To a girl who’d learned the Australian crawl not long after she’d learned to walk, that required mulling. No pools in these hot, western Kansas communities! And what was this WPA people mentioned? Grandpa straightened me out on that. He explained it was the Works Progress Administration, designed to provide jobs for those who needed work during The Great Depression. These individuals built pools, park shelters, and golf courses among other projects.
When I visit towns like Ellis, Hays, Holton, and Herington, I marvel at the attractive stone structures that bear testament to this difficult time in this country. These pools were state of the art in terms of design and filtration systems. In addition, they weren’t useful only as watering holes where kids frolicked on scorching days. Skilled architects needed work as much as the laborers and masons who dug holes, poured cement, and set stone. These gifted artists designed attached concession stands and dressing rooms to please the eye as well serve specific functions.
I learned the WPA built 805 pools across America during the 30s and 40s. Communities continue to preserve and update them so that young and old can cool off during the dog days of summer. While not every town got a WPA swimming hole, word got around about how nice these were. Today, you rarely visit a Kansas community on a hot day without hearing youngsters hollering “Marco Polo” as they blindly chase friends through the water.