iowa history, research

Summer Nostalgia

I just wanted to know more about private swimming pools.

A lead character in my current WIP comes from a very wealthy family. He had an injury where swimming/exercise alleviates pain and lessens his dependence on prescribed opiates.

I put off researching swimming pools for a couple of reasons:

  1. I hadn’t yet reached the necessary point in my story,
  2. Ignorance (how they work/who had them/ect.; swimming, as a child, wasn’t my thing).

One of my go-to sites is a closed group on Facebook called “Lost Des Moines“. Pictures and stories are posted about Des Moines, Iowa, where nostalgia often supersedes fact. For the most part, I treat this site as I would Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point, but if I want better truths I look elsewhere.

Terrace Hill Pool Party, 1937
“Pool Party at Terrace Hill, 1937.” Courtesy of John Pemble & Terrace Hill. “Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

“Lost Des Moines” posts regarding public pools were from adults who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Private pools, like anywhere else in the United States, were reserved for the wealthy. I was able to find swimming pools belonging to The Hubbells and Ding Darling (across from the Hubbell mansion, Terrace Hill, now home to the Governor of Iowa). Pool houses and how the swimming pools worked, I found in books centering on the wealthy elite from New York or Los Angeles. Technically, I found what I’d set out to find: the what, how, and why of private swimming pools. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t done. An NPR story and Clare Foran’s CNN article on Senator Tom Cotton solidified for me just why my research wasn’t complete.

The insidiousness of sites such as “Lost Des Moines” is nostalgia erodes the sharper points of history. The troupe of “things were better back then” may be true for one person, but not another. While Des Moines was often touted as an “open town” in the 1920s-1940s, well intentions often bucked reality.

When Marguerite E. Cothorn took her son swimming in the 1940s, she was often harassed or made to feel uncomfortable for allowing her son to play in Birdland Pool. Her harassers wanted to know why she wouldn’t take her son to Good Pool.

Good Park
“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Good Park has University Avenue on the north and Keosauqua Way on the east. The park and pool were also located near Center Street, a segregated African American business district (destroyed under the guise of urban renewal and McVicar/235 Hwy). Good Pool was a WPA project completed in 1936. The upkeep of the pool amounted to $3,000 a year for the city. The Des Moines Register and city ofificals perpetuated racism in several ways. While articles never specifically stated it was a segregated pool, they did a make a point to state, “There will be a Negro lifeguard at the pool.”  Or when other pools in Des Moines had to list the prices for admission ($ .25 for adults; $ .15 children), Good Pool’s cost would “probably be lower than at the other two pools”.

Misogyny plays a far bigger role in my current work than racism (single woman/P.I. 1937–you get the picture). However, when I am confronted with the uncomfortable realities of the past, unlike the Senator from Arkansas, I make a conscious effort to try and educate myself. And I still have a long way to go.

Sources:

“13 Acres Along River Wants City to Buy a Park Purchase Price is Set at $2,200.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 29 May 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

“City Swimming Pools Open June  1.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa, 13 April, 1937, 3. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Cothorn, Marguerite E. “Civil Rights and Black History of Iowa.” Audiocassette. Vol. 72. 2 vols. Iowa Oral History Project. Des Moines, Iowa, 1986.

David, John. “Stalking Des Moines with my Camera.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. Accessed: 22 Juy 2020.

Foran, Clare. “G.O.P. Senator Tom Cotton Pitches Bill to Prohibit Use of Federal Funds to Teach 1619 Project.” CNN Online.  24 July 2020. Accessed: 24 July 2020.

Gary, Thomas A. “The Rise and Fall of Center Street: 1945-1972.” Masters, Iowa State University, 2003.

Gillespie, Bob N Betsie. “Terrace Hill.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 9 July, 2017. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Jabbar, Akil. “Terrace Hill Pool.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 14 April 2015. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Leeuwen, Thomas A.P. van. The Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1999.

“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 1, 13. www.newspapers.com Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

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