The old Shelby Swimming Pool
In this time of pandemic, racial division and opposing political belief, there is one old time Shelby place that all who are aware of can smile back on with a flood of great memories. That would be the old outdoor Shelby swimming pool. This pool was located where the Splash Park now sits next to the new swimming pool. Part of the diving tower, along with the outline of the inner and outer pool, are still visible along with a picture of the pool hung by the Splash Park entrance.
The pool was built by the WPA and dedicated June 22, 1941, for a cost of $40,000, which would be around $700,000 in today’s dollars. No, WPA doesn’t stand for We Poop Along, a history class rumor, it means the Work Progress Administration, a New Deal funded organization that built everything from damns, roads, bridges and yes, even swimming pools. Despite the blistering 100-degree heat, a large crowd of 700 attended the dedication. A parade featuring floats and a band ended at the pool, where speeches were given by many, while kids cooled off in the pool. Races, a band concert and a bathing beauty contest were held for the entertainment of attendees.
This pool was designed for maximum fun for all ages. The circular Hunter designed pool was the only one of its kind west of Chicago. As Dorothy Pellett Lescantz told me, “That pool was for years an architectural marvel in northern Montana.”
The round pool was divided by a fence separating the 12-feet deep section under the diving boards from the outer shallower portion that contained two water slides and a safe baby section. A footbridge led out to an island that held a tower, holding five diving boards of various spring and height. A metal spiral staircase led to a room below the tower where you could watch divers entering the water looking through the plate glass portholes. At night the lights in this room would be turned on, illuminating the water around the island.
Originally the pool was surrounded by sand, until it became apparent that the sand was being tracked into the water and messing with the pumps. Sometime along the way the sand was removed and a nice slopping cement border poured, complete with umbrellas, enabling mothers to protect their babies from the sun while their other children swam.
For four decades this pool was the daytime summer social gathering place for Shelby’s youth. This was a neutral place, where north and south side Bitterroot and Meadowlark kids could form new friendships before junior high. Even if you didn’t go to the pool with anyone, you were sure to run into plenty of kids you knew. Maybe that special girl or boy would be there. One of my friends got his first kiss underwater so nobody could see them. Mothers would drop off their kids for swim lessons in the morning and open swim after lunch. Mothers knew their kids would be safe and tired when they would be picked up.
It seemed like every kid in town could swim and do flips off the boards. I can still clearly visualize the athletic dives that the O’Hara brothers, Gene and Jess, could do off all the boards. Among the best divers of that era was Dave Maynard, my old Coyote teammate and friend, who took the first place trophy in a1965 diving contest. There were many great divers through all the eras.
Like most, I would be down there from opening until closing, racing, diving, playing tag, rough housing and having breath-holding contests with the Shelby kids. World famous paleontologist, Jack Horner, a few years older than I, would hold his breath, grab the fence and see how many times he could go around the pool separating the chest high shallow section from the deep.
My only summer at Boy Scout Camp Napi, at chilly lower St. Mary’s lake, I finished first in the breath holding underwater distance contest. How could a Shelby boy not win that? The favorite game to play in this wonderful pool was, of course, tag. It was hard to corner someone in a round pool, especially since there were really two round areas separated by that fence with the island in the middle. Three entrances between the two areas provided plenty of options for escape. Multiple games would go on for hours.
Swim instructors liked giving swimming lessons there, as the fence between the deep and shallow was a good safe target to swim to, plus it contained the kids. Young girls looked to the day they might become lifeguards or swim instructors. The lifeguard’s shrill whistle could compete with the old Empire Builder coming into Shelby as they bellowed out, “Don’t run!”
The lifeguards would continually walk around the pool or sit in the chair above the top diving board. Sometimes they would sit at the end of a diving board, where kids would try to splash water on them with a jack knife or cannonball jump.
My father, Dale Dart, the Meadowlark principal at the time, ran the pool for two summers in the early 60s. He installed a concession window, linking the swim area with the change building. Here I sold ice cream and frozen candy bars on a popsicle stick. My favorite was an ice cream sandwich. The best selling treat by far was a frozen candy bar called a Milk Shake. Other popular frozen candy bars were Zeroes and Snickers. Non-frozen Big Huns would keep you busy like a dog worrying over a bone. Thinking back, the tooth fairy must of been kept busy from kids loosing teeth as they chomped down on those rock hard candy bars.
Always with the thought of the youth of Shelby in mind, Dale started a swim-dance evening session for the high school kids on the weekend, playing 45rpm rock and roll records that proved to be very popular. KIYI, the predecessor of KSEN, was played over the loudspeakers the rest of the time. My sister, Susan, was a basket girl. She would switch to a rock and roll Great Falls station whenever dad would leave. “KIYI is old people’s music,” she told him.
Dad told her, “I’ll fire you if you change the station again.”
“The people and City of Shelby support the pool so we will play a Shelby radio station.”
“Well I quit then,” she said.
Come on Susan, now that you are an old person can’t you get behind a quick stepping polka song that will clear the cobwebs out of your mind and get you revved up for the day?
From the opening dedication day to the day the old pool closed, Shelby kids often came home with monumental sunburns. Kids would be running around with white sheets of dead skin peeling off their backs and shoulders. One of my sisters was burned so bad she had to wear a t-shirt for the entire summer. The water was cold whenever the pool was filled or change. Kids would stay in until almost hypothermic, then lay on the hot cement like a lizard on a rock soaking up the heat. Even today, dermatologists are probably reaping business from that no sunscreen era. Kids would stay in the hot showers until the hot water ran out, then stepped into the footbath filled with something “yucky” and head back into the pool.
A rite of passage involved sneaking into the pool at night. Over the fence, under the fence or over the roof of the dressing rooms, members from probably every class that went through SHS practiced a little civil disobedience. I wonder how many old-timers vividly remember standing at the edge of the high board on a clear windless night, staring down at the big drainage grate thinking like I did, “I hope there is water in the pool,” before taking a leap of faith, not seeing the water until it hit your hands.
Dorothy Pellett Lescantz, SHS Class of 1962, with three other gals, snuck into the pool for a late night swim. Someone heard them and called the police. Being a first-time rookie, she didn’t know you could hide under the footbridge to the island and go to the shallowest area, where the bridge hooked to the edge of the pool. Here there was just enough room to get your face out of the water, quietly breathe and lay low, until the heat was off. Dorothy and her outlaw girlfriends were found hugging the island by the police. Understanding policeman, King Bilodeau, gave the girls a ride home.
The greatest and certainly funniest sneak-in story involved two Shelby eighth grade boys, Fred Fyall and Tom Root, SHS Class of 1966. They were walking down the swimming pool hill going to Fred’s house for the night. They spotted people in the dark pool, swimming. Upon closer inspection they recognized a half dozen junior and senior boys. Hiding behind the change room building, Tom asked Fred to boost him up to the roof. Fred had no idea what Tom was about to do. Even as a young boy, Tom had a deep voice that served him well in later years as a Bogota Colombia Marine embassy guard and then as a sports announcer. Tom crouched down behind the peaked roof, cupped his hands around his mouth and barked out, “Freeze where you’re at, you are all under arrest. We will be coming in to take names.”
It was like shining a bright light into a cupboard full of cockroaches as the swimmers frantically tried to grab their clothes, shoes and get them over the fence. Some just abandoned their clothes as they scaled the fence.
“Eulberg, quick! They are getting away,” Tom thundered.
A lot of painful sounds came from the swimmers as they climbed over the double barbed wire topped fence. They made it to the service road on the west side, jumped into a car and roared back up Main Street towards town. Fred helped Tom back off the roof then continued back down the hill, two eighth grade pals having a great laugh.
Tom warned Fred “Don’t tell anyone about this because those guys will kick our butts if they find out.”
The statute of limitation in telling the story must be up for a butt beating after all those years.