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Missoulians swim down memory lane

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Back when the Clark Fork River was Missoula's dump and its professional baseball field was a log yard, there was a slice of summer paradise wedged in between.

Until 1938, swimming in Missoula was a dirty business. "Missoula the Way it Was" author Lenora Koelbel reported the first public pool in Missoula was at Pattee and Bank streets. It cost $25,000. But despite weekly drainings and cleanings, the pool collected so much dirt and leaves that it was constantly filthy.

Meanwhile, the territory just west of the Orange Street Bridge was already a sort of playground, according to city historian Audra Broman. She cited Missoulian accounts of "swimming and skating on the old lumber mill pond on part of the land, and even muskrat-trapping for money."

Around 1937, a new park started growing from several directions. The state highway department gave the city some of its surplus land from building the Orange Street Bridge. The prominent Kate McCormick estate donated some riverbank land to the city for a park and pool. The American Hide and Fur Co. deeded a third parcel to be attached to the first two.

Missoula historian Allan Mathews records construction beginning in 1938 on McCormick Park. Federal Works Progress Administration grant money contributed to the job. KGVO Radio owner A.J. Mosby ran a fundraising campaign, saying every dollar bought a bag of cement. The effort brought in $50,000. A July 19, 1939 Missoula Sentinel story covered the first concrete pours in the new pool.

The local Jaycees took up the effort in 1968 to improve the land around the pool. Their work rebuilt the mill pond into what they initially called "McCormick Lake," with an island, restrooms and a warming hut.

McCormick Park Pool babysat thousands of the city's children and helped thousands more learn to swim and save lives. Its original "Big T" design kept summers cool for 40 years. The remodeled pool lost the distinctive T wings, but continued to attract swimmers. However, it also lost water. About four years ago, city officials began a deathwatch as the pool's lining and plumbing endured failure after catastrophic failure.

In anticipation of its demolition, the Missoulian solicited memories from anyone who swam at "the Big T." Below are some of the recollections we received.

John Lee remembered the different attitude parents and kids had toward summer activity in the 1940s. His family owned the old Super Save grocery store on North Higgins Avenue.

"During the summer, my friends and I would walk downtown to visit my folks at the store," Lee wrote. "That's when your kids could make a walk like that without being afraid of what you might encounter along the way. Either going or coming we would stop off at the pool. A big thing was to walk the railroad bridge across the river and come in from the Front Street side. It was the long way around, but the bridge just kind of beckoned us.

"I remember how long it took me to finally get up enough nerve to dive off the high board at the pool. It couldn't really be described as a dive. As a matter of fact, I might have been pushed.

"In later years, I had a 1938 Ford convertible and the pool was a good place to look for chicks. Boy, we thought we were cool. McCormick Pool was part of crusin' the drag down Higgins Avenue. The noise parade, the soda fountain at the Florence Hotel, it was all one big package for a lot of pleasant years.

"I joined the Air Force in 1954 and moved back to Missoula in later years and took my kids to McCormick to swim. I'm not sure they remember it as fondly as I do. It's sad to see it go, but a whole new crop of kids will get their memories from the new pool and have stories to tell and take their kids there."

Susan Kavon said she spent many summer weekends at a lake cabin, but the others usually wound up at McCormick.

"There were hot, lazy afternoons when one of the neighborhood moms would load up a bunch of us in the station wagon and take us to McCormick Park. They told us we would go swimming, but in those days, there were so many kids in the pool, we were really there just to 'bob' around. The best part of the entire afternoon was the striped taffy that we could buy at the concession stand. It seems like it was at least 2 feet long, 4 inches wide, very flat and oh so delicious.

"The taffy was the redeeming factor for having to put up with the dingy locker rooms, the ankle-deep water we walked through leading out into the pool and the constant shrill of laughing, screaming children, who were most likely also dropped off by their neighborhood moms. Those really were the good old days."

Ruby Wood recalled trying to master a one-and-a-half somersault in the deep end with Whitey Garnaas in the summers of 1940 and 1941.

"Neither of us ever accomplished the feat," Wood wrote. "Then in 1957, I dropped my five strong children off there at 1 o'clock and picked them up after 5. They said I gave them money for one candy bar. The pool was free. They all became good swimmers and one daughter took the junior lifesaving course there."

Carole Dennis saw the pool as a threshold between her childhood and teenage years.

"I can still remember how cold the water was when you entered for the first time, the smell of the water and the taste of it when you tried your first underwater dive and swallowed a ton of water in the process. Or how when you worked your way up through the swim classes and finally got to go under the rope at the top of the 'T' and how grown-up you felt. You had finally made it and were no longer one of the little kids.

"Then there was having to get up the courage to jump off the high dive. I hate heights, but I remember climbing up the ladder and gingerly walking out on the board. Having my friends down below yelling 'Jump, jump!' And finally grabbing your nose and taking a breath and hurling yourself into space. WOW!

"In my early teen years, I remember my friends and I getting on our bikes and heading down to the pool. We had to bike about four or five miles one way to get there. But it was worth it just to get to hang out at the pool."

Jennifer Brandenberger met her future husband while working at McCormick Pool in 1981.

"Joe Lasar was the manager that summer. He was a great manager. Other co-workers were Michelle Ness, Brian Beck, Kim Anderson, Paula and Michelle White, Karla, Lynn, and Sandy Boom, Kevin and Jody Hawthorne.

"I just turned 19. And my future husband, Ned Brandenberger, was also 19. I ended up working for four summers, and Ned was there at least parts of three or four summers while in college. It was a great time to be a lifeguard and swim teacher.

"It was a great time for the pool, too. For years, I wanted to spend a week during July or August in Missoula, at McCormick Pool, swimming the lap swim and hanging out afterward. We finally decided that we would take a week this last summer.

"Then, my husband ended up having to work out of town for part of the week. I took my boys to the lap swim. Then, when Ned joined us on Friday, we swam Friday and Sunday.

"The Sunday that we swam the lap swim was the last lap swim for McCormick Pool. Without even realizing that it was the last week the pool was open, we ended up there on the very last day, at the very last swim at McCormick Pool."

Larry Britt of Potlatch, Idaho, wrote about the challenges of finding your own space in the crowded pool.

"I was born in 1955 and lived on the North Side until 1969. During the summer months, I remember myself and my friends from the North Side Park all getting together and heading for the 'T.' Most of us would walk, crossing the railroad tracks or else going up and over the viaduct. Either way was scary and not something I would allow my own kids to do.

"We would usually arrive early so we would play around out front waiting for the pool to open. Once inside we would look for an open spot to lay a towel down and away we would go. I remember on one occasion, I was coaxed out to the deep end (I wasn't much of a swimmer). I got caught away from the edge. Thanks go to my little girlfriend Patty N., or I might not be here today. She jumped in and pulled me to the edge.

"I also remember going up to buy a Look candy bar for a nickel and they would unwrap it and leave me with the chocolate mess. The 'Big T' as well as the North Side Park were a big part of my life growing up in Missoula and I cherish the memories."

Joan Kuehn's memories touch on the pool, but hover more around the parking lot.

"My three children never missed a summer session for swimming lessons or several fishing expeditions for the years 1981-91. We had many teachers, nearly always a day of freezing weather without being able to get into the water, and consistent exciting advancement. We also saw what seemed like a million sunfish come out of the pond in summer, and ice-skated all winter.

"These are joyous memories, but the story we remember the most as a family never ceases to be retold. One day in 1985, when my daughter was 1 and my two sons were 3 and 5 years old, our car disappeared right out of the front parking lot while the boys were in a swim lesson.

"I was sitting in front of the bush about 15 feet to the other side! I looked all over for the car when the boys dried off. It was gone. Another car was already parked in its prized parking spot!

"I called the police on the pay phone. I asked for money from a stranger to make a second call to a friend to bring a diaper to the police station since the car seat, diaper bag, and stroller were gone.

"The vehicle was soon located at the rest area near Superior, so the police drove us to it. It turned out a 15-year-old boy decided to run away from home and drive to his grandparents' in Coeur d'Alene. He had never driven a clutch before and apparently looked rather obvious on the highway. He was sent to a juvenile court support system.

"Everyone was safe. We thankfully drove home, but the car never drove the same again. I left the windows cracked open too far in the summer heat. I have never put keys in an ash tray again!"

Missoula lawyer David Berkoff is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, with four Olympic medals and three world records. But his biggest challenge at a pool may have come on Aug. 5, 1995, when he was coaching the Missoula Aquatic Club at the state swimming championships. That's when his girlfriend of about a year, Shirley Gustafson, took a microphone and asked him to marry her.

"She set it up so in the middle of the meet, she got down on her knees and proposed to me," Berkoff recalled. "Of course I accepted. There were 500 people watching."

Berkoff came to Missoula in 1993, lured by the tales of wonderful weather.

"It rained that whole summer," he said. "It was 45 degrees on the deck and 85 in the water. I remember all the kids were having a great time and all the coaches were out on the deck miserable, huddled around cups of coffee, trying to stay warm."

Now Berkoff is on the advisory board of Swim Missoula, a volunteer group raising money for a new 50-meter pool. He said the project appeals to his background in competitive swimming, but such a facility has much wider uses.

"Our current facilities are inadequate for adults and kids to learn how to swim safely," he said. "The only way you can do that is by having a larger body of water with deep ends. You need those deep-water opportunities for kids to learn how to be water safe."

Nevertheless, losing McCormick is going to be a wrench, he said.

"People have a lot of attachment toward it, even if they don't swim any more," Berkoff said. "It's going to be sad to see it go."

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