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Only memories remain of Radford's Wildwood pool

Only memories remain of Radford's Wildwood pool

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RADFORD - A walnut tree grows at the 3-foot marker where children learned to dog paddle, and there's a sycamore at the deep end where teens splashed away the summers of their youth.

The old Wildwood pool smells of wild strawberries - not Vitalis or Evening in Paris, as it once did. Chickory, Queen Anne's lace and butterfly weed bloom from the fill dirt that sealed the pool's fate many years after the last belly flop brought squeals from bathing beauties. Carol Asbury, one of those beauties, spent nearly every summer day at the pool back in the '50s.

"I was a sun worshipper. In fact, I had a crush on the lifeguards back then," said the former elementary school teacher, now 65. "It was a fun place to go to hook up with friends."

Asbury, like other lifelong Radford residents, can't believe how quickly time passes. The Wildwood pool has come and gone, leaving behind the memories of an entire era. This weekend, the city is observing the 75th anniversary of the pool's impact on the community. When it opened on July 4, 1929, the swimming pool at Wildwood Park made a symbolic statement. Smack in the middle of Radford's east and west sides, it called out to both the children of East Radford whose parents were white collar professionals supported by Radford State Teachers College and the West End youngsters whose blue collar folks toiled at the foundries and factories.

Kids from both sides were united at the pool - white kids, that is. At that time and for some time to come, segregation was accepted without question by the whites and without option by the blacks.

When Arthur Roberts became president of the Radford Kiwanis Club on Jan. 3, 1929, he asked his fellow club members to organize a beautification project in Wildwood Park. In the March 5, 1969, edition of the Radford News Journal, Charles Fretwell described the pool's beginning from a Kiwanis Club report dated April 3, 1929:

"It is anticipated that the pool will be in readiness by the 4th of July and will fill a long-felt need for the young people of Radford. This will be a real benefit to the underprivileged children who frequent the dangerous New River which flows through town."

Wildwood's public pool did, indeed, open with a bang on Independence Day. The Kiwanians reported that the city "put on a big celebration and it is estimated that about 10,000 people visited the pool during the day."

Epsie Wilson was there.

"That sounds sort of exaggerated," said the 106-year-old Radford elder, "but people were swarming everywhere."

Elizabeth Fraley, 84, was 9 when the pool was built. She remembered admission being a quarter for kids over 12 and 10 or 15 cents for younger children.

"We would go early in the morning and come back dead. We wanted to get our money's worth. It was a pool that gave us a lot of pleasure," she said.

Fraley still remembers the wool swimsuit she wore as she slipped through the cold water.

"We had wool bathing suits up until the late '30s. Well, you see, they didn't have heated pools."

The pool's frigid temperature - even in the blazing heat of July - is the one thing local residents have not forgotten.

"The water was as cold as ice water all the time," said 76-year-old Tony Darden, who served as a lifeguard in the 1940s. "Cold water and a lot of fun, that's all there is to say. It was a good hangout for the kids."

Built in the shade of trees that once reportedly sheltered Confederate troops, the pool was fed by cool water from Connelly's Run. When it was drained, the water went right back into the creek.

Bob Asbury, Carol Asbury's husband and a former Radford city manager, said Wildwood was the only public pool in the city when he was growing up. Christiansburg had its Silver Lake and Salem had a public pool at Lakeside amusement park.

"In the late '40s, Radford was a thriving community just coming out of the war years," he noted. "Wildwood was one of the most popular hangouts for kids and adults of all ages. The pool closed just about the time that the huge national issue of desegregation was beginning. That was a dark period of history."

Four days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964, the Radford News Journal ran a front-page news brief about the integration of the Wildwood pool:

"Integration came to the city of Radford Sunday at the public swimming pool. A family of Negroes requested entrance at the gate of the pool. Their money was refused but they entered the pool."

Two months later, the newspaper ran a story with a large front-page headline, "City pool will not operate here in '65," citing the "poor physical condition of the pool" as cause for closure. A year later, the city's first private pool - Pine Valley Swim Club - opened in Radford. The pool, which has a membership of 185, still operates. Treasurer Lou Kent said there have been no black members since he joined in the '70s.

James Hickman, 76, believes the public pool closed because blacks could no longer be excluded.

Before integration, the pool was available to blacks only during the final three weeks of the season. They were allowed to swim after whites left.

"They would drain the pool and clean it like we got it dirty," Hickman recalled. "Things were pretty tough on us going some place like that."

Still, Hickman said black children would flock to the pool when it opened to them. "You know how children are - it was exciting to do something like that."

Walter Price, 84, was a teenager before he ever swam in the pool. "The river was there for us," he said. "That's where we did most of our swimming."

For 13 years after Wildwood pool shut down, the city went without a public pool. Bisset pool opened in 1978.

The old Wildwood site was filled with dirt a year later, the first year Jim Hurt became the city's engineer.

"We just trucked in fill material. There wasn't any fanfare about it," Hurt recalled. "But when I looked at it, I thought, 'Well, there's a lot of history here.'"

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