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The History of Chapel Hill Youth Swimming – Part 1

by George Steel

In the late 1950s, my brother and I rode our bikes from Victory Village, where we lived with our Mother who was a UNC grad student, all over the south side of Chapel Hill, from Purefoy Road down Mason Farm Road, over to and up S. Columbia Street, down Raleigh (or South) Road to Country Club Road, and up to E. Franklin Street. This was our territory. Summers, we headed toward Woollen Gym by cutting across Manning Drive from Victory Village, going around the east side of Memorial Hospital, around the west side of Kenan Stadium, down to the Bell Tower parking lot, up to South Road, and left, past the Bell Tower and Tin Can. Summers seemed longer then.

Woollen Gym – UNC Chapel Hill
Woollen Gym – Bowman Gray pool is inside the structure on the right.

Free Swim Lessons

There in the summer at Woollen Gym, or just "Woollen," the University provided free morning swim lessons for the children of Chapel Hill, five days a week, two sessions each summer. A couple of hundred kids crowded the Bowman Gray indoor pool and the Navy (Kessing) outdoor pool. Kids in the beginners swim class sat on the indoor pool deck with their feet dangling in the shallow end. Mike, UNC wrestling coach, swim teacher, and director of the program, stood in the water, jock strap riding up his back, facing the kids. "Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick!!" Dozens of pairs of little legs furiously churned up a small squall into which Mike disappeared from sight.

Bowman Gray pool - UNC Chapel HIll
An old shot of Bowman Gray pool from the deep end. The pool is enormous, 50-meters long. The balcony is in the distance on middle right side of the photo. The bridge that divides the pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side wasn't installed yet.  (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Kessing pool - UNC Chapel Hill
Kessing pool – 1945. The Kessing Pool first opened in 1943 and provided aquatic training for the U.S. Navy's pre-flight divisions in World War II. Former presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, and my father, Logan Steel, trained at the center. Kessing Pool is 50 yards long.  (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Woollen's locker rooms were on the same level as the pool deck. From the balcony overlooking the indoor pool, my brother and I entered the men's side by going down the stairs to the left. At the beginning of each season, we were sized and outfitted for swim suits. We undressed in a small locker room and with all the other boys, lined up single-file, and walked naked down the subterranean hall, to the main men's locker room. There the workmen behind the "cage" estimated your waist size (24", 26") and issued you, like dealing a playing card across a table-top, a freshly laundered (and pressed) swim suit. They gave you a basket to store your clothes in, which you gave back to the men at the window for storage, before you went to the pool. When swim lessons were over, you returned to get your basket and a fresh white towel, indelibly marked "WG" in black.

You were not permitted to wear your own swim suit. It might be dirty, and polio had not yet been forgotten. The pool was perfectly clean; I have not seen a cleaner pool since. The girls had to wear caps to cover their hair. The boys' swim suits were incredibly ugly and ill-fitting heavy cotton things, usually a size or two too large with stretched waists and strings hanging out, not to mention other things. After putting on the suits, the boys showered just enough to get wet, and stepped through the chlorinated foot baths onto the indoor pool deck about midway between the shallow and deep ends, or out the back way to the outdoor pool. The girls entered onto the indoor pool deck from behind the diving boards.

The swim classes progressed in skill level from the beginners in the shallow end, 3 feet deep, to the most advanced in the deep end, 12 feet deep. There were probably 4 or 5 classes in the indoor pool, likewise the outdoor pool.

The teachers, mostly teen-agers, helped you learn by having you swim out to where they stood in the water. Then, after a little instruction, they pushed you back to the side of the pool. Soon you could swim all the way across the pool. The teacher promoted you to the next class when they felt you were ready. In the more advanced classes, you learned other strokes, or dove off the diving board.

Sometime during my second summer of swim lessons, feeling overlooked by the teachers of the elementary-level class I was in, I promoted myself to the classes in the outdoor pool, skipping past the remaining indoor pool classes. There was no formal certificate for promotion, so the next day I just mixed in with the other kids already in the outdoor pool. My technique and skills were not quite their level, but no one tossed me back. I had bluffed my way to the outdoor pool!

Kids Using The Gym

Use of Woollen by the kids of Chapel Hill was not strictly limited in those days. Maybe it was the times. What was it about those days? Certainly everything has its price now. The Woollen staff had better things to do, and so looked the other way. My brother and I spent hours and hours there. You could enter the gymnasium area from the back side onto the wooden floor. There were basketball courts, climbing ropes, pommel horses, uneven and parallel bars, and gymnastic rings. You could play pickup basketball games. My brother and I and friends played hours of "BB", often challenging the "College Joe's". Woollen was where the UNC Basketball Team practiced and played until Carmichael opened in 1965. It was not unknown to sneak into the Gym for UNC games either. I know I saw Billy Cunningham miss a dunk one time.

Recreational Swim

After swim lessons were over, you could get a "Dreamsicle" from the lady with the ice cream motor bike parked at the top of the parking lot by the pool. Then you could stay around until "12 to 1", the recreational swim period, when kids and families could swim in the outdoor pool. A pool pass was required, but at a nominal fee. Mother always made sure we had one. The kids played "Marco Polo," dove off the high dive, or practiced their cannon balls and jackknives. Sometimes the indoor pool was open to recreational swimming. A bridge bisected the indoor pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side. You could duck under the bridge and come up inside it. There was another recreational swim period later in the afternoons, and longer recreational swim periods on Saturdays. I absolutely thrived on swimming at the UNC indoor and outdoor pools at Woollen!

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My Favorite Chapel Hill Christmas Morning

by Charly Mann

There is nothing like the excitement and anticipation of Christmas morning when you are kid. On Christmas morning in 1957 I was 8 years old and living with my family on Old Mill Road in Chapel Hill. The night before I had hardly slept anticipating what presents Santa might have left for me under our tree. I have always been an early riser, and that morning I got up at 5:00 AM and began creeping down the long hallway from my bedroom past the rooms of my siblings and my parents before I reached our large living room where our tree was located. Bleary-eyed, I entered the darkened room from the opposite side of where the tree and presents were located, and was amazed that there was something covering the floor directly in front of me. As I looked down my eyes began to focus on a large miniature castle filled with an assortment of knights. It was one of the most indelible and incredible sights I have ever beheld. I could never have imagined such a marvelous thing, and somehow Santa had not only brought me the best present ever, but he had set it up with great care. I stood motionless for several minutes absorbing every detail of the large castle and the dozens of knights, some even on horseback, converging near the drawbridge.

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Chapel Hill's Christmas Past

by Charly Mann

For most of Chapel Hill’s history Franklin Street was filled with independent stores and restaurants. Christmas shopping downtown was a relaxing experience in holiday ambiance where every store carried unique gifts and customer service was always personalized. 

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Fall - The Best Time of Year In Chapel Hill

by Charly Mann

Chapel Hill has four distinctive seasons and Fall is always the best time of the year to live there. The temperatures begin to cool and an array of brilliant colors decorates the abundant hardwood trees in town.

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The Oldest House In Chapel Hill

by Charly Mann

The Hopper-Kyser House at 504 East Franklin Street is the oldest house in Chapel Hill. The house has grown from a 1400 square feet structure with no indoor plumbing or kitchen in 1814 to a magnificent home of over 4500 square feet with five bedrooms and bathrooms and a French kitchen. The original cost for the house is thought to be under $300. It recently sold for almost 1.5 million dollars. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Kay Kyser Inducted Into the Chapel Hill Hall of Fame

by Charly Mann

It is impossible to find a single adjective to describe the extraordinary contribution Kay Kyser bestowed on Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, and the state of North Carolina. He was an exceptional human being who excelled as an entertainer and a humanitarian. He was one of the biggest stars of all time, yet walked away from fame and fortune at his peak in 1951 to live in a dilapidated house in Chapel Hill. The rest of his life he dedicated to making the town and the world a better place. Among his work was the establishment of two of Chapel Hill's most important institutions, UNC Memorial Hospital and UNC Public Television.

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Bite Sized Facts Link for Useful facts, financial success, universal truths, and great health info



Chapel Hill is located on a hill whose only distinguishing feature in the 18th century was a small chapel on top called New Hope Chapel. This church was built in 1752 and is currently the location of The Carolina Inn. The town was founded in 1819, and chartered in 1851.

 

 

What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.

-- Charles Kuralt

 

 

Dark Side of the Hill -- Pink Floyd, the creators of the most popular album in history, Dark Side of the Moon, took the second half of their name from Floyd Council, a Chapel Hill native, and great blues singer and guitarist. He once belonged to a group called "The Chapel Hillbillies".

 

 

Check out Charly Mann's other website:
Oklahoma Birds and Butterflies
oklahomabirdsandbutterflies.com
http://oklahomabirdsandbutterflies.com

 



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There would probably be no Chapel Hill if the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees in 1793 had not chosen land across from New Hope Chapel for the location of the university. By 1800 there were about 100 people living in thirty houses surrounding the campus.

 

 

The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.

 

 

 

 

The University of North Carolina was closed from 1870 to 1875 because of lack of state funding.

 

 

 

 

William Ackland left his art collection and $1.25 million to Duke University in 1940 on the condition that he would be buried in the art museum that the University was to build with his bequest. Duke rejected this condition even though members of the Duke Family are buried in Duke Chapel. What followed was a long and acrimonious legal battle between Ackland relatives who now wanted the inheritance, Rollins College, and the University of North Carolina, each attempting to receive the funds. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1949 UNC was awarded the money for the museum. Ackland is buried near the museum's entrance. When the museum first opened, in the early sixties, there were rumors that his remains were leaking out of the mausoleum.

 

 

The official name of the Arboretum on the University of North Carolina campus is the Coker Arboretum. It is named after Dr. William Cocker, the University's first botany professor. It occupies a little more than five acres. It was founded in 1903.

 

 

Chapel Hill's main street has always been called Franklin Street. It was named after Benjamin Franklin in the early 1790s.

 

 



We need your help. Send your submissions, ideas, photos, and questions to CHMemories@gmail.com.

 

 

Chapel Hill High School and Chapel Hill Junior High were on Franklin Street in the same location as University Square until the mid 1960s.

 

 

The Colonial Drug Store at 450 West Franklin Street was owned and operated by John Carswell. It was famous for a fresh-squeezed carbonated orange beverage called a "Big O". In the early 1970s, I managed the Record and Tape Center next door, and must have had over 100 of those drinks. The Colonial Drug Store closed in 1996.

 

 

Sutton's Drugstore, which opened in 1923, has one of the last soda fountains in the South. It is one of the few businesses remaining on Franklin Street that was in operation when I was growing up in the 1950s.

 

 

Future President Gerald Ford lived in Chapel Hill twice. First when he was 24, in 1938, he took a law couse in summer school at UNC. He lived in the Carr Building, which was a law school dormitory. At the same time, Richard Nixon, the man he served under as Vice President, was attending law school at Duke. In 1942, Ford returned to Chapel Hill to attend the U.S. Navy's Pre-Flight School training program. He lived in a rental house on Hidden Hills Drive.

 

 

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