The Sylacauga Recreation Building is strategically located near both B.B. Comer and Sylacauga High Schools. Soon after it opened in February 1942, almost eighty years ago, it became a gathering place for students from both schools in the afternoons and evenings, and “See you at the Rec,” rang out when that last bell rang. It was also a hub of activity for the community that had almost doubled in size because of defense related industries. The success and growth of Sylacauga’s Park and Recreation Department was connected to the planning and programing developed by its director, Beth Wallace Yates. Mrs. Yates surrounded herself with good people who were forward thinkers, not afraid to work. People like Ray McDiarmid, Earl Lewis, and Bob Holmes remember happy times spent there playing basketball, ping pong, dancing or just hanging out. Since Ray’s family-owned Dixie Drug across the street, he remembers in the early days of television in Sylacauga when kids gathered to watch those black and white programs at the Rec since most people did not have televisions at home.
The programs had catchy names and were implemented in ways that drew people to participate. For example, the Esquire Club for young men and the Victory Dots and Dashes, a club for young girls, reflected on the World War and the patriotism of that time when freedom seemed so precious. These groups helped organize activities both in the building and at other locations. Writing about her experiences later Mrs. Yates, said, “Tremendous street dances are held on Broadway, right in the middle of town. The orchestra played from a truck parked in the middle of the block, and a young boy by the name of Jimmy Nabors always won the Jitterbug contests.” Lewis “Fess” Simpkins and his orchestra played for many of these street dances and for after the game dances and special holiday affairs held in that large gym. Defense workers were not forgotten. Mrs. Yates relates details of a Swing Shift dance which started in the early evening and ended at dawn. Ordinance Workers stopped by after they finished their shifts.
There was a weekly square dance, and service men from Ft. McClellan, Ft. Benning, Maxwell and Gunter AFB’s crowded into town. John Robinson and his band provided music for square dances, and partners danced the Grand March to “Under the Double Eagle.” A reasonable fee was charged for some of the dances, and that money went back into the program. According to a Birmingham News article of 1949 there was a “summer clearance” dance billed as “Stag-99¢” and “Nag and Drag-$1.29.” Most amazing to me about this reporting was of a “Golden Age” party. You had to be over sixty to attend, and attendance was recorded at 110. Everything from the jitterbug to square dancing was enjoyed by all as well as what we today would call Karaoke when one dignified man stood and sang all the verses of “The Legend of Barbara Allen.” Beth Yates definitely was creative and thought outside the box, even having a Red-Head Dance that admitted only red heads with orchestra wearing red yarn wigs.
My memories begin with the teen dances of the fifties. Beth Yates and Maxye Veazey taught most high school kids of that decade how to dance beginning in 6th grade with Tween Teens, Lucky Sevens, Eight Balls, and Emanon (no name spelled backwards). Each met on a designated day after school. In the early days of Rock and Roll when there was so much criticisms of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis, parents still trusted their kids to these rec “teachers” who also taught us to waltz, two-step, and square dance. I can remember lining up the length of that gym with Mrs. Yates in the front, patiently going through the steps to the dances. Then she would add the music played by a record player and a sound system that would surely not be adequate by today’s standards. Always at Christmas each club had a formal dance, and one of my treasured possessions is a picture of the Tween Teens Christmas dance that shows my mother and daddy sitting against that back wall watching their awkward daughter all dressed in a formal gown, towering over a boy who was a little on the short side. These formal affairs were as innocent and child-like as the kids who attended them. Mrs. Yates recounted one such dance for the 13-14 year old group: “Came the night of the affair and the tiny girls showed up in strapless evening gowns and the boys had sport outfits and black bow ties. It was very odd and a bit strained until the boys broke down and brought out concealed water pistols and started firing them at other couples. Then everyone had a good time.”
Club meetings were a big thing at the Rec. Garden Clubs, church groups, quilting clubs, art and music clubs and civic clubs like Lions Club, Rotary, and Kiwanis, PTO groups and bridge clubs met there. A couple of high school clubs Free Lancers at Sylacauga High and Remoc (Comer spelled backwards) held their meetings at the Rec and climaxed those fall meetings with Stardust dances at Christmas.
Mrs. Yates told me so many things that I did not know in her article on the history of recreation in Sylacauga. She said, “Sylacauga High School used the building as a lunchroom and after eating lunch, the kids put nickels in the juke box and danced to “String of Pearls” or “One O’Clock Jump” until time to go back to school.”
Mrs. Kate Bishop was the manager of the Snack Bar and fed groups from 8 to 400. It was former mayor Curtis Liles who opened the snack bar after school and at night to accommodate young people who gathered there. Milk shakes, and snacks made a good fare for students, and Curtis hired a student assistant, Billy Christian, who became an architect for a new rec a little later on.
Reading about such a program so many years later is amazing because we can see how the needs of this community at that time were met by a facility where a staff enjoyed planning and implementing its programs. I’ll see you at the Rec again next week as we finish up with memories about the parks, pools, tennis, and that staff, all a part of a program so well-managed that the recreation program called attention to Sylacauga nationally. It took hard work and planning, and it was not so long ago at that.
With special thanks to Beth Yates’ Story of the Recreation Building, The Birmingham News Age Herold, Samantha Machen and B.B. Comer Library, Earl Lewis and Images of Sylacauga.