Sylacauga’s recreation program was established as a multi-faceted program that had something for everyone. It started on level ground with other nearby programs since it was a part of a federal project in 194l that funded similar buildings in Childersburg and Talladega. Minnie Sellers was the first recreation director and operated from the basement of the First Methodist Church. A young school teacher, Beth Wallace Yates, was her assistant and Maxye Veazey joined them as a volunteer. After Sellers resigned at the end of World War II, Beth Yates became Superintendent of Recreation, a job she held until 1976. Maxye became Program Director in 1947, and she retired in 1978. Their contributions to that program cannot be measured. According to Images of America-Sylacauga, by Earl Lewis and friends, this program received 5 national awards in 1960 as one of the leading recreation programs in the country. Verlie Collins supervised recreation programs for black citizens at the outstanding Mountainview Center.
The Sylacauga Park and Recreation Board was established on February 1, 1938, to recommend to the City Council the development of parks , playgrounds, swimming pools, and ball fields. Plans were for six members appointed by the City Council for three year terms and the Mayor was an Ex-officio member.
The parks were located in various parts of the city and included: Fairmont, Roberts, Memorial, South Highland, Noble, Cowart, and Moon Park. Available land ranged from ½ acre at Roberts Park on Avondale Ave. and Second Street W. to Noble Park on Broadway with 12 acres. The playground equipment, shelters, and restrooms varied according to space available and the needs of the neighborhoods. Some of these parks are no longer active; vandalism became a problem and neighborhoods’ needs changed.
In the 40’s and 50’s the parks were very busy places, especially with summer playground activities. Part-time staff included college students who supervised children each afternoon in everything from various ball games, board games, jumping rope, jacks, etc. On Friday evenings there would be movies and special planned activities: Pet Contests, Cowboy Roundups, Tacky Parties, Backward Parties, Pirate Night, etc. Refreshments were served at most of these. I was a frequent participant at Memorial Park where Molly Ogletree, the Summer Activities Director, was wonderful. People like Cleve Crawford, Patsy and Sue Dennis, Karen Yost, and Ginger George waited for her to open the equipment closet in the right rear of the Girl Scout Little House, and the play began.
There were two swimming pools, Municipal Pool on Fort Williams and Wetumpka Avenue which replaced Sylacauga’s first pool, the Marble Bowl, and Mountainview Pool on Fluker Street. They were hubs for swimming and diving lessons, water aerobics, swim teams, parties, and many summer afternoons when friends gathered at the pool to cool and chat. After Coaches Tom and Lenette Calvin came to Sylacauga, she taught swimming and diving with assistance from Earl Lewis who was already very much involved in life guard and pool activities. As Mrs. Calvin became busy with gymnastics and teaching, Coach Lewis took over the swimming instruction while she kept the diving instruction.
Tennis has always been big in Sylacauga, and in the 1940’s and 50’s Sylacauga players dominated the high school tennis tournaments. Area tournaments attracted players from other states. The 7 lighted tennis courts at Memorial Park have always been busy places where adults continue to enjoy playing matches for enjoyment and to stay fit. It was a different day and there was no playing allowed during church service times on Sunday.
Noble Park had its own special qualities which included 3 shelters, rest rooms, and a ballfield. Family reunions and club get-togethers were held under the shelters. A miniature train called the Jolly Trolley operated there for a number of years during the fifties and sixties.
In the early 1970’s the Playmobile was a rolling recreation center that visited various city neighborhoods. The Chalaka Art Show was sponsored by the Recreation Department for more than ten years. Artists and craftsmen from the area entered contests and sold their paintings and homemade crafts.
I talked this week with James Leonard who worked at the Rec from 1978 until 2003 for 45 years. He started working in maintenance, but his career involved teaching tennis to children at some of the parks, teaching basket weaving, and showing movies. He built storage buildings at some of the parks so that summer workers could leave their equipment at the parks instead of carrying it around in their cars. He remembers helping Mrs. Yates turn a basement room at the Rec into a usable meeting room. Clubs each bought one 12” square of flooring, (her idea to pay for the project), and he put the floor down.
Sylacauga has always taken the lead and thought outside the ordinary, and that’s what makes it such a special place. The Rec was not just a place, but it was the special people who worked there together to meet the needs of a changing community, and it was not so long ago at that!
Special thanks to Beth Yates’ Story of the Recreation Building, James Leonard 45 years of service at the Rec, Earl Lewis, first Athletic Director at the Rec and co-author of Images of Sylacauga, and Samantha Machen at B.B. Comer Library