The story of what happened at the old Rec Building is a strange one that I did not know until I read The Story of the Sylacauga Recreation Building by Beth Yates. As previously reported, that building which opened in 1942 was built to be temporary and last for ten years. This Federal Community Building was to be used for defense workers in the area as well as the community.
The recreation program continued to be very successful after WWII was over; and renovations were necessary to accommodate an expanded program that brought more people to the building on a regular basis. A new roof, the building of three additional rooms, and an enlarged kitchen helped take care of the increase. It became apparent that a new building was needed when one day it was noticed that the walls in the auditorium were spreading outward. Mrs. Yates described it like this: “Strong cables were anchored to the columns to keep the walls from spreading any farther and the full program of activities continued. Silver stars were suspended from the cables for the annual Stardust Dance. Red, yellow, and purple serpentine tape and multi-colored balloons hung from the cables making a very gala setting for a Mardi Gras celebration. These decorated cables gave the Rec a most festive appearance and very few people realized that the heavy wires were actually holding the Rec together.”
I loved those silver stars, but never knew that they were holding the building together (the cables on which they hung). The Park and Recreation Board became concerned about the safety of the people who flocked to the Rec for a variety of programs which now included lots of classes (violin, karate, China painting, gymnastics, bridge, art, and ceramics). The kids flocked to after football game danced with Rock replacing the swing music of the big bands. Rock meant microphones and amplifiers as kids danced to the Distortions, Daze of the Weak, Rebellions and Sweet Young’uns.
Ken McElwee the City Building Inspector, was called in as a safety precaution. As suspected, he declared the auditorium to be unsafe for groups over fifty. Not just the walls, but the floor was unsafe in certain sections and fire exits were not adequate to handle larger crowds. Mrs. Yates quotes him as saying,”….if there was ever a fire, this building would burn in a matter of minutes.” These words were as prophetic as Jeremiah the Prophet’s words to Israel, and it would not be long until they came true.
Meanwhile, the staff began cutting back on scheduling large group activities. People worked together to make it work as the City decided to build a new building. Ground breaking ceremonies were held on July 14, 1975; and occupancy of the new building planned for June, 1976. The old site was still the perfect place for a new building, between our two great high schools.
Then the unthinkable happened on September 23, 1975. In God’s providence Hurricane Eloise was making its way across the state. Schools dismissed early, and classes and meetings at the Rec were cancelled. These included 5 teen clubs and children’s baton classes. A meeting of the SHS majorettes was cancelled as well as the Civitan Club and the Gun Club meetings that were scheduled in the evening at 4:00 the staff closed the Rec with plans to meet back at the building and reopen at 6:00.
Some of the staff arrived at the 5:00 and noticed the walls felt unusually hot. A call came in and someone said that they noticed smoke coming from the building. The Fire Department was called. Although they rushed to the building, Mr. McElwee’s prediction came true; and within about five minutes, the roof was caving in as smoke and flames and sparks filled the air. A crowd quickly gathered, and everyone was helpless and devastated. Mrs. Yates quoted our beloved Chris Kramer: “Tuesday night was a sad, sad sight as hundreds of ‘building users’ watched as the Rec burned so fast and furious that nothing could be saved. Those things of the past…records, trophies, framed certificates, the plaques for being a finalist in a national contest naming Sylacauga’s program as one of the top four programs in the nations. Today she is gone, only smoldering ashes remain. The ‘grand old lady’ has served her community well as she ended her career in a blaze of glory.” Today I add those of us who knew her do not need any of that to remember the Rec, the people who made her great, and the things we learned there.
The J. Craig Smith Community Center was built at a cost of $627,000; and it has served this community well. Built on that special site between the two schools, it continues to meet new needs in Sylacauga. As we say good-bye to Jim Armstrong with thanks for his contributions and welcome Steve Masters, the new Director of Parks and Recreation, we anticipate great things and remember this early program of seven parks, seven ball fields, two pools, and eleven tennis courts. We were a premier program, visited by other towns, and even universities; and it was not so long ago at that.
With special thanks for Beth Yates’ Story of the Recreation Building, and Yebbie Price Copeland for the picture from her grandfather Harmon Mims’ collection.