Thursday, March 31, 2011

En-Joie Park, Endicott, NY: Vanquished by the Mighty Susquehanna


En-Joie (Ideal) Park Swimming Pool, Endicott, NY. Ca. 1910
When the waters of the Susquehanna River overtopped its banks and crept toward my grandmother’s house each spring, Dad would gather us in the car for a family field inspection. Grandmother's house was on Main Street just west of En-Joie Park, where Booth Avenue curved down into South Street by the tennis courts. Fortunately, the house was on a rise high enough to escape the flooding. But on the corner of South Street, just down the bank behind her house, were two houses that often fell victim to the river. They looked so forlorn -- surrounded by water, with no signs of life. It was the early 1950s. I was very young. 

My grandmother had four children by my Dad's father. Grandfather died in the 1920s, when my father was just 14 years old. In the 1930s, Grandmother remarried the widower of her sister - my Dad always called him "Uncle Rol" -- and moved herself and her family into his house on Main Street by the park. By the time I was born, Grandmother lived there with her stepson, my aunt, uncle, and my cousin, renting the place for around $25 per month. 

To us, one of greatest assets of my grandmother’s house was its proximity to En-Joie Park, which was just across the street. The park facilities -- except for the pool, which charged a small admission fee - were open and free to all. This was thanks to the generosity of Endicott-Johnson Shoe Co., which not only was benefactor of the park, but built the town of Endicott to house its workers. The park's name was pronounced "en-joi'," building on the initials "E-J," the local nickname for the company.

The park played an important role in our family history. When my Dad was a teenager, he worked every summer at En-Joie. Sometimes he worked in the basket room at the bath house; sometimes at the clay tennis courts on South Street. It was through his work at the tennis courts that he fell in love with the game, becoming an avid player and later a local tennis champion.

Before the elder relatives from far-flung towns in upstate New York died off, we would all gather for family reunions in the wood picnic pavilions above the river. Since this was the Irish side of the family, no fewer than eight different family recipes for potato salad were laid out on the tables with the hot dogs and hamburgers. Children were allowed to roam freely in the park – we could swim,  ride on the carousel, swing on the swings, or torture our siblings with stomach-churning, bum-smashing drops when we jumped off the seesaw before they did. For hours, the men would sit at the tables and play cribbage, sticking their pins in the wood board all afternoon, oblivious to demands from spouses or children. Sometimes, there would be a concert in the bandstand.

En-Joie Swimming Pool, Endicott, NY. Ca. 1940.
It was a rite of passage to be allowed to walk to the park alone on summer days. My brother and his friends, manly minimalists, rolled their bathing suits up in their towels. I always toted a girly beach bag containing my suit and towel, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with some change jingling around in the bottom. By the time we arrived, a line had already formed at the front entrance to the bath house. When the doors finally opened, we climbed the concrete stairs into the shadowy entryway, where we plunked our quarter on the worn counter.  In exchange we'd receive a wire basket with a brass tag on a stretchy band that we put on our ankle.

We would spend the whole afternoon at En-Joie, free of parents and responsibilities. The water in the huge, kidney-shaped pool was icy cold, even on the hottest days. It took forever from the moment I stuck my first toe into the freezing water until I dared a full-body plunge. But after a while, we didn't feel the cold. When our lips turned blue and our teeth chattered, we went over to the “baby pool” – a shallow, light-blue square adjacent to the big pool. The water was always warmer there.  We splashed though small ponds in the lawn at the perimeter of the pool that smelled of mud and cut grass and chlorine – smells that still today mix together in a pungent memory of my days at En-Joie.

Every summer I took swimming lessons at the pool. They started at 9:00 a.m. The water was even more frigid than it was at noon, but it didn't matter - we were eager to jump in and rack up as many little pins as possible. Tadpole. Dolphin. Swordfish. We pinned them proudly on our suits to let the world know how accomplished we were. Over the course of two or three summers, we'd finally be able to sew the exalted Jr. Lifesaving patch on our suits.

Winter comes to the Susquehanna River.
When winter came, we didn’t go to the park. It was empty, cold, and buried under a crusty layer of white. Anyway, we were too busy with winter things. In our absence, the frozen ground would press relentlessly against the empty concrete shell of the pool. Snow would weigh heavily on the  roofs of the old wood picnic pavilions. When the spring rains came, they would drench the hills and valleys around Endicott and fill the Susquehanna to the brim. Swift, muddy water would once again begin to climb over the banks towards my grandmother’s house. The river flooded the park, too, filling in the hollows near our favorite swings; inundating the little brook that flowed through the park with brown mucky water, leaving a skim of silt and sticks and debris; and covering the clay courts where I pictured Dad, forever young and tanned and smiling, playing tennis so long ago.

Flooding in En-Joie Park and Field, 1948. Vestal Bridge over the Susquehanna in background. Courtesy of Dryer Family photos: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~dryer/page15.htm
Ultimately, flood control came to Endicott, authorized by the federal Flood Control Act of 1954. In 1957, construction began on a levee and a flood wall that would encircle En-Joie Park, dooming it thereafter to be a part of the sacrificial flood plain along the north bank of the Susquehanna. The project was completed in 1961.

The flood wall forever changed the way we thought of the park. The grassy slope we rolled down before we jumped over the brook into the park was replaced by a high earthen berm. We couldn't see over the top of it. When we were in the park, we couldn't see out. The brook was filled in. The berm was a steep climb, even for our strong young legs. And the grass - it wasn't soft and moist and fragrant like a lawn. It was bristly and dry, sown on hard clay compacted by steam rollers.  No longer a greensward, it was built to withstand the pressures of the river. The flood wall, although perhaps a godsend to many, was the beginning of the end of our happy childhood days in the park.

1957, the year the flood control project began, was also the year that the Endicott and Johnson families – families that had guided E-J Shoes since its beginnings in 1899 – brought in outside management. Thus began a long period of decline for a company that reportedly manufactured almost all of the footwear used by the US Army in both World Wars.

En-Joie Park faded with the fortunes of Endicott-Johnson. The pool's concrete shell developed severe cracks; it leaked; finally, whole sections of the wall collapsed inward and lay on the pool floor. The old wood pavilions were torn down. No tanned high school students worked the concession stand.  Or mowed the lawns. No one went there anymore.  Thoughts turned to the new park being built on high ground on the north side of Endicott, across town from where the Susquehanna flowed.

By 1965, George W. Johnson Park had opened on Oak Hill Avenue. It boasted a pristine Olympic-sized pool. Swing sets were salvaged from the old park and relocated to the top of the hill. The old carousel was removed from its decades-long home by the river and installed in a shelter in Highland Park, another new park north of town. A new generation of children -- at once joyous and fearful -- would hold tight to the reins of the brightly-colored horses and swans and pigs on the whirling merry-go-round, just as we used to do.

Once the new park opened, En-Joie was finally abandoned. The hole where the pool used to be was filled in. The towering old trees were cut down. The hills and dales of the park were leveled for new tennis courts and a baseball diamond. It became a non-place to our generation.

I was in one of the first crews of lifeguards hired for the new Northside pool, having earned the most coveted Red Cross patch - Water Safety Instructor - that year at college. Each weekday morning that summer I would teach the new crop of Tadpoles and Dophins and Swordfish how to swim. I put sticky white zinc oxide on my sunburned nose. As I made my rounds during free swim, I twirled my lifeguard’s whistle – the sign of ultimate authority to people under ten -- as had generations of lifeguards before me. I sat in the tall lifeguard chair and savored the fragrance of fresh-cut grass and chlorine and Coppertone. In the evenings, chilly in my wet bathing suit and wrapped in a towel tied at the waist, I would help close up the bathhouse for the night.

The pool was the place for giggling and splashing and sleeping on a towel in the sun, thinking of nothing in particular.  Freed from books and teachers and schedules, "horsing around" at the pool was a way that we tested our social skills. We carried the lessons learned at the pool into adulthood. There was a kind of cosmic resolution as I watched the new generation adjust to the idea that one could actually jump into freezing pool water at 9 a.m.  And not only did they live to tell about it, it became a point of pride. And, after checking off the list of skills mastered, they, too, could carry a  bright, new shiny swim pin on the strap of their little bathing suits that day.

I loved every minute of that job. Working summers in the town park felt like a family tradition, a legacy I inherited.  But living the legacy never held quite the same magic for me as did the old En-Joie of my childhood -- the now mythical place where I first learned to swim. It was all gone, conquered by the Mighty Susquehanna and the passing of time.

Former site of En-Joie Park in 2011

Resources:

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,
www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/fcpprjendcot.pdf

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