Thursday, August 9, 2018
August 9, 2018: Swimming Pool Studying: Fry’s Spring
[Ahead of my annual trip to Charlottesville with my sons, a trip that always features a good deal of swimming pool action, a series on pools and swimming in American history and culture. Leading up to a special weekend post highlighting one of my favorite pieces I’ve had the chance to write in the last year!]
On four exemplary stages of one of Charlottesville’s most enduring sites.
Fry’s Spring earned its name through one of the area’s early 19th century blue-bloods. James Francis Fry, grandson of Joshua Fry (one of the two men who patented Albemarle County in the mid-18th century), received 300 acres of land in the area from his father-in-law, the equally prominent local Nelson Barksdale, in 1839. Fry built the estate Azalea Hall on the site but also discovered a nearby spring, which he christened Fry’s Spring and which by mid-century had become well-known throughout the region. This was the era in which President Buchanan maintained a “Summer White House” at Pennsylvania’s Bedford Springs, and Fry’s Spring offered those further south their own such escape.
By the end of the century, the spring had changed hands and become part of a far more elaborate resort community, one connected to the nearby Jefferson Park Hotel. This was the height of the Gilded Age, an era defined both by conspicuous consumption and by the rise of marketing and advertising to appeal to those wealthiest Americans, and the Hotel offered it all: access to waters advertised as “the third most powerful of their kind in the world”; an on-site menagerie known as Wonderland; and two different train lines (a small “dummy-line” and a larger steam locomotive) to bring visitors to the site. Resorts and spas were no longer simply for first families and presidents—they were part of a network of sites linked to the upper stratum of Gilded Age America, such as Newport’s mansions, Lenox’s Ventfort Hall, and many others.
The Hotel burned down in 1910 (with salvaged wood being used to construct nearby homes, including one in which a certain AmericanStudier grew up!), and the land was sold to a trolley company that focused on adding to the Wonderland amusements. Among other ways in which Wonderland was developed in this era, the company added the city’s first moving picture shows. This was the period in which this new form of entertainment was sweeping the nation, but to my mind the movies signaled more than just a new technology—they represented, along with the rise of professional sports and the popularity of places like Coney Island, Revere Beach, and other so-called “trolley parks,” a democratization of leisure, a broadening of sites like Fry’s Spring to include more than Virginia blue bloods or the nation’s upper classes.
The next stage of that democratization of leisure and of Fry’s Spring began soon thereafter, and has continued into this AmericanStudier’s life and the 21st century. Local businessman J. Russell Dettor bought the site in 1920 and built a swimming pool, which he opened in 1921 as Fry’s Spring Beach Club. The century since has seen plenty more history and evolution, including those related to segregation that I detailed in this post, but they’ve all been connected to the Beach Club. The Beach Club where I kept the beach ball up and swam laps and played tennis throughout my youth, and where each August I take my boys for the next stage of their own Charlottesville histories and stories. Their lips get a lot bluer than their blood, and the only water they try is heavily chlorinated, but the story of Fry’s Spring continues into the 21st century nonetheless.
Last pool tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?