This summer, Tahlequah said goodbye to a city institution as it passed into history.
The Bear Creek Pool, known to many residents simply as the city pool, shut down at the end of July, bowing out to the new aquatics facility on Allen Road.
Mayor Jason Nichols fully supported construction of the new venue, but like many in Tahlequah, he has a lot of memories wrapped in the old pool.
“My entire life that pool has been there,” he said. “I spent a lot of time there, absolutely. When I was growing up, that was the place to be in the summer.”
But for how long was that the case?
Apparently, before the Bear Creek pool was in place, another swimming pool was in that same location, below Bluff Avenue and in City Park. Though construction of the original pool lies within living memory – and there are probably residents who know what year it was built – efforts to pinpoint the date proved difficult.
Local resident Bruce Ross believes the city pool dated to the “early to mid-1950s.”
“I’m surprised by how much of the pool’s history isn’t documented,” Nichols said. “I’ve heard people say it opened somewhere between the early 1950s and the early 1960s. I’ve just been telling people it was built around 1960 – sort of an average of the dates I’ve heard.”
Whenever it opened, there had long been a need for a pool in Tahlequah. Local historian Beth Herrington said bathers sought relief from the summer heat wherever they could.
“During the second decade after Northeastern [State University] opened as a normal school, the boys would walk to the fish hatchery on the south end of town. The ponds weren’t very deep, but enough to splash and swim – according to some of my older relatives who attended Northeastern,” she said.
Others took advantage of the waterways around town, just as many around Tahlequah do today.
“In my day, we liked to go just south of the old river bridge that crosses the Illinois,” Herrington said. “People also often swam in the branch behind the fish ponds.”
Former State Sen. Herb Rozell said the Barren Fork creek was his swimming pool.
There were other pools around the city, but none were public. Herrington said she took a Red Cross course at the pool in the field house on the NSU campus. On the Facebook page” You Might Be From Tahlequah If...,” Robert Kashmer mentioned earning his lifeguard certification there. Vestiges of that tile pool at NSU remain intact, although the gymnasium in the north end of the Jack Dobbins Fieldhouse now covers the pool. But if you really look at this gym, it resembles an old-style natatorium. NSU employees say if you go into the mechanical room in the basement, you can peer through a hole in the pool and still see the blue and multi-colored tiles inside. It was too cost-prohibitive to bring the pool up to standards, so it was boarded over, and the NSU Fitness Center, with its accompanying eight-lane pool, was built in the early ‘80s. That center is now under reconstruction.
Several area residents recall pools at motels – including Oak Park, Talahoma and Hillcrest – that offered access to non-guests.
“The [Super Inn and Suites] motel on the corner of Downing [Street] and the [Bertha Parker] bypass opened in 1957, I believe,” wrote Mary Lou Capps. “They had a plan called The Cabana Club, and for a $20 membership, you could swim free all summer.”
State funds were used to construct the Bear Creek pool. On Facebook, Jim Lee Masters Jr. recalled that it first belonged to the Oklahoma Parks Department.
“They tried for years to give it to Tahlequah,” he wrote. “It was called officially the Sequoyah State Park Annex Swimming Pool.”
Nichols said ownership was transferred to Tahlequah “in the late 1980s or early 1990s.”
Construction of the Bear Creek Pool gave Tahlequah residents – particularly children – a recreational opportunity.
“The pool served the city very well,” Herrington said. “It was built at a very appropriate place for the time. The city didn’t extend as far to the south as today, so it was in the center of town where people were accustomed to visit for shopping. Everyone was able to take their kids there during the summer. It was a boon.”
Nichols said Tahlequah’s beloved pool needed to be replaced, even though it created summertime fun and memories for countless residents.
“Tahlequah grew and the pool aged,” he said. “It became difficult to repair and maintain. Also, people’s expectations changed about what constitutes a nice swimming facility, with slides and other features. But for its original purposes, the pool was a great place. It made a lot of kids happy for a very long time.”