Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mary Hutchinson: The Golden Age of the Randolph Playground

My generation was the last to enjoy the Randolph playground as it appears in this memoir by Mary Hutchinson, née Dustin. I remember the same craft shop, the same bath house, the same Gala Day celebration. The river was icy cold (especially at nine in the morning, when swimming lessons began), but those really were the glory days. 

Randolph Playground was where I spent the summers of my youth. I remember watching, as a small child, my dad help dig a swimming hole on the west side of the river. Why it was in that location, I do not know. Perhaps the town wanted a safe area to swim after five people drowned at Duckett’s Corner on route 12A. The new swimming pool was a bit muddy. It was fed by a trough from the river, and the river itself was crystal clear. Later, sandbags were laid across the river to form a dam. The river pool was much larger but oh, so cold!

After swimming lessons, we would rush up to the bathhouse to put on our clothes, which lay in piles on a bench or floor in each cubby. A white curtain pulled to give you privacy until some kid came along and pulled it open. We were sometimes known to wipe our feet on the curtains. My mother once took them all home to wash.

There were two outhouses with flush toilets, but little privacy. I would often run home to use the bathroom rather than risk someone walking in on me. Nearby were two drinking fountains with rusty tasting water. That was the only place to wash one’s hands.

There was no charge for attending the playground or for swimming lessons. We did pay for items at the craft shop, perhaps five or 25 cents for wooden items. The wood was donated by Webster’s mill, Savage’s mill, and Randolph furniture.

Miss Walbridge was rather stooped and wore a housedress covered by a paint-stained apron. She was in charge of the craft shop, and she kept strict discipline. No tools left out, no paint cans uncovered, no brushes uncleaned. The craft shop had two sections: one for painting and handwork, and the other for sawing and serious sanding. An opening in the wall allowed Miss Walbridge to keep track of both sections.

The younger children cut out their wooden projects held in a vice with a small handsaw, while the older children could use the pedal jigsaw, which resembled a bicycle. The saw was busy buzzing most of the day and the room smelled of sawdust, paint and turpentine.

There were other projects to make: Curtain pulls, napkin rings, potholders, cutting boards, tooled leather, belts, wallets, bracelets and lanyard made of gimp, wooden salad bowls, shell jewelry, tooled copper plaques, toothbrush holders, plaster molds, and painted jars and bottles. Our family had a toothbrush holder which four siblings each insisted was made by them.

The most popular items in the craft shop were lawn ornaments made of wood. They were painted with a flat white before the final color; last came the detail. How we hated to wait for that first flat coat to dry.
Before being painted, each item had to be sanded to perfection: Miss Walbridge insisted on a smooth surface.

One year, under the leadership of Gerry Jennings, we learned to folk dance. What fun! At the end of the season, we gave a demonstration of our accomplishments in the village square, where each Friday night the town band gave a concert. Most of the town turned out to these Friday night concerts. The town bustled with excitement! The stores were all open for shopping, and the 5-cent ice cream cones sold like hot cakes. Horns honked in appreciation of each piece, and neighbors went from car to car to share the latest gossip.

The biggest event of all at our playground was Gala Day. There were contests: running races, broad jump, running jump, horse shoes, softball games, volley ball, and my favorite, the treasure hunt. We ran from clue to clue. We must have looked like a herd of buffalo. The day ended with a huge bonfire in the open field behind the craft shop. There was popcorn and soda for sale and a hat was passed for contributions to defray expenses.

In later years, the Gala Day finale was a phenomenal circus. This was held at the alumni field, where there was a grandstand. There were clowns, acrobats, jokes, singing, and even a kid shot out of a canon. This was choreographed by our well-known Dean Rippon (later known as Birdo the Clown).
Dean was tall, tanned, very muscular, and bald. He was a gymnast and loved to be the center of attention. What a clown he was! One of the best acts was the arrival of a Volkswagon—the grandstand was full to capacity for this event. Horn honked, out came a child. Another honk, out came a child. Another honk, out came a child. There must have been fifteen in all. How he got so many children in that little car, I’ll never know.

In 1971, due to stricter standards for water testing, the town built a manmade pool beside the river and began to charge for its use. No more rolling in the sand and jumping into the river. No more workmen going to where the water flowed over the dam and washing up. No more night swimming after hours. No more picking “soap flowers” and making suds. No jumping off the bridge into the cold water. No white rocks and stones to be found on the bottom of the river. The playground was never the same again.

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