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Beehive Archive: Skinny Dipping In The 'Pen Pond'

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Utah summers are hot! Taking a dip in a cool pool on a hot day is a popular pastime for many Utahns, but in the 1920s, public swimming pools were hard to come by. Without access to a pool, kids in Sugar House would cool off during baking summer afternoons in the “Pen Pond,” located on the grounds of the Utah State Penitentiary.

The unsupervised Pen Pond presented a few challenges for the swimming children, including jagged rocks, rusty tin cans, broken glass, slimy mud, worms, and water spiders. In addition to the less-than-ideal aquatic environment, swimming suits were expensive – so, many kids simply went without. Some chose to skinny dip, while others created makeshift swimsuits by stretching and pinning their knitted, sleeveless undershirts.

Desperate for relief from the heat, neighborhood boys skinny dipped in Pen Pond, much to the envy of local girls. Two of these girls, Helen Carter and her friend Verla, concocted a plan to join the fun after noticing that the boys usually left the pond by late afternoon.

The girls were nervous during their first evening visits to the pond, looking around and jumping at every sound. But they loved the cool water, and soon learned how to doggy paddle. It wasn’t until Helen’s older brother encouraged her to visit the pond with him that she gained confidence in her regular swims. The kids were wary of disapproving parents, and eventually the girls did get caught by an upset father, which ended their skinny-dipping in the pond.

Luckily, the Sugar House public swimming pool opened soon after, providing a safer, supervised environment and cleaner water. Swimming gained popularity and by the 1930s, six of Salt Lake City’s playgrounds boasted public pools. Capitalizing on the fervor, the Red Cross offered free swimming lessons at each of the city’s pools. Their “Learn to Swim Drive” encouraged water safety, and hundreds of kids signed up for instruction. Today, childhood swimming lessons are common and public pools are found in neighborhoods throughout the state.

 

The Beehive Archive is a project of Utah Humanities, produced in partnership with Utah Public Radio and KCPW Radio with funding from the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation. Find sources and past episodes at Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive.