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Kentucky by Heart: With the beginning of summer comes fond memories of childhood ‘swimming holes’

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Memorial Day is past and it’s time to focus on summer activities. For many, it’s the season to enjoy a refreshing dip in the pool, or at last be around water. Looking back, however, some of my favorite swimming escapades as a child happened in what I’ll call “unofficial” swimming holes, usually around our family’s home in southern Campbell County.

Ironically, we inherited a concrete pool when we moved from Grant’s Lick to our three and a half acre house, barn, and lot in Claryville in 1963.

Steve Flairty’s childhood farm in Claryville with Pond Creek at top of photo (Photo provided)

Of course, my brother, Mike, and I were overjoyed with the thoughts of having a fancy swimming pool. How many other kids had one? It wasn’t that we were rich; the lawyer who sold us the land was job transferring and needed to sell. I’m pretty sure we paid only about $17,000 for the whole of the real estate. We soon discovered that for all the fun we had, it was a lot of work to maintain the pool, and we were already spending many grueling hours in the family tobacco patch and large vegetable garden. Interest waned.

In time, Mom and dad decided to fill the pool in with dirt, and Mike and I didn’t shed any tears.

I still liked to be around water, though, and I found other places that were pretty satisfying. Even before the time of our concrete pool, I recall participating in what I’ll call a “family reunion seining for fish” party in a small pond in the early 1960s. The location was on land that would later be flooded to create the A.J. Jolly Park in Campbell County. The day was eventful, and one might rightfully ascertain that little Stevie did more playing splash bubbles than seining. Being in the muck and dirty pond water, a good garden hosing would be in order (though I don’t remember if it occurred).

There were plenty of other occasions and places of water playing in the wild as a youth, but I’ll never forget one “creeky” experience I had at our Claryville baby farm. Pond Creek had a few places that were deep enough to submerge most of my body, so during a particularly mischievous time, I kept an old pair of cut-off pants laying on the ground near the creek bed, next to the tobacco plants. Well, I was supposed to be hoeing, as Dad told me to do. But on a particularly hot day, I peeled the cut-offs from the ground (the shorts having been there a while and likely in the first stage of composting) and deftly replaced the pants I was wearing with my “poor man’s” swimming trunks.

Things didn’t end well, but not because my father caught me.

Red River swimming hole (Photo from Pinterest)

I still remember the agonizing discomfort of what seemed like a thousand ants suddenly reacting to their own discomfort. Knowing good and well that God was punishing me for my deceitfulness, I tore those pants off, swept off God’s creatures of justice, and put my real pants back on my reddish and battered bottom area. My feelings were hurt, but who in the world would be inclined to administer sympathy to me… and especially Dad?

It was time to get back to hoeing ‘bakker,’ and I did. But despite the ants in the pants interlude, swimming out and around on the good earth was an important part of coming-of-age Steve.

I checked to see if others had as much fun as me back in the day.

Steve Slade recalled the thrills of water recreation 40 years ago “somewhere on the Kentucky River—maybe the Fayette/Jessamine line,” he said. “There was a huge tree that extended out over the water and it had a long, thick rope with a big knot at the end to stand or sit on. We’d swing out and drop in the water, do backflips and other crazy stuff. Fun as hell, but lucky we didn’t hurt or kill ourselves.”

Heather Nichols lives in Versailles today, but while a 15-year-old she had a little adventure when she “snuck off to this lake” while growing up in Florida. “There was a floating dock in the middle so we swam to it, so triumphantly,” she said. “We flung ourselves onto it and rolled around like children. Turns out it was covered in this fiberglass stuff that hurt so badly for days upon days. We also had to admit where we snuck off to, so it turned out badly all around.”

Green slime is what Amy Nicholas most remembers about her creek time with cousins Lori and George Ping in the White Lily area of Pulaski County in the early 1980s. There were crawdads and tadpoles, also. “Of course,” noted Amy, “we were barefoot after Lori and I left our Dr. Scholl’s in the grass. We were very trendy, I might add.” According to Lori, after slime time and creek creatures she and Amy would then retire to playing school or Strawberry Shortcake.

Donna Freihofer, of Alexandria, and several others who lived in the Campbell County area of my childhood shared similar experiences. Donna mentioned the same park I referenced, A.J. Jolly Park. “The creek in which I used to play is now submerged in a huge lake,” she said. “My cousins and I took burlap sacks and caught crawdads and one time I remember a little fish. Mom put the crawdads and small fish into a basin of water, and it wasn’t long before there was just an ‘outline’ of the fish. The crawdads had eaten it!”

It left an impression on her as a 4-year-old. “Despite wading in that creek and later, as a teenager, going to the area at A.J. Jolly designated as ‘the beach’– no longer there–I never actually learned to swim. But I can see the lake from my new home, walk down to it, and remember my family’s farm and being a child there so many years ago.”

Not far from there, near Claryville, Lisa Dawson-Knight and her siblings disobeyed her parents’ rule regarding their behavior around the several ponds and a big lake on their produce farm. The rule was simple: Do not go near the water without Mom and Dad being around. “One winter we thought the pond was frozen at one of the ponds close to the house,” Lisa said. “So me and three of my siblings ventured out on the ice, sneaking, of course, and I fell through.

“Luckily, my oldest sister was able to pull me out and I was muddy and had moss up to my waist.” The Dawson kids decided not to tell, and one went to get a change of clothes in order to hide the deed. One of Lisa’s siblings leaked the story, however, and Lisa noted that “it wasn’t a good ending to the story.”

Buck Seibert (Photo provided)

Scott Franzen, also near Claryville, went after dark to use the Bob White Club resources as a youth to swim for hours, boat, and cook over an open fire, and Buck Seibert recalled a painful incident that happened on Pond Creek near our farm (before my family moved there).

“We were eight to ten years old and playing up near the bridge,” Buck said. “I had to have a bowel movement so I went into the bushes like any cowboy or frontiersman would do. Naturally, I didn’t have anything to do the paperwork with so I used leaves. That is when I learned what poison ivy looked like. You wouldn’t believe how bad my reaction was. I think I ended up being taken to Dr. Howe and he gave me a shot of something that ‘dried’ up the rash. Lesson learned.”

Southward toward Grant’s Lick — where I lived before moving to Claryville — Amy Combs, Roberta Schultz, and Becca McHaas had a blast playing in Phillips Creek, and Deena Harvanek liked frog gigging off Siry Road.

One might think that growing up in a place called Shadyside, Ohio, would bring a boring childhood. That’s not how Rich Dailey, Somerset, characterizes it, however. “We had Wegee Creek behind our house that flowed into the Ohio River about a quarter mile away,” he said. “Fond memories of tire swings, collecting scrap wood for makeshift cabins, and the innocence of youth.” In 1990, a flash flood in the creeks “washed away homes and lives…a strange thing to have such a disaster mingled with my great memory of that creek.”

His family moved to Akron in 1970, and Rich enjoyed going to Mogadore Lake Reservoir, “complete with two lifeguards, a diving board, and designated break times…strictly enforced by moms and dads.”

Rich loves the memories, but he gets both sad and philosophical while thinking of those days of his youth. Mogadore Lake is not the same today, for example. “There is no sign of the fun we had there. The only thing remaining is the lake. Today, my drive to Somerset starts with four miles of Elrod Road. At the end of it is Old Mt. Vernon Road, and a bridge over Buck Creek. Most days there are families with small kids splashing in the shallow waters, skipping stones, or just sitting on the bank or a rock, enjoying the cool shade and the breeze coming down the creek. I smile knowing that beautiful memories are being made there.”

Yep, Rich, those memories are real… and make a big splash on our whole person.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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  1. Great story. I still own around 10 acres in what use to be Claryville. The Claryville I knew and loved passed away long ago. But I still have my memories, at least for a few more years. A lot changes in 65-70 years. Most of the characters in my Claryville story are long gone. Some I can barely remember, others are as familiar as if I just saw them yesterday. The list is long and distinguished. BTW, I did swim in that “in ground pool” that was in the front yard. Probably only a couple of times but it seemed like the big time to this country boy who was all too familiar with that headwater of Pond Creek that passed through the lives of so many. And I still avoid poison ivy. Thanks for making me a little part of your story Steve.

  2. Roger says:

    There is a profound primal and primordial attraction to water. We see it in almost every photograph we find attractive.

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