Before air conditioning became common at the end of World War II, relief from summer heat, for Nebraskans, consisted of finding water and shade.
Some lucky souls headed for the mountains of Colorado. Long before “Disney World, or World’s of Fun, Omaha boasted that Peony Park was the place to come to swim, or dance, or just have fun. During the years between World War I & II, people flocked to picnic areas along the rivers.
In Southwest Nebraska, all of the towns in the Republican River Valley had their favorite picnic spots, in wooded areas near the river. Parks even had a trout stream and cabins and advertised itself as a resort. Palisade claimed the largest concrete swimming pool in Southwest Nebraska.
The McCook Elks Lodge had carved out a very nice picnic and gathering place, Fleischman Park, on an acreage, south of Perry, and north of the Republican.
But the most popular summer spot in Southwest Nebraska during the late ’20s and early ’30s, was Red Will County Sheriff George McClain’s Pastime Park in McCook, just south across the river from present day Barnett Park, along North U.S. Highway 83. The Pastime was nestled into a grove of tall trees, where the Republican bent north, then east again. For that day, and this part of the state it was considered a grand place to play. Though the Pastime could not claim thrill rides and carnival attractions of the County Fairs, it still had a good bit to offer for family outings. At the north edge of the park, along the river, there was a miniature golf course and tennis courts. Shuffleboard courts were nearby.
There was a shallow, man-made lake, which ran north and south along the west edge of the property. The lake was stocked with fish. For a fee one could rent a small, oar driven boat and fishing equipment. All the fish you caught were yours to keep. The lake was also a favorite spot for couples, who could go for a romantic ride on the lake in the evening.
For folks who chose to spend the night or several days at the park there were 10 tourist cabins, which were generally filled on the weekends, by visitors coming from a radius of 100 miles or more. The cabins were inexpensive, but it was really a type of camping, as they were very plain, with no running water.
A popular attraction of the park was a large, gravel bottom swimming pool, which varied in depth from 3 feet to 12 feet. The focal point for the pool was a tall tower from which the adventurous could swing on a rope far over the water and make spectacular entries into the deep part of the pool. There was a large bathhouse just outside the pool where people paid their admittance and changed their clothes. Surprisingly, one of the best sources for revenue for the pool was the rental of towels and bathing suits. In that day most people did not own a bathing suit, so were forced to rent. Their choices were not good. Like the Model T Ford of the day, they could have any color suit they wanted – as long as it was black. There was one design, a one-piece number with straps over the shoulders, for both men and women. And these suits had another feature they stretched when they got wet, and people were continually pulling the suits up, to preserve modesty.
In the early ’30s, roller-skating was popular. To cash in on this fad, Sheriff McClain erected a large tent on the north end of the parking lot and laid down a wooden floor, and for a few years young people were able to enjoy skating to organ music at the Pastime.
Just south of the swimming pool was a little cafe, operated by Sheriff McClain’s son, which served breakfast for the guests at the cabins. Though there were picnic facilities available near the lake for people who chose to bring in food, and hamburgers at the cafe were a popular attraction for people attending the park, no matter what their activity.
The hamburgers were good and they were cheap – ordinarily 10 cents, but sometimes on sale 12 for $1. (Later Mr. McClain took his hamburgers uptown, and for many years served them at McClain’ s Lunchroom, on West First Street and B, in the building now occupied by Hershberger’s Music Store.) The Park Cafe was attached to the north end of a large dance hall. This dance hall was the Crown Jewel of Pastime Park.
During the time of its existence, the Pastime Dance Hall was a regular stop for some of the brightest stars on the big band circuit, bands traveling from Iowa’s Lake Okaboji and Omaha’s Peony Park in the east, on the way to Denver’s Elitches’ Garden in the west. These bands attracted large crowds, and regularly played to hundreds of dancers at the Pastime.
Russ Dowling of McCook remembers working at the Pastime Park as a youth. While he sometimes helped at the swimming pool and rented out boats at the lake, the job he remembers most was working at the dance hall. The dance hall was brightly decorated with glittering lights and streamers. The floor was ringed by a waist high railing. Between that railing and the outer wall of the building there were booths. The price of admittance for the dance seems unusual today, but was very common in the early ’30s. A couple paid 25 cents for a ticket to get into the building. That ticket was good for two dance numbers. At the end of each dance the floor was cleared. Couples retreated to the booth area, where they sipped soft drinks. (Prohibition was in effect until 1933, and though bootlegged liquor was common during that period, and was certainly brought into the Pastime, it was strictly hush hush, and dancers took pains to keep the illegal spirits hidden. More common were the frequent trips to the parking lot for liquid refreshments.) After the two dances provided for by the original ticket, couples were required to pay 10 cents for each additional dance. Thus, a couple that merely wanted to listen to the music could spend just 25 cents for the whole evening, whereas a dancing couple would spend a dollar or two.
Most people danced, and without air conditioning, the hall tended to get quite warm. To provide a bit of relief from the heat there were 3′ X 6′ sections of the wall that could be raised on the sides of the building, allowing air to flow through. If it was still too hot, couples could rent a boat for a ride on the lake, where there always seemed to be a cool breeze.
Most people, of course, arrived at the dances by automobile. However, there were always some people who made the trip from McCook by foot. The road, U.S. Highway 83, was much narrower than it is today. It was unpaved and crossed over a very narrow Republican River Bridge. There was no sidewalk at the time, so the walk along the side of the road was dangerous. At least two deaths occurred when pedestrians, returning from a dance at Pastime Park, were struck by motorists, on or near the river bridge.
Pastime Park’s beautiful location, at the bend of the Republican River, the feature which accounted for its great attraction, in the end was also the cause of its demise. In the great Republican River Flood of 1935, the great destructive wall of water completely disregarded the bend of the river, which curved around Pastime Park. A new channel was formed and everything in Pastime Park was swept away, Sheriff McClain’s home, the dance hall, the cabins, everything. It is said that the dance hall was carried a mile or two downstream and came to rest in a grove of trees and was later salvaged for the lumber.
This is unconfirmed. The only clue remaining today of the location of the Park is a slight indentation in the land, which marks the location of the boating and fishing lake.
Today the beauty, the fun, and excitement, represented by Pastime Park, an important chapter in McCook’s history, exists only in a few pictures at the High Plains Museum – and in the hearts and minds of people like Russ Dowling, where fond memories still burn brightly today.