Luxury and a Timeless Treasure on the Great Plains

On the Great Plains of Nebraska in August 2015, temperatures near 100 Degrees F. with humidity in the 70% range, and I’m feeling cool and comfortable in my air conditioned office trying to imagine the heat index in August 1939 and life prior to central air. Historical records report temperatures in the 90’s in central Nebraska with the added misery of 30 mph south winds. My mother who was 23 years old in 1916 remembers Nebraska summers. She said, “The summer of 1939 was scorching! On some nights, we slept on our porch wrapped in wet sheets.”

The 1930’s were dry, dusty and difficult times for people in the Plains States. The authors of Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State describe a scene that I can hardly imagine in Nebraska today. They write, ”By December of 1932, farm prices were the lowest in Nebraska history. In addition, Nebraska, and the rest of the Midwest, was suffering from a severe drought that caused valuable topsoil to erode, damaged crops and reduced agricultural production.”

The National Park Service reported that “Nation-wide, there were more than 12 million people unemployed and in need of assistance. Twenty-five percent of the American labor force was jobless. State governments and local philanthropic organizations were incapable of supporting the vast numbers of destitute citizens who required help.” In Holdrege, public assistance money ran low, and records show that the city set out a large wood pile, and those who needed assistance were asked to work for their money. An hour’s work chopping wood earned them 40 cents, enough for a meal.

In 1933 the Federal Government stepped in, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the New Deal in motion. In his first Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt stated, “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.” Among Roosevelt’s New Deal policies were the public work relief projects that provided jobs to America’s able-bodied unemployed.
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The Public Works Administration programs led to the construction of 11,000 public buildings, including courthouses, firehouses, hospitals, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and schools, as well as over 100 airfields and 800 parks. They made repairs and improvements on more than 30,000 other pre-existing buildings, laid out 40,000 miles of public roads and repaired 150,000 miles of roads. PWA workers constructed 1,400 athletic fields and 1,800 swimming pools, and reforested 20,000 acres with trees and bushes.

In 1939, the country side was depleted by drought, and the depression gripped the economy yet the Holdrege City Council voted to use PWA funds to plan and build an extraordinary and luxurious swimming pool complex at the South Park in Holdrege. Frank A. Anderson was mayor of Holdrege in 1939 and the City Council(men) were C.O. Winquest, L.B. Titus, and C.S. Nelson.< a href=””>IMG_2514 (2)

In March 1939, Holdrege City Council selected the architectural firm John Latenser & Sons to design the swimming pool complex. Latenser & Son, an Omaha firm designed many important early Omaha buildings including Central High School and Douglas County Courthouse, the J.L. Brandeis building, and later the firm partnered with Davis and Wilson to design Memorial Stadium in 1922.

The architects designed 3 solid cement pools – a wading pool, swimming pool and diving pool and a bath house of cream colored, pressed brick with glass block insets for light. The bid was let for $100,000 in 1939 and with the annual rate of inflation 3.78%, the same dollars today would be $1,677,228. IMG_2457 (2)

The swimming pool is 50 meters in length and 25 meters wide. The pool depth is 3 feet at both ends and 4 feet in the center. The diving pool is 9 feet deep and 3 diving boards that add fun and interest to divers practicing their sport. Toddlers wade and play in the shallow wading pool.

The opening was celebrated Aug. 3, 1939. As was reported in the Holdrege Daily Citizen, T.A.Filipi, Public Health Engineer, Nebraska State Department who inspected the pool said, “It is one of the finest swimming pools anywhere. It is second to none in the state. In addition to all of the standard latest features of design, it incorporates several features no other pool in Nebraska has. It will be so efficient that water in the pool at all times will be fit to drink.” IMG_2466 (2)

Another unique feature is the separation of the diving pool and the pool for bathers. Filipe said, “Mothers will be assured that there will be no possibility of anyone stepping unexpectedly from the swimming pool to the diving pool, since the diving pool will be kept locked at all times unless there is a special request for its use.”

August 3, 1939 on opening day the pool was inaugurated and Holdrege Daily Citizen headlines blared: BRING YOUR BEACH UMBRELLA AND PRETEND YOU ARE SPENDING THE DAY AT LONG BEACH ON CONEY ISLAND.

The reporter wrote, “In 1939 the City of Holdrege developed in the heart of the city a most beautiful and commodious park, to which has this summer been added the finest, most complete, strictly sanitary, and largest swimming pool in the state of Nebraska,” Holdrege Daily Citizen, August 3, 1939.

My mother, Betty Best whose father L.B. Titus served on the City Council during 1939 said, “The summer of 1939 was deathly hot. People who had never, ever dreamed of such luxury came to swim in the pools, and we were amazed and delighted. She added, “wearing our long, baggy, cotton knit swimming suits.”

I swim in the pools today, 76 years following the inauguration, and I appreciate the symmetry of design, Olympic size, a separate diving pool and wading pool for toddlers. I like swimming under open skies watching the red tail hawk drifting high overhead as I backstroke the length, 50 meters. The design and engineering of the three pools have held up well over time and stand out today as functional, attractive, clean and fun for adults and children. IMG_2466 (2)

Two plaques hang in the bath house commemorating the pool and listing the names of city council, mayor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Thank you former Holdrege City Council and mayor for envisioning a world class swimming complex for Phelps County residents and visitors. The outdoor swimming complex provided and continues to offer countless hours of swimming classes, life saving classes, family fun and leisure to the community. I also commend Holdrege elected leaders and especially the current council members who budget funds to maintain the pool, preserve it and improve it.

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  2. Glenda Nelson November 19, 2015 at 12:00 am -

    I have heard many tell portions of this story…nice to see it so complete. Thanks,

  3. Barbara Hollinger Hokom August 7, 2015 at 12:17 pm -

    I remember well swimming in the pool during the 50’s and 60’s. We were bused from Loomis for swimming lessons. I had a great teacher, Betty Best. The Andrew Nelson family reunion was always held in the park on the 1st Sunday in August. The Nelson, Hanson, Thorell, and Johnette cousins always ended up in the pool. Thank you for the history of the pool. I did not realize how special it was.

  4. Cass orcutt August 3, 2015 at 10:52 pm -

    What a wonderful story Betty. Thank you for the history lesson. It is indeed a major part of all our memories.

  5. Monte August 3, 2015 at 12:11 pm -

    The pool in Holdredge was a source of great times for my family. Every Fathers Day we would attend “the Gangwish Picnic” (my grandmothers maiden name). With a couple hundred older family members present the kids would head for the pool as soon as possible after lunch. Sometimes we had as many as 100 extended family cousins in that pool at one time!

  6. Steve McCain August 2, 2015 at 6:21 pm -


    Your article brings back memories of many happy days at the park and swimming pool, when I was growing up in Holdrege in the 50’s.

    • Betty Sayers August 2, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      thank you for writing, Steave, please return to the Plains and refresh your body and spirit in the 50 meter and sparkling clean pool that you remember. betty

  7. Patti Simpson August 1, 2015 at 5:49 pm -

    Betty – Thank you for once again writing a great story relating an earlier time here in Holdrege!

  8. Beverly J. Ost July 29, 2015 at 5:55 pm -

    Also, the Summer of 1953…people thought the dirty 30’s were returning!

    In the country, we didn’t have electricity, fans, AC, etc….the wind blew drifts of dirt/dust under the doors and piles up in driftsf

    But it wasn’t as widely felt as the dirty 30’s…

    • betty sayers July 29, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      Beverly, thank you for adding to the story. I remember a hot summer of 1953 although I also remember teaching swim lessons at our luxurious swimming pool and spending most of every day at the pool. I wish I knew more about the city council’s deliberations about the design and cost and superior quality of the pool. Maybe it seemed extravagant during the drought years, never the less, they chose to build a pool that would last 100 years! Would we make the same choice today? Betty

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