SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: MEMORIES OF THE NYA BUILDING - Skatin' And Basketball Playin', Six Die During Construction


NYA Recreation Center on Route 7
1950's (Photo from an old postcard)


By Sidney Underwood 2014
The large stone building located one and one half miles above Grantsville on the Russett road was known to me as the NYA building while I was a child.

I remember the first time that my dad took me there. This would have been during the summer of 1947. We managed to enter through a narrow side entrance that faced toward town. It was a large cavernous empty building inside and had a dirt floor. I was impressed by the sheer size of it.

There was evidence that vagrants had camped inside the building because there were remnants of campfires littered with tin cans and broken whiskey bottles.

I remember dad said that many people had used this place to seek shelter over the years. He told me that the school board had acquired the property and that a recreational center including a gymnasium would be constructed here.

He said that when finished, this building would be spectacular and would be something that the county could be proud of.

A computer search indicates that the National Youth Administration was one segment of the Works Progress Administration. This sweeping federal legislation was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Dal program implemented in 1935.

The great depression had created a disastrous economy with unemployment rampant and soup lines in larger cities. The NYA targeted at risk youth of America who were between the ages of 16 and 25.

It was the intent of the program to provide classroom study and hands on training in trade skills to prepare them for a brighter future.

The physical structure of the building was completed in the late 1930's. The native stone was quarried from the hillside across the river.

The board of education appropriated funds to assist in completing the renovation of the building that had sat unused and unoccupied for many years. Donated labor and materials were encouraged.

One example of that was the donation of the pine flooring for the gym from the Belpre Lumber Company owned by Mr. Cecil Anderson. Local skilled carpenters donated their time and labor in laying the flooring and sanding and finishing this project.

The balcony bleachers were unique and unlike anything seen in the LK Conference.

The gymnasium in the main structure was finally completed in January 1949. The Secondary Schools Athletic Commission was so impressed with this facility that a high school tournament was authorized to be held there in late February 1949.

The host Calhoun basketball team was very proud of their sparkling new facility. That section 8, region 2 tournament marked the first time that a high school basketball tournament had ever been held in Calhoun County.

Members of that inaugural Calhoun basketball team that first played in the gym starting in January of 1949 were Tom Vanhorn, Ernest Hayhurst, and Joe Riddell, all who were seniors. Other members of that team were Bill Powell, Orvin Buck, Lennis Johnson, Cleon Boyce, Jack Hinkle, Ron Godfrey, Lowell Weekley and Don Godfrey.

As part of the agreement signed by the board of education in obtaining the building, summer activities were scheduled as it was mandated that the structure be used for a variety of activities year round.

One of those activities was roller skating and I have vivid memories of that time. I remember going with my Dad to the railroad depot in Spencer during the late spring of 1949. He drove there in a pickup truck belonging to the board of education. At the depot we received and loaded several large crates of roller skates.

They were the metal strap-on adjustable skates that were tightened with a key. I remember those skates had composition rubber wheels that were designed to be compatible with the gym floor.

When we returned to NYA building and were unpacking the skates, Fred Lowe was there practicing basketball by himself. I watched as Fred put down the basketball and donned a pair of skates. He started skating and was gliding around the floor and it was so easy for him.

I saw him having so much fun that I had to see if I could do the same thing. When I tried to skate, I fell hard on my behind and had difficulty regaining my feet. My Dad thought this was really funny. It was embarrassing for me, and that is why I remember it to this day. I realized that this activity would require some concentration and a sense of balance, and just like a baby learning to crawl before it can walk, I went through similar stages learning to skate.

After several mishaps that afternoon that provided entertainment for dad and Fred, I eventually learned to skate along slowly, but the cross-over step that Fred performed so easily in the turns remained a mystery to me.

These "rental skates" provided much needed revenue for the school system. Several teachers were assigned the task of hosting the skating events which were held on selected evenings during the summer.

When it was my dad's turn to be the host, I was allowed to skate free until he needed my skates. I had learned the cross-over step and was pretty good at skating. When all the skates had been rented, I was supposed to stop and turn my skates over to a paying customer.

Dad would signal me to stop skating and come in, but I would not look at him. During my second lap after the signal, a strong right arm would reach out and hook me, and I would have no other option, but to comply.

There was a rudimentary sound system and we would skate to music. One song that I remember went like this: "Put your little foot, put your little foot, put your little foot into my shoe." That song had a natural rhythm for skating and was requested often.

The Vo-Ag department sold popcorn and soft drinks.

A surprisingly large crowd would be at the building on those summers nights and generally everyone would have a good time, although I remember hearing about fights outside on several occasions. Skaters were expected to be considerate of others and roughhousing and speeding were prohibited.

Sometimes, a whistle would be sounded if a skater was endangering others. I remember Dad warning Deacon Greathouse on several occasions to slow down and be more respectful to others.

Deacon would speed around the floor like an elusive spirit and would often scare the ladies with his swerving, now you see him, now you don't movements. He had a low center of gravity and would really lean into the turns.

Deacon was a good guy and would generally heed the warnings. I think this was all a game to him to be played out each night. He would manage three hot laps and the whistle would blow and he would wave to dad and slow down for the rest of the evening.

The best skater that I ever saw was Russell "Rusty" Westfall. He could skate forward, backward, sideways and "tap dance" in time to the music.

He just flowed along seemingly without effort and made the rest of us look like amateurs. I remember there was a large sign on the wall that warned skaters to SKATE AT YOUR OWN RISK. I do not remember anyone ever getting hurt there while skating.

My best memory of that place involved watching Fred Lowe, Babe Stump, Pat Fetty, Bill Richards and others play basketball there. Fred was such a gifted athlete. He used finesse and natural grace and a great sense of timing to his advantage to outplay larger opponents.

Like all exceptional athletes, he made it look easy.

Babe Stump was a good rebounder and quick at throwing the ball down court for the fast break. Calhoun basketball teams did not win many games, but were always competitive.

The NYA building was a worthwhile investment for the county. It was used for banquets, junior and senior class plays and for graduation ceremonies. It all came to an end when the modern gym addition was completed beside the old high school in Grantsville sometime in 1953.

The NYA building eventually evolved into a commercial manufacturing plant that provided much needed employment over the years.

My memories of that old building would not be complete if I failed to mention the good times that I had during the summer months running around the place with Tap Kirby, who was the son of Holly Kirby, the custodian.

Tap had some duties to perform while working with his Dad. Otherwise, we were two boys seemingly turned loose in a candy store. We would shoot baskets and skate, and after tiring of that, we would sit up on the balcony bleachers and just hang out together.

That old stone building still stands today. I wonder what it's future will be.

See A 1938 CALHOUN TRAGEDY - Boat Capsizes, Four Young Men Drown In Swollen LK River

Two Lives Lost at NYA Project in 1940