Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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Des Moines Forgotten

Camp Dodge Swimming Pool


One of the world’s largest swimming pools operated from 1922 through 2001.

Iowa National Guard’s 113th Cavalry, Camp Dodge, Aug. 4-18, 1929

My summers as a kid in the Quad Cities were not that much different than most other kids’ during the early 1990s. There was a dirt park a half-mile away from my home where I would ride my bicycle to, a Dairy Queen that was within view of that park, and a swimming pool that I knew as the Aqualetic Swim Club. 

In 2019, I scouted Camp Dodge for a Sublime music video (yes, that band). The director of public affairs, LTC Michael Wunn, was my tour guide, and, at one point, we were standing on a giant stretch of grass that looked like it was framed by stone. He explained to me that we were on what was once one of the largest swimming pools in the world. As I spun around in a circle following the concrete edge, I start to envision how large this pool truly was. I could feel vertigo hitting me as my eyes scaled this one-time behemoth built nearly a century ago.

The Camp Dodge Swimming Pool Complex was built in 1922 by Stark & Knots and was designed by the Des Moines-based architectural firm Pearse, Robinson, and Sprague. Although it was intended for public use outside of the Iowa National Guard annual encampment, it was not operated as such then. In 1923, operations were taken over by the Playground Association of Des Moines (the same organization that managed the other public pools and parks). The concrete concession stand was built during World War II WPA days. The pool complex was a source of entertainment for central Iowa kids (and adults) for decades. 

“My dim memories consist of getting a blue magic marker letter written on my wrist as I entered — like getting an admission stamp in a club — and thinking it never fully washed off,” says Mark Heggen, noting that he also recalls having to beware of all the burrs in the grass that were tough on his bare feet.

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Des Moines native Leo Landis grew up in Clive and also has vivid memories. 

“Camp Dodge pool always struck me as a bit exotic and amazingly massive,” Landis says. “As a western suburb kid, I also went to Holiday Pool near 17th and Railroad in West Des Moines. Camp Dodge pool was a utilitarian contrast. Its industrial showers and changing room, and the sheer scale of the pool with what seemed like acres of concrete sidewalk surrounding it, added to the military look. I enjoyed the ‘island’ in the center near the deeper end as a great place to rest as a 9-year-old swimmer with solid skills. Camp Dodge Pool never seemed crowded due to its size.”

In the fall of 2001, the Camp Dodge Swimming Pool closed for its end of season as typical. However, the pool never re-opened. The shell of the pool sat empty for seven years before it was finally filled in. The space was turned into an outdoor amphitheater, which has brought families out much like the good old days of the pool’s history. We obviously still have Birdland Pool on the north side of town and Ashworth Pool by Greenwood Park, but none of these have the colossal stature that Camp Dodge once had.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I think nostalgia can be a mixed bag. We often miss the simpler things in life because we have allowed ourselves to become so busy, but dwelling on nostalgic memories can also prohibit us from moving forward in this world. My comments about hipster trends that attempt to bring back the past times of yesterday while charging a fee that is five times larger than what it used to be may be viewed as snarky, but I stand by those words.

Do we need a gigantic pool for swim-seekers in the community to flock to every summer? Maybe not. We do have other pools and beaches where teenagers can cool off. Even so, I can appreciate something as grand as building one of the world’s largest pools in the center of a National Guard training camp and making it open to the public. That’s something to be remembered. ♦

Kristian Day is a filmmaker, musician and writer based in Des Moines. He hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9FM KFMG.

One Comment

  1. David Anderson says:

    thanks for the story, My family spent our summers in Des Moines, after we moved to Memphis, TN in 1970. Me in 3rd grade.
    My Great uncle lived across the road, my cousin and myself would swim there many a days!!! Great Memories. sniff….
    I just turned 59 and When I talk to cuz we always bring up camp dodge, and yes Birdland and those hot summer evenings at Riverview. Maybe share some pics and stories of Riverview 🙂

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