Summers at the beach

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 1, 2001

No one knows the story of Albert Lea’s city beach quite like LeRoy Maas.

Sunday, July 01, 2001

No one knows the story of Albert Lea’s city beach quite like LeRoy Maas.

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The city’s recreation director in the 1950s and 60s, Maas began working at the beach as the head lifeguard in 1944. He recalled rowing across the lake from his home to the beach every morning before the kids started to arrive.

&uot;Looking back, I would say it was the hot spot of town for basically the whole summer,&uot; Maas said. &uot;I know we had to keep adding lifeguards to keep up with the crowds. It was free, and it was fun.&uot;

In the late 1950s, the city began making improvements to the beach by building a new parking lot, tennis courts and a concessions stand. A floating diving platform about 100 yards from shore was popular with teens, Maas said. The city also offered swimming lessons in the morning for all ages.

On crowded days, many people opted to swim at another beach area across the lake called &uot;College Dock,&uot; located down the hill from present-day Lakeview Elementary. With all the swimming, diving, boating and water skiing, Maas said Fountain Lake was the envy of many Minnesota cities.

&uot;The whole town turned into a resort-like place in the summer. It was neat to see everyone come out when the weather turned nice,&uot; he said.

By 1960, the beach featured a new metal u-shaped dock, a small slide and a water contraption Maas called a &uot;spinning top.&uot; The beach was as popular as ever.

&uot;We had kids and families there around the clock. We had to kick them out at the end of the day,&uot; Maas said.

Jack Swanson was a lifeguard at the beach in the summers of 1958 and 1959. He said landing the lifeguarding job was the highlight of his high school years.

&uot;I think it was a job a lot of people wanted because you got to hang out at the beach all day every day. I was at the center, so to speak, of everything great about summer in Albert Lea,&uot; Swanson said. &uot;It was a lot of fun.&uot;

The beach was crowded with more than 600 people on particularly hot days, Swanson said. The parking lot became a popular place to show off motorcycles and hot rods, and many families came to use the picnic tables and tennis courts. The crowds made his job difficult at peak times, he said.

&uot;I had to pull a lot of kids out of the water. Sometimes it was the younger ones trying to swim out to the platform. Other times it was just a kid swallowing too much water or falling of the dock or whatever,&uot; Swanson said. &uot;The water wasn’t clear, so you really had to be paying attention.&uot;

Hazel Pilgrim worked the concessions with her husband in the summer of 1961, selling pop, hot dogs and candy. Her four children joined them at the beach all day long just about every day, she said.

&uot;It was family day at the beach for us all summer,&uot; she laughed. &uot;I got to know so many nice kids and families. It was wonderful.&uot;

Pilgrim always kept binoculars close buy to keep an eye on her kids, especially when they wanted to swim out to the platform and go diving.

&uot;I was an extra pair of eyes, so that was good. There was always a few kids that would try something scary, so it was good to be on the lookout,&uot; she said.

The city beach’s rich history was marred on a few occasions by tragedy. Maas could remember three deaths, and said it was always hard to get his staff to forgive themselves.

&uot;We had one kid fall off the dock, and another drown over by College Dock. I think we had one gal drown during swimming lessons one year, too,&uot; Maas said. &uot;The conditions were tough sometimes.&uot;

Maas said the water quality also became an issue. Many times the beach was closed for awhile because the health inspector determined the bacteria count was too high. Copper-sulfate treatments took care of the problems temporarily, he said.

&uot;I think it became an issue that started talk about a public pool,&uot; Maas said. &uot;I suppose it was only a matter of time.&uot;

Former mayor Niles Shoff remembers the debates about building a public swimming pool. When town such as Austin, Wells and Northwood began drawing kids from Albert Lea, residents began calling for a pool of their own. Sites at Edgewater Park, Morin Park and others were considered.

&uot;Everyone wanted to build one, but the location was the subject of some controversy. It was still up in the air for a few years, but the current location is perfect – right in the middle of town.&uot; Shoff said.

Once the public pool was completed, the beach emptied almost immediately, Maas said. Everyone preferred the clear waters and fenced-in grounds of the pool.

&uot;We pulled out lifeguards and took the towers down. I guess that was pretty much the end of it,&uot; he said.

But Maas thinks the beach could reclaim some of its former glory with the skate park moving to the old tennis courts and efforts underway to clean up the lake.

&uot;I don’t know if it will ever be as popular as it once was, but I think people, especially families looking for a quiet place, could rediscover it,&uot; Maas said.