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From the Archive: Skinny-dipping in 1950s DeKalb County

Published: Tuesday, March 22, 2016 10:24 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Daily Chronicles archives)
A photo from the July 1, 1954 issue of the Daily Chronicle. The caption reads: "This lonely gravel pit southeast of Sycamore, much favored for nocturnal swimming parties in recent weeks, has been closed. Owners of the property have strung wire gates across the entrances and posted 'no swimming by order of the DeKalb County Sheriff' signs on the gates. The pit is a half mile from the nearest house, no lights, and no facilities of any kind."
Caption
(Daily Chronicle archives)
Hopkins Park pool opening Daily Chronicle photo from June 15, 1953.

By the 1950s, both DeKalb and Sycamore had public pools, but those weren’t the only places DeKalb County residents went to cool off in the summer.

In the summer of 1954, DeKalb County Sheriff Francis J. Sullivan started to get worried about “nocturnal swimming parties” at a gravel pit on the Sears farm, 3 miles southeast of Sycamore, according to a report in the Chronicle in June of that year.

On a Tuesday afternoon, a Chronicle reporter went out to the pit with Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Cook. The story in the next day’s paper gives a fascinating snapshot of what life was like in DeKalb County at the time. The visit came a day after a vehicle crash in which a 19-year-old DeKalb man driving away from the gravel pit collided with another vehicle carrying a rural DeKalb County couple. (The woman later died and the crash spawned lawsuits that played out over the years.)

Sullivan told the Chronicle that as many as 600 to 800 people were at the pit on hot nights, “crowding into the L-shaped water-filled pit without supervision of any kind, no lights, no safety devices, and with no checkups on who is in the water,” the reporter wrote June 30, 1954. “In addition, youthful hot rod enthusiasts have been holding impromptu hill climbs on the mounds of gravel.”

That’s a lot of people.

In 1953, more than 800 people went swimming June 14 when the Hopkins Park pool in DeKalb opened for the first day of swimming that year.

The Chronicle writer described conditions at the gravel pit:

“The area is littered with beer cans and other debris. There is a diving board consisting of a huge plank driven into the gravel bank and supported by a pile driven into the sand at the water’s edge. In the pit are floating numerous other planks, thick and heavy, used by nocturnal bathers who cannot swim. The sheriff points out that these could cause death or serious injury if a diver should meet one head-on in the darkness.”

The reporter talked to several people who where swimming the gravel pit that day.

“A trio of good looking and attractive young women said that the water was about 12 or 15 feet deep in the ‘deepest part’ with rather abrupt dropoffs a few feet from shore. ‘It would be a shame to close this,’ a couple of the girls declared. ‘It’s such a nice place and the water is so cool and nice.’ ‘You know,’ one of them added, ‘there’s too many little kids in the pools (Sycamore and DeKalb) you just can’t have any fun.’ “

Because there were no changing rooms at the gravel pit, people changed in cars, or just went skinny dipping.

“The sheriff said there have been persistent reports that in the ‘wee sma[ll] hours’ the swimmers have been prone to forget all about the annoyances of bathing suits and have been dunking themselves in the raw, both sexes,” the article said.

The sheriff was concerned that someone would drown.

“We will be fishing somebody out of there with grappling hooks some of these nights if something isn’t done about this place. It’s dangerous.”

The next day, the Chronicle reported that the gravel pit had been closed.

“Wire gates were strung across the entrances Wednesday afternoon and signs posted on the gates which read ‘No Swimming by order of the DeKalb County Sheriff,” the article said. “Sheriff Francis J. Sullivan said the owners of the land [and] the lessees of the gravel rights had co-operated in the closing of the unguarded, unlighted pit. The night patrol will check the pit frequently to see that the no trespassing orders are not violated the sheriff said.”

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