Alan Morrell Special to Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK
Published 2:07 p.m. UTC Jun 30, 2018
With summer here, we turn our thoughts this week to a way that Rochesterians kept cool in past years.
The swimmobile was, as its name indicates, a mobile swimming pool that city workers brought to neighborhoods. Kids who otherwise couldn’t get to a pool or beach splashed about in the contraption, which looked like a semi-trailer cut in half and filled with water.
City Recreation employees carted the swimmobile by truck to various locations, used water from hydrants to fill it, then hauled it away at day’s end. The city also had porta-pools that were set up for longer periods of time at various sites.
Other cities, like New York City and Detroit, also used swimmobiles for a time. The longtime TV series The Simpsons even featured one in an episode.
Rochester’s swimmobile debuted around 1967. A Democrat and Chronicle story that year said it was developed by then-Recreation Bureau director Joseph Caverly and copied by other agencies across the country. (Other news stories claimed that Swimmobiles were first used elsewhere, including in Jamestown.)
Summer things to do lacking
Caverly expanded summer activities for kids that had been severely lacking in Rochester. His department purchased six of the porta-pools, extended operating hours at rec facilities and more. But the biggest attraction, by far, was the swimmobile, which was equipped with filtration and chlorination systems.
A supervisor told the Democrat and Chronicle that the swimmobile was designed to introduce the concept of water activities to children who had had little or no contact with them before. “Some children are too timid to go to the school pools, and after we get their ‘feet wet’ and they find it’s fun, they take right to the regular pools,” he said.
Kids got half-hour turns in the 3-to-4-foot deep swimmobile, which could accommodate about a dozen children at a time and 150 or so per day. The 1967 story said that more than half the kids had never been in the water before.
One 7-year-old boy said, “I think I could live forever in water,” as he played in the swimmobile. Another child commented, “I was afraid of water before they brought this to our neighborhood but now, I really want to learn how to swim.”
At the time, the city also operated pools at several high schools along with at Genesee Valley Park and the old Natatorium on South Avenue. Monroe County operated pools at a few city schools as well as at Seneca Park. (The Natatorium and Seneca Park Pool both were featured in past Whatever Happened to…columns.) But the swimmobile was designed to bring a pool to kids who might not be able to get to one of those other options.
Kids got wide-eyed when they saw them.
A 1968 Democrat and Chronicle story said that a throng of children lined up for half an hour to get into a swimmobile when it set up at the North Clinton Avenue Recreation Center. Mary Kay Knorr posted on Facebook that she remembered seeing the swimmobile in that neighborhood while she was growing up. “It was well-used, a way to decrease people opening the fire hydrants, LOL.”
A 1987 New York Times article mentioned when Swimmobiles visited Queens and Brooklyn: “Word spread that some sort of truck towing a swimming pool had stopped in the neighborhood on this scorching day, and that scads of children were diving in,” the story reported. “Children scurried home to get their swimming suits and to spread news of the miracle — a story most of their mothers considered to be severely lacking in credibility.”
But they were real, all right. And on TV, the fictionalized “Springfield Pool-Mobile” on an episode of The Simpsons pulled up in front of the title characters’ home and Lisa and Bart jumped in. When Bart asked the operator when it would return, the driver replied, “One day of summer is all we’re budgeted for.”
Made the rounds all summer
That, of course, wasn’t the case in real life. Rochester’s swimmobile made rounds all summer long and notices were posted in the newspaper about the whereabouts. That continued until the early 1980s, said Jim Farr, the assistant director of recreation for the city of Rochester.
“They would set it up on the streets, and it would be a big thing,” said Farr, who has worked in city recreation since the mid-1970s. “It was very popular.”
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The swimmobile was eventually set up at the First Street playground, where it remained, no longer mobile, for its final four or five years, Farr said. By then, it was no longer usable. Farr doesn’t know what became of it.
Rochester’s porta-pools were phased out by the mid-1990s, he said. “The last ones we took out, we replaced with spray parks,” Farr said. City crews will be upgrading the First Street playground this summer, he added. Rochester also now runs a “Cool Sweep” program to provide relief from the heat.
So, there are still plenty of ways for kids to keep cool in the summer. But the times of the swimmobile coming to a neighborhood are long gone.
Alan Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
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About this feature
“Whatever Happened to? …” is a feature that explores favorite haunts of the past and revisits the headlines of yesteryear.
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