I’m old enough to remember the “Nestea Plunge” commercials. They all started the same way: Attractive people working or playing under a broiling sun, followed by closeups of actors chugging Nestea out of a clear, sweaty glass. And you knew what was coming next—they’d fall backward, fully clothed and still clutching the tea glass, into a swimming pool with a look of ecstasy on their face.
Being an anxious child, I couldn’t fully enjoy the thought without worrying about all the spilt tea and the possibility of the glass breaking and carpeting the bottom of the pool with shards. But watching those commercials made enough of an impression that every time I get really hot, I have an urge to fling myself backward into standing water. Finding a suitable water hole, however, is not always so easy in a land where we generally measure rainfall in hundredths of inches (except this year). Panhandle people have somehow persisted nonetheless, and the pursuit of quenching a full body thirst crops up often in our historical record.
There was a time before flush toilets and deep well irrigation that water actually bubbled up from the surface in many parts of the Plains, creating seasonal opportunities to take a dip when it got hot. Kids, especially, have been drawn to water throughout history, but the grownups of times past worked harder and longer and likely viewed swimming as more of a bathing exercise in the absence of roll-on deodorant. For cowboys on the LX, the XIT and other legendary spreads of the Panhandle, taking a swim most often meant driving the herd across the Canadian. This probably felt more like work than recreation.
Then life became a bit more settled and the concept of leisure time took hold. Surviving a Panhandle summer increasingly demanded opportunities to get wet and have some fun doing it. The country folk could improvise with earthen dams across creek beds, but town dwellers in places like Amarillo had to make do with horse tanks or a muddy playa bath until a cement pond type of arrangement could be made.
In 1916, a movement began in Amarillo to crowdsource a swimming pool through subscriptions. The Amarillo Daily News printed regular updates on funding progress, listing donors by name and the amount they gave. Pioneer cattleman P.H. Landergin fronted $100 for the pool fund, which in today’s money would amount to more than $3,000. Then there was little Fred Little and his 25-cent gift, no small amount for a child in 1916.
But the dream of a public pool wouldn’t float on 25-cent donations. It needed taxpayer buy-in, which has long been a tricky thing in Amarillo. Even in the boom years of the 1920s, citizens were still fussy about how tax dollars were spent. It took the Great Depression to convince Amarilloans we needed a flashy public works project to chase the gloom away, and the Thompson Park Pool was finally built in 1931. Fred Little, by then Big Fred, at least got to go with his kids if he was a father at that time.
Another reason why it could’ve taken so long to get a public pool in Amarillo was the fact that a private concern met the need pretty well with the Amarillo Natatorium, which opened on the corner of Southwest Sixth Avenue at Georgia Street in the spring of 1924. A swimming and diving competition marked the occasion, with J.Y. Bell diving through a ring of fire to kick things off. Within a few years, the Natatorium’s ownership decided to install a removable floor over the pool during the winter months (and at some point a roof) to make additional money off dances when it was too cold to prance about poolside in a soaking wet Jantzen suit.
Not everyone in Amarillo was privileged to cool off in a public or private swimming pool in those days. In fact, it wasn’t until 1953—two decades after the opening of Thompson Park Pool—that city fathers opened a pool in North Heights Park (now Bones Hooks Park) for Black citizens, who had long been victimized by Jim Crow segregation laws in the city.
Years later, when the city council debated closing the aging Bones Hooks pool, Black citizens protested. For them, the pool built in 1953 was more than just a nearby recreational facility. It was a big part of their story of surviving and thriving against all odds. The pool eventually got traded for a splash pad with nearby Thompson Park getting a new pool AND a lazy river, but the point was made.
The Bones Hooks pool saga says a lot about the value of soaking our parched skin in cool water in the high time of the year. Whether it’s a dip in a boggy watering hole or a splash in the fountain at Sanborn Park when no one is watching, taking a plunge to beat Amarillo’s summer heat is a right and privilege we should all enjoy.