After a cool and unprecedentedly rainy June, Utah is gearing up to settle into a hot, dry July. I’d rather not run my air conditioner any more than absolutely necessary to sleep, so I sit here under a ceiling fan, with a desk fan trained on my face. There are only so many layers of clothing that a modest Mormon woman can shed, and only so many glasses of ice water will go down any one throat in a day.
Wouldn’t it be nice, I think, to step outside my door and slip into a pool of water, warmed by the sun yet cool enough to wash all the heat away …
That’s a pleasure the Brigham Young children enjoyed, from the late 1850s onward.
Today, the stylized Eagle Gate stretches across Main Street, anchored at one end by Brigham Young’s Beehive House and at the other by a pair of stately old apartment buildings (President Hinckley had an apartment at the top of one of them). Those apartment buildings rise above the site of the Young family schoolhouse and other outbuildings associated with the Young family estate – the smoke house, the lamb barn – and the path up the steep hill to the “White House” where Mary Ann Angell Young lived.
If you were walking east along Brigham Street (South Temple) on a summer day in the 1860s, you would pass the Lion House where many of the Young families lived, the church offices that connected the Lion House to the Beehive House which was Brigham’s primary residence, across the road closed off by the Eagle Gate, then past the schoolhouse. Then you’d see a strange, small building – what had once been a huge, enclosed carriage so large that it could carry an entire brass band through the city streets. Then there was a gap, then the smokehouse, and so on eastward.
That gap between the old band carriage and the smokehouse is what is of interest to us. Look closer, and you would see that flush with the ground was an enormous pair of barn doors, covering … something. When those doors were opened and propped up approximately perpendicular to the ground, you couldn’t have seen what they had concealed. That was the whole point. Those doors, when open, acted as walls to shield the site from the prying gaze of anyone – like you – walking along Brigham Street, or working in the Young grounds on the other side, for that matter.
The doors were the cover to a wood-lined pit, a font, a box … a swimming pool. Although the pool was used as a baptismal font (in a comment to an earlier post, John Mansfield pointed us to this Friend article on the baptismal sites of church presidents. “Heber J. Grant,” it says, “was baptized June 2, 1864, in a wagon box rigged up as an outdoor font behind Brigham Young’s school in Salt Lake City, Utah.” That’s a little garbled – the pool, at 12’x14′ was much too large to have started life as a wagon box – but the article is talking about the same door-covered hole in the ground), its primary purpose was as a swimming pool.
The pool was refreshed by a small stream of water diverted from City Creek and entering at the north side, and could be emptied through wooden “pipes” on the other side. Both entrance and exit could be shut off by means of small wooden doors, which allowed the depth of the pool to be regulated – Susa Young Gates remembers that the water depth was generally kept at three feet, although the pool could be made as deep as ten feet. The covering doors could be thrown open, the water warmed by the sun, and the pool, wedged as it was between the “walls” formed by the open covers on two sides, and on the other two sides by that old band carriage and the smokehouse, was a private, watery haven on hot summer days.
The old band carriage was part of the bathing establishment. There were doors at either end, and a partition divided the interior into two small rooms used as dressing rooms for the bathers. Girls, swimming in their underclothes or nightgowns, could step directly into their dressing room, but boys – “as became boys, for boys have never been over-troubled with modest qualms,’” says Susa – streaked bare-bottomed around the carriage and into the far door to dry and dress themselves. The carriage also provided a convenient launching point for swimmers; passers-by “would catch fleeting glimpses of slim naked bodies poised for flight into the pool below.”
The pool was reserved for the girls from 4:00 to 6:00 every afternoon – and heaven help the boy who was caught by an older sister anywhere in the neighborhood. Beyond that reserved time, the pool was available to the boys at all hours.
Very, very occasionally, brothers and sisters would share the pool. On those days,
Boys wore proper hickory shirts and stout homespun and home-made old breeches; while girls carefully chose their oldest linsey-woolsey dresses, reinforced with all sorts of discreet under garments. For boys might teach sisters to swim, but the strictest rules of propriety must be observed. And everyone kept a careful eye on the mischievously billowing skirt of the sister who essays to float or swim to keep the edges of decency discreetly close about the trim ankles – for every and sundry of those sisters bore the stamp of comeliness and shapeliness bequeathed by splendid Father himself.
[Susa said it, I didn’t.]
All that heavy clothing was, I suspect, one reason why the water level was usually kept to three feet.
I have to accept Susa’s claim that the pool was constructed solely for the children’s pleasure. Although it might be used for baptisms, the pool was unnecessarily large and deep to have been built specifically for baptisms. Ditto for its use as a livestock watering pond – unnecessarily broad, too deep, and I don’t think farm animals wandered indiscriminately around inside the walls of the Young estate. The band carriage/dressing rooms might have been placed there as an afterthought, but the pool itself seems suited for nothing so well as bathing and swimming.
And this afternoon, I’m going to wish I had access.