Posted on 09/26/2018 at 10:58 AM by YMCA of Greater Des Moines
This year, the YMCA of Greater Des Moines is celebrating 150 years of strengthening community through programs focused on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
Anniversaries are an appropriate time for reflection. Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a look back at the people, places, events and activities that have shaped the Y over its 150-year history in Des Moines. And since there’s no better place to start than the beginning, our story opens in London, England in 1844, with a young man by the name of George Williams …
In many ways, George Williams was no different than most other young men of his day. Barely out of his teens, he left his farm home in rural England and moved to London, drawn by the excitement and opportunities of the Industrial Age.
Young George found a job in a dry goods house. The hours were long – from dawn to long past dark – and George lamented the fact that there was nowhere for young men to gather after work except the city’s well-known “places of iniquity.”
In 1844, 22-year-old George Williams and 11 other men formed a society for the purpose of prayer, Bible study and service to others. They called their new organization the Young Men’s Christian Association.
A few years later, an American sea captain named Thomas Valentine Sullivan, inspired by the work of the YMCA in England, founded the first YMCA in the United States in Boston, MA. The organization quickly spread to other cities, and soon added “physical work” to its programs, based on the belief that “bodily health is intimately connected with mental and spiritual activity and development.”
During the Civil War, YMCAs in 15 northern cities recruited more than 5,000 volunteers who served as surgeons, nurses, chaplains and aides on the battlefield. Members of this YMCA Christian Commission distributed supplies, taught soldiers to read and write, wrote letters home for the sick and wounded, and published a Record of Funeral Dead to help bereaved families find their fallen sons. The poet Walt Whitman, who served as a Christian Commission volunteer, called his service, “the greatest privilege and satisfaction … the most profound lesson of my life.”
Early in 1868, a notice went out inviting young men in Des Moines to a meeting on January 27 for the purpose of establishing a YMCA. The meeting was held at the Business College, which occupied rooms above Coskerry and Tannahill’s dry goods store on Walnut Street (where Capital Square is now located).
During its early years, the Des Moines YMCA met in several different downtown locations. In 1891, following a successful fundraising campaign, the Y moved into a five-story building on the northeast corner of Fourth and Grand, where the Brown Garage now stands. Completed at a cost of about $70,000, the facility boasted a bowling alley, library, reading rooms and “the largest gymnasium in the west.” It was here in 1893 that the game of basketball – invented less than two years earlier by James Naismith at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA – was introduced to Des Moines.
The Y soon outgrew this building, and in 1909 another fundraising drive was launched. In just 10 days, cash and pledges totaled $160,000 – the city’s largest fund drive to date. Work was started on a $250,000 structure at Fourth Street and Keosauqua Way, which opened in 1912. The six-story Neoclassical building featured the city’s first indoor swimming pool and included rooms for housing adult men. It now serves as the headquarters for the Iowa Commission for the Blind.