Posted on 10/10/2018 at 11:25 AM by YMCA of Greater Des Moines
In part one of our series, we explored the origins of the YMCA movement and the organization’s early history in Des Moines. This week, we’ll pick up the story with the opening of a new facility in 1912 and examine how the Y evolved into a multi-faceted nonprofit dedicated to the cause of strengthening the foundations of community.
Settled into its new home at 4th and Keo in downtown Des Moines, the YMCA began looking for new ways to carry out its mission of putting Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthier spirit, mind and body for all.
It’s hard to believe that a little more than a century ago, swimming pools were viewed by the medical establishment as health threats.
The YMCA in Brooklyn, NY housed the first reported “swimming bath” in 1885. By the turn of the century, more than 100 YMCAs across the nation boasted swimming pools. Those early pools were small, and with hundreds of people using them, the water quickly became filthy, creating a need for frequent emptying and refilling. It wasn’t until 1909 -- when Ray Rayburn of the Kansas City YMCA invented a swimming pool with a roll-out rim to exchange water -- that indoor pools came to be viewed as beneficial to health and fitness.
That same year, the YMCA launched an ambitious campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim. A Canadian named George Corsan, who taught swimming at the YMCA in Detroit, invented the concept of group swim lessons, which enabled Ys across the continent – including the Des Moines YMCA – to provide swim instruction to large numbers of children and adults. Today, YMCAs collectively are the largest operator of swimming pools in the United States.
The Y has always been “for all,” reaching across the lines that divide society to help people of all ages, all races and all walks of life reach their full potential.
During World War I, the Des Moines YMCA offered literacy programs and other services for black soldiers training at Camp Dodge. Those programs evolved into the Crocker Street Y branch, which opened in 1919 at 12th and Crocker streets. S. Joe Brown, a prominent attorney in the African-American community, persuaded the Y’s board of directors to furnish the services of an executive director if residents of the community could come up with a building.
It wasn’t equal – nothing much was, in those days of segregation – but the Crocker Street Y provided African-American boys with a place to gather, play basketball and learn life lessons from the adult leaders who acted as role models. Many of those “Crocker Street boys” went on to careers in education, law, medicine, business and public service, and they give credit to the Crocker Street Y for instilling the values that would help them overcome the barriers to success.
In 1945, the Crocker Street Y moved to a larger, better facility at 1333 Keosauqua Way. But by that time, programs for blacks were becoming established within the central YMCA. When the Keo Way building had to be demolished in 1959 to make way for the construction of the freeway, the Y announced that the new Riverfront facility would be fully integrated.
The YMCA started America’s first known summer camp program in 1885, and built the nation’s first permanent resident camp on the shores of New York’s Lake Champlain in 1908.
In 1917, the Des Moines Y launched overnight camping at a spot on the south bank of the Des Moines River at Beaver Creek. Two years later, the Y purchased 23 acres of land in Boone County, and Y Camp was born.
The camp has grown to nearly 400 acres in the picturesque Des Moines River Valley and now serves campers year-round. In addition to traditional sleep-away camp, Des Moines Y Camp hosts a variety of specialty camps, environmental education programs, field trips, conferences and retreats. A huge celebration is planned for Memorial Day Weekend 2019 to celebrate Y Camp’s 100th anniversary.
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