110 years of leisure
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS The Tamaqua pool water is green from effects of winter, but the pool will be cleaned and filled with crystal clear water in time for Splash Day.
When Tamaqua's hidden oasis reopens June 5 for Splash Day, it'll be much more than another day of swimming, diving and recreation. That date will reinforce a rich tradition, marking some 110 years since the site was first chosen as the ideal spot for summer frolic.
Situated at the extreme north end of Catawissa Street, Bungalow Park sits in a laurel-covered nook of Locust Mountain, where a few local businessmen first identified the location as one suitable for swimming.
According to early accounts, the community's million dollar park can trace its origins to a 1900 mudhole at the site fed by Farber's Spring.
The Bungalow's humble start began when James Turk, a former superintendent of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, joined with three friends, Tamaqua merchants George Haefeker and Harry and S.G. Seligman, to build a summer cabin with a relaxing, rural feeling.
Turk's original summer cabin or bungalow was erected near Farber's Spring. The exact date isn't known, but is believed to be about 1900. Not much is known about early use of the site since it was in private hands.
The cabin apparently wasn't used very long because by 1913, the place was abandoned and the bungalow torn down. Almost immediately, youngsters claimed the serene spot, recognizing its spring-fed dam a natural swimming hole, even if somewhat muddy.
The earthen dam proved to be so popular that, in the 1920s, the Tamaqua American Legion Post took it on as a community betterment project. They installed the original bathhouses at the south end and playground equipment and a few tables on the west hill.
Later, the Tamaqua Rotary Club built a wall around the dam, cementing part of the dam floor and installing protective rails. The club also constructed newer bathhouses using lumber obtained by dismantling an abandoned Scout camp north of the park.
By 1935, two groups, the Bungalow Boys Club and the Tamaqua Civic Improvement Association, were organized to help promote the site. A $110,000 overhaul was undertaken through government programs such as the Works Project Administration, including the paving of the entire pool. Many of those improvements are still visible today: the bridge, the low perimeter wall and the steps leading to the picnic grove, all made of mountain stone.
Others also made major contributions to the park's development, including the Tamaqua Lions Club, the Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission, Tamaqua Borough, Reading Anthracite, and numerous Scout troops.
The Bungalow Park Commission, formed under the auspices of borough council, has coordinated park activities since 1941. The first officers were C.S. Shenton, chairman; Albert T. Boettger, vice chairman; William R. Windel, secretary, and Willis Parnell, treasurer.
That summer, the 120-seat pavilion was built, topped with the corrugated metal roof. New tables and strings of lights were installed throughout the grove.
The following year, Farber's Spring water was piped to the grove and each year after that, more equipment, improvements and additions, such as basketball and volleyball courts and even a band shell, enhanced the park as it spread up the mountainside.
Bungalow Park saw heavy post-war use by the baby boom generation and by the early 1970s was showing wear. To make matters worse, there was no money to fix it. Funds were tight and the borough already had forked out $10,000 for a new filtration system.
Then came an unexpected surprise for all local children (and adults, too) a $260,000 bequest from a man with no children of his own.
The gift came from local cafe owner Howard "Moe" Buehler, a bachelor with a kind, loving reputation. The son of John and Rose Buehler, Howard was born December 26, 1903 and reared at 332-334 Hazle Street.
Friends say Buehler was a tall, imposing man, standing 6 feet 4 inches with a heart just as big. He grew up in town with three brothers and a sister. He served time in the Army as a cook, then settled in Tamaqua, operating Buehler's Cafe, just east of the railroad tracks on the south side of West Broad Street.
Buehler passed away July 16, 1968, at 65, and is buried in Tamaqua's Odd Fellows Cemetery. According to provisions of his will, Buehler designated his holdings in stocks, certificates and real estate to be liquidated and proceeds used to care for the lifetime needs of his two closest living relatives, a sister and a sister-in-law.
According to his wishes, the remainder was to be used at the pool to benefit the children of the Tamaqua area. Miners National Bank trustees followed Buehler's instructions exactingly, eventually turning over $260,000 to the borough about 1975.
No one knows for sure what prompted Buehler to be so benevolent. Some say it was fond memories of his own happy childhood that led Buehler to bequeath his estate this way. Others say it was simply his desire to provide for the children of Tamaqua.
Whatever his motivation, Howard Buehler's benevolence sparked a comeback for the park.
Getting the pool repaired and keeping it open using the Buehler funds was a priority, but the borough still had difficulties to overcome to make the project a reality, especially since bids came in at $415,000.
The borough relied heavily on its own workforce to perform certain jobs and save money. The borough also redeemed $39,000 in certificates. Those funds came from an accumulation of swimming fees collected by longtime pool volunteers, the late Mary and Dick Southam, Tamaqua, who donated almost all of their free time managing the facility. The reconstructed pool was finally opened and rededicated in 1976.
But improvements continued over the years, according to borough manager Kevin Steigerwalt.
"We built a new baby pool, new filter and chemical building, the pool bottom was resurfaced, racing lanes put in, a new concession stand was built with the help of the J.E. Morgan Trust, and ADA upgrades to the bathhouse; and renovations to the playground cost $100,000," said Steigerwalt.
Today, Tamaqua boasts a community park and pool that most small towns can only dream about.
Pauline Boettger, a park commission volunteer for over 25 years, says the park is successful because it appeals to everyone.
"It's a family place."