Woods Lake swimming remembered decades after lake closed


For more than 20 years Woods Lake has been closed; its high sliding board and its lifeguard stand rusting in the same spot where a couple of generations of young people and families splashed and swam on lazy summer days.

Located on Woods Lake Road, which runs between Haywood Road and South Pleasantburg Drive, the property was once considered "in the country." Now it is encircled by commercial development - warehouses and businesses along an artery that carries traffic behind the Greenville Downtown Airport.

Just a long block away from Haywood Mall, that high slide and that lifeguard stand have remained visible from the road, jogging the memories of some who drove past and the curiosity of others who never experienced the pleasure of a day beside the lake.

Well, closed the lake might be, but it's not forgotten - most certainly not by Ailene Graham, whose family owned the property from 1916 until she sold it recently.

And just mention Woods Lake to anyone over the age of 40 who spent his or her teen years in Greenville.

Pat Grayson, a Greenville attorney: "I remember as a kid going out there. I have fond memories of sliding down the big sliding board."

And Carol Dobbins, a legal assistant, remembers the rock 'n' roll songs played over the PA system and the hamburgers and hot dogs at the snack bar.

"We didn't have so much fast food then, and it seemed great to be able to get those prepared fresh right there."

But more than the food, says Mrs. Dobbins, "That is where I learned to be a teen-ager. I watched how the teen-agers behaved there, how they handled themselves."

And like nearly everyone who spent more than a few hours at Woods Lake, Mrs. Dobbins remembers that high sliding board and the first time she found the nerve to climb it and then swoosh to the bottom. She nearly lost her bathing suit, but she gained a fond memory.

"Mrs. Graham gave my family and other families really wonderful memories," Mrs. Dobbins says.

Mrs. Graham, the owner and operator of the lake for 34 years, says those happy experiences are what motivated her to keep the lake open to the public all those years.

"My happiest memory," she says, "is of all the church picnics and family picnics. People would come year after year."

It was Mrs. Graham's father, Joseph P. Cosgrove, who had bought the lake around 1916, she recalls, and operated it as a fishing lake with a partner, whom he soon bought out.

When Ailene Cosgrove married Tom Graham, the newlyweds took over operation of Woods Lake as a recreational swimming spot in 1938.

Graham worked as a supervisor for Claussen's Bakery, but spent his off hours at the lake. For Mrs. Graham, however, it was a full-time job from Memorial Day to Labor Day, seven days a week. Soldiers came to the lake for picnics, and during World War II, Mrs. Graham says, the Army rented the lake for a training center complete with rappelling tower and obstacle course.

It was beside the lake that Mrs. Graham raised her two children, Ann Hamby and the late Tony Graham - the family had a house nearby on the property.

Mrs. Graham tended to the towel and locker supply, the snack bar and lifeguards, and the water purification system, which was at the time, she says, the same kind of system the city used.

From 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily during warm weather, the lake was filled with young people and families. On Sundays, says Mrs. Graham, several hundred bodies splashed in the lake.

"We did not have one bit of trouble with teen-agers in those days," says Mrs. Graham. "Whenever you spoke to someone or asked them to do something, they obeyed you."

The Graham children worked alongside their mother.

"We did everything that needed to be done," Ann Hamby recalls. "But we got to go swimming anytime. ... Everyday was a fun day."

Mrs. Hamby says she never came down the high slide.

`No, ma'am" she says, laughing, "It was too high for me. I had more sense than that."

Mrs. Graham says she closed the lake, "because I just got tired of running it. I was ready to retire."

And even after its closing, Mrs. Graham says, she got requests to use the lake for family picnics or swimming lessons.

And on several occasions, strangers appeared at her door to ask permission to walk down the road with their children, to show them the lake where they'd had such fun as children - on the high dive or on the "top" in the center of the lake that would spin if enough swimmers climbed on to help turn the wheel. The top had been placed there decades before by Mrs. Graham's father, she says.

Mrs. Graham has moved from the property that she sold.

Hal Grayson of Estates Inc. in Atlanta, Ga. is a former Greenville resident who says he remembers his father, Pat, speaking often of good times at Woods Lake.

Carol Dobbins says that for her and others, "It was the quintessential experience of my childhood."