Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.
My wife and daughter were volunteering at our granddaughter Jayne’s school in the library last week in Irwin, Pennsylvania.
Unlike Wyoming, where old schools are quickly razed and reduced to rubble, in most states the old public school buildings are repurposed. The building we were in was once part of the Norwin Public School system but is now home to Queen of Angels Catholic School.
Sue and Staci were on the second floor organizing children’s books.
Jayne and Norah played well, but after a few hours grew a bit bored and decided to take me on a tour of the school. For a parochial school, it’s a very large building.
Jayne, the “worldly” kindergartner, knew every floor and was proud to take her grandpa on a tour.
Across the hall from the library was the school gym. It had an impressive full dimension basketball court, and it was there that a runaway truck traveling down memory lane hit me.
As the girls rolled a big rubber ball around and I shot a few baskets with a couple of basketballs lying near the court I noticed the signs pointing to the home and visitors’ locker rooms.
“Why not?” I thought as I walked toward the home locker room.
It was classic. A long steep stairway, with a right turn and five more steps leading to lockers, a row of benches, showers, and stalls. The dungeon, as I’m sure kids playing there once called it, was a trip to days long gone when gyms reflected the character, and the finances of the local school district.
The original Panther Gym at Pavillion came to mind. The kids at Wind River used to call it the “Hoosier Gym” in reference to the classic basketball movie until it was destroyed a few years ago to make room for the new Wind River Elementary School.
During the summers of 1972, 73 and 74 I worked in that building as summer help for head custodian Clifford Stickney.
While most of my job was spent outside mowing and watering lawns, refurbishing playground equipment and repairing lockers, we spent several weeks refinishing the gym floor as well.
If you’ve never done it, it is a time consuming, labor intensive job that when done correctly takes a few weeks to complete.
We started by sanding down the floor with a large orbital sander. The discs clogged quickly and had to be washed off outside, but within a week we had the old finish sanded off, mopped clean and ready for the next step.
That step was to pour gym finish on the floor and rapidly spread it evenly with three-feet wide sheepskin clothes attached to broom handles. You got a little lightheaded from the fumes even with all the doors open and a couple of industrial sized fans bringing in outside air.
After a few days the resin had hardened and it was time to buff the new floor, shining it to a reflective gleam.
You did this in your socks, so you didn’t mar the new surface. We used the same sander, but instead of discs we attached sheepskin buffing pads. The first time I turned on the handle I got a little ride as it spun in a circle with the power cord wrapping around my legs. Cliff adjusted my stance, and we finished the gym.
Every gym in America was once done this way. In larger communities, the district contracts independent flooring companies for this work.
The Pavillion gym was lined on both sides by permanent raised bleachers, it was like playing in a pit with just a touch of a Roman Coliseum feel to it.
Riverton High School’s original gym, the one now slated for complete destruction was similar, with a stage on one side and concrete bleachers to the west.
Heading north, the gyms at Byron, Cowley and Deaver had their own unique appeal.
Byron always felt like a touch of the “Big Time” with a ticket booth outside the lobby as you walked into the gym. Deaver was more of a traditional floor and Cowley was unique, unlike any other gym I’ve even been in.
The “Barn” as we called the big log structure that was Jaguar Gym had a slick floor, tiny locker rooms, lights hanging down from the roof on long cords and was made entirely of logs. It was one of a kind and is now a museum. But once, it was the hotbed of action on Friday and Saturday Nights as teams from across the Big Horn Basin and Shoshoni, Pavillion, Morton and Dubois (and later Wind River) came north to play the boys from Cowley.
When I arrived in Lusk as a first year teacher and coach back in the fall of 1980, these old style gyms were still commonplace. Gyms at Huntley, Veteran, Lingle, Guernsey, LaGrange, Albin, Pine Bluffs and Burns all had the same smell of aging wood, new gym finish and time gone by. So did the rarely utilized gyms at Manville and Lance Creek that were part of the Niobrara County School District.
They’re all gone today, either demolished and replaced with new structures, or gone forever as the schools were consolidated and the tiny communities evaporated into distant memories.
The two Fremont County gyms I was most familiar with suffered the same fate. The old Morton Gym, that became Wind River in 1969 is now a wreck with the copper plumbing and wiring stolen by scavengers long ago and the buckled remains of a hardwood floor now crumpled into useless piles of rotting wood.
Wrangler gym fell to the wrecking ball when the new school was opened. My former students and athletes who now serve on the Shoshoni school board and have their children and grandchildren playing in the new gym are rightly proud of the facility and often asked me what I think of the gym.
My answer is always the same, “It’s a great gym, but it’s not my gym.”
The eight years I spent as a Wrangler basketball coach were in a gym that exists only in the collective memory of those who played and coached in it. The same is true for Dubois, St. Stephen’s, Wyoming Indian, Lander, Riverton, Jeffrey City, Wind River, and Ft. Washakie.
Those foreign gyms, at least to those of us from Fremont County in Basin, Manderson, Burlington, and Cowley all have the same nostalgic imagery when compared to the newly constructed facilities.
New is always better in America, except when it comes to our memories.
Memories just can’t be replaced with state funds or a bond issue.