Ah, summer in Gulfport, a kids’ paradise! Two whole months of vacation, with no classes, no responsibilities, no shoes…But is that really the case? I recently consulted a group of former junior Gulfportians, seeking the truth about summer fun in years past. I found the facts – and a treasure trove of slightly sunburnt memories.
Many Gulfportians fondly recall the Summer Enrichment Program hosted at Gulfport Elementary School from 1946 through the 1970s. The free program lasted all day, Monday through Friday – “Moms loved it!” – and offered a wide array of arts and crafts, games, sports, movies and a weekly field trip. For just 10 cents, kids could visit such exotic locales as Palm Harbor’s Wall Springs (a former health spa-turned-swimming hole), the Gay Blades rollerink (home of the bay area’s largest hardwood maple floor!), and the old St. Pete YMCA, with its fine mosaics and even finer natatorial facilities.
“I taught public school for 40 years,” says Melissa Nabbe Matusevich, who attended the program in the 1950s, “and have never seen anything like it!”
Matusevich recalls summers spent eating watermelon, biking to Gulfport Beach and playing in inflatable pools.
“They were a great way to try to get cool in our world with no air-conditioning,” she said. “The first AC I knew of in Gulfport was in 1954 or ‘55 at the Gulfport Shopping Center. To us kids, it was a marvel.”
The fun continued when the program at Gulfport Elementary transformed into a city-sponsored summer camp at the Gulfport Rec Center. Emily Barnes, who now directs the preschool program at Great Explorations Children’s Museum, recalls working as a counselor for the camp in the 1990s – “my first real sense of responsibility.” Here summer hours were filled with dodgeball, field days, trips to Fort De Soto, and plenty of opportunities to tease her younger brother, who was a camper.
Then as now, swimming was popular. In the 1950s, the Red Cross sponsored a Vacation Swim Program with lessons for children and adults, and Gulfport Beach was often packed. This was before the bridge to Mullet Key was built along with the many fill island developments to the south. “The water was clear then,” remembers Joy Hitchcock.
Gulfport’s kids devised lots of other ways to keep cool.
“We had lots of lemonade stands,” recalls Barnes. “We always did well.”
Matusevich remembers a day when the Jackson Ice Company delivery man gave her and her friends a spare block of ice. “We couldn’t pick it up, so we rolled it end over end to 57th street, which was then a dirt road, and put it in the shade.” She laughs. “We took turns sitting on it all afternoon!”
And what about the finer things? Gulfport kids in the 1950s got their literary fix by filling bike baskets up with library books and, as H. Duane Corn puts it, “reading everything I could get my hands on.”
At night, kids could pile into the back of a neighbor’s pickup truck and head on over to the Sky-Vue Drive In in South Pasadena. Admission was $1 per carload, and for 10 cents extra, get a PIC minitorch to put on your dashboard to keep the bugs away. All the modern conveniences.
Far from slacking, Gulfport’s young folks filled their summer days with learning, exploring, small business ventures and more than a few independently organized adventures. Looking back on past seasons of fishing, diving, sunning, camping, climbing, seeking exotic reptiles, and “lord knows what else,” Corne concludes, “I guess we were just pirates in those days.”
May the wind fill your sails, summer pirates, and all your days be golden!