Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

During war, rec center gave teens a refuge

During World War II, Columbia’s streets had mostly older people and young women and girls. There wasn’t much to do with the men and boys away in training camps or in various parts of the world with the armed forces.

Doctors and teachers went to war, technicians of all kinds and skilled craftsmen were sent away, on short notice, to build ammunition plants and factories where parts for planes, guns, landing craft and endless war equipment would be manufactured. Whole families and family pets moved elsewhere. They lived in crowded apartments while working at temporary jobs to help the war effort.

Our fighting men were sent all over the world, and the home front was left with a shortage of all of the materials needed to feed, clothe, arm and entertain the men and women in uniform. Retired people went back to work, often learning new jobs, filling in for those who were needed elsewhere. Women and girls learned first aid, knitted wool mittens and socks for people in foreign countries, wrote letters and sent goodies to relatives and friends in training camps and on war fronts. We gradually adjusted to the restlessness caused by many changes.

Suddenly, Columbia underwent another surprising transition. Uniformed Army Air Force trainees swarmed the streets on weekends and late afternoon hours when local young people were also seeking ways to enjoy their after-school freedom. Many people saw a potential problem as the fellows in uniform sought not only college girls, but high school girls and even some junior high girls, in restaurants, stores and on street corners. Parents, storekeepers and others, including former coach W.C. Harris, saw the need for a recreation center for young students.

The vacated Methodist church stood at the corner of Dorsey Street and Broadway — directly across from the present First Baptist Church. The basement of the unused church was accessible from a Dorsey Street entrance on the west. Parents, city "fathers" and Harris persuaded the church owners to allow Columbia’s young people to use the basement as a temporary gathering place after school and on weekends.

Young people loved the idea. Everybody did. Getting the center cleaned, decorated and comfortable was a youth effort. They scrubbed and painted, were given a jukebox, games, records, magazines and books, and they rented a pop machine. It was great fun to work together on this project. Parents gave discarded chairs, couches and other furniture. Merchants donated paint and other supplies for renovating and equipping the area. Columbia teens came often to help and to enjoy working hard on their own place to get together. They’d have minimal supervision by a friendly young couple that Harris chose to help coordinate the renovation and be around during the center’s open hours.

Harris suggested that the teens establish a system of self-government. The center needed a name and someone won $5 for suggesting Teen Town. Today this term is widely recognized because of the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt was very active and much in the news when her husband was president. She traveled all over the nation and wrote a column syndicated as "My Day." She was fascinated when Harris mentioned Teen Town. He took her to visit the kids when the place was alive with activity, and she told about it in her column the next day.

Requests came from all over the nation asking when? who? where? how? I was employed to write a brochure to reply to the questions and also to help when Teen Town moved to the south side of Broadway to larger quarters. As the saying goes, "Necessity" — a youth center — "was the mother of invention!"

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