Celebrate the Bulloch County Recreation and Parks Department’s 75th anniversary, Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Bulloch County Agricultural Complex.
The Statesboro Recreation Department was created 75 years ago this year. On April 1, 1948, with a budget of $3,000, the department was created to be overseen by the city of Statesboro, with the hiring of Max Lockwood as the first director.
Over the years, the department has shifted to become county-wide. There have been several directors after Lockwood, including Ralph Turner, Lonice Barrett, Tom Browne, Frank Hook, Ron Nix, Mike Rollins, and the current director, Eddie Canon, who assumed the position in 2020.
Throughout the years that Bulloch County Recreation and Parks has provided services, there has been much growth. The budget has grown from that first $3,000 to $142,000 in 1974, to $1.9 million in 1997. Bulloch County voters approved a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in 1989 to provide $3.2 million for parks and recreation. Another SPLOST was approved in 1993 for $1.5 million, and in 1997, another for $2.2 million. The department also received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant in 1997 to construct the Senior Citizens Center. In 2002, a SPLOST referendum designated $7.0 million for recreation.
Much has changed from the early days, and the facilities used by the rec department have grown to reflect that. Mill Creek Regional Park was constructed and opened in 1992, and Splash in the Boro saw a groundbreaking in 2003, with a grand opening in 2004. Along the way there have been upgrades and improvements on existing facilities, new parks opened, and walking trails, tennis and pickleball courts, along with the addition of a 27-hold disc golf course.
So much has changed in the community and in the recreation department, but two who remember what it was like are Robert Tanner and Frank Hook.
Tanner, who was 6 years old at the time, was the first to sign up after the department was formed by the city in 1948. He has fond memories of those early days.
“The Statesboro Women’s Club building on Fair Road was donated by them to the recreation department to be used as a recreation facility,” he said. “The Statesboro High School football field was there, and that was the only thing as far as any facilities to be used.” He added that the building and football field, now the swimming pool, had been built a few years before, and were already in use, but they were not under the rec department’s umbrella.
“But the recreation department took over and the only thing that was there when it opened up was Max (Lockwood) had a rope hanging from a tree over a sand pile that you played on. That was the first thing there. And if you got into a scuffle with anybody, that’s where he took you to put on some boxing gloves and let you do your thing. Boxing gloves were usually bigger than you were, so you weren’t going to hurt anybody,” Tanner said.
Tanner says there was a 12X12 building that had a punching bag in it, hanging from the ceiling. Lockwood, he said, organized baseball programs, and although it wasn’t officially Little League, it involved the same age groups.
“Kids played on the football field and we started playing, of course, in the early spring, on the football field, on either end of it. We had fields on either end of it, so the little kids could play,” he said. “That was the first activity we had. And then after that, he built an outdoor basketball setup, and it was a clay court with big wooden backboards, and it was out by Fair Road.”
Also during that time, Lockwood had a snack shack built behind the former Women’s Club. The shack included a television, magazines, and a soda fountain. It gave local kids a place to hang out, Tanner said.
“I was the first one to run that little soda fountain when I was in high school. It had ping-pong tables and such as that. Also during that time, we had a zoo. A lot of people don’t realize we had a zoo. We had monkeys, we had alligators, we had different kinds of birds,” he said, adding that there was later a tennis court added, between the rec complex and the pool. A playground was also added.
Of the zoo, Tanner recalled with a grin, “And of course, we had to feed them all. And the monkey got out one time and chased all over town. Had a time with the monkey.”
Lockwood went on to form the Mighty Might and Tiny Might football teams, which played teams in other towns. The city furnished uniforms and equipment for everyone who signed up to play.
“We always practiced, played two times a week, and full pads,” Tanner said. “There were no volunteers used at that time. It was strictly the people that worked for the recreation department that coached or taught kids what to do.”
Tanner says that Lockwood also started the Lucky Sevens and Happy Go Lucky Club for little girls. The boys club was called the Knothole Club.
“We’d go on Friday night sometime across the street into the woods. He’d tell ghost stories and we’d cook hot dogs,” he recalled. “Robbin’s Packing Company would donate hot dogs. We’d just put them in a big pot, boil them up, and anybody that wanted to come could have hot dogs. And a lot of kids, at that time, that’s probably all they got to eat that day.”
Tanner remembers how safe the community felt for the kids at the time.
“I couldn’t tell you how many parents dropped their children off, or they got out of school and dropped off there, and did whatever, and then were picked up at 6,” he said. “And it was open five days a week. Of course, the pool was open hours during the summer. And during that time, also, the Blitch Street Center, which is now the Luetta Moore Complex, was built and opened up, and a pool was built there also.”
Tanner says that children weren’t the only ones who benefitted from the department. There were also adult sports leagues, including men’s, church and women’s softball, and men’s and women’s basketball.
He says the July 4 celebration, now known as the Firecracker Fest, began back then and it was a huge celebration.
“Nobody who didn't grow up here would realize what the 4th of July was down there. It was a big, big event. And everybody the night before the Fourth, all the men's softball teams would cook barbecue all night long. We'd put them on the pits and stay up all night and cook. The ladies’ softball team and volunteers would then serve it at nighttime and we'd sell that and help pay for everything. But just about everybody in the county would be there on the 4th of July. We'd have greased pole climb, we'd have contests, we'd have all-star games of each level of sports that was going on, and it was just a great day for that went on for years,” he said.
Tanner’s time with the recreation department made such an impact on him that he eventually went to work there, when he was 18. Prior to that, he’d done some work for the department cutting grass and running the snack shack. He ended up becoming involved in coaching and helping to run the Little League baseball and football programs. He even earned a scholarship to help pay for college.
You couldn’t count the number of people the recreation department has impacted through the years, Tanner said.
“Max Lockwood, especially, and Ralph Turner, you couldn’t ask for two people that cared more for kids than they did,” he said. “Everybody knew them. They played with the kids. That’s what we did. I loved it. It was just such an influence. It kept so many people off the streets or out of harm’s way, but it was just a place to be.”
Tanner says that parents knew their children were going to be safe and taken care of. For the teens at that time, The Pavalon was the place to be. Originally billed as The Pavilion, the building became nicknamed The Pavalon, after someone mispronounced it. There were snacks, and the radio station came and played music for the teens to dance to — all at no charge.
Hook says his lifelong friendship with Tanner was forged in the fields of the recreation department. They grew up playing on teams together, and worked at the rec department together. He grew up taking swimming lessons, and playing baseball and basketball.
“Where Queensborough Bank is, was my grandmother's house and we lived behind it. I would jump on my bicycle with my bathing suit, my towel, and go down there and you could lay your bicycle down. Of course, nobody was going to take it. You didn't have a lock back then. You lay your ball glove on the dugout, it’d be there three days later. I started as a participant. Then probably the most wonderful years of my life was working at the Statesboro Recreation Department. I started there when I was 14,” Hook said.
When Hook started working at the department, he was paid $100 a month by the city.
“When they took the taxes out, I had $37.16, and I thought I was rich,” he said, laughing.
He and Tanner worked with youth football, basketball and Hook managed the swimming pool while he was in college. He went on to become director, from 1976 to 1979.
Hook loves to tell the story of how the rec department got the Honey Bowen Building. Honey Bowen was at that time married to Bill Bowen, a longtime mayor of Statesboro. She told him there needed to be a recreation department, even going so far as to show up at his office, with an appointment, to be sure he heard her request.
“She said, ‘I love recreation and the city of Statesboro needs a recreation program. I want you to budget $3,000 right now to hire a recreation director.’ He said to her, ‘Honey, why couldn't we have talked about this at home?’ She said, ‘Because this is business. I came to City Hall to tell you what we're going to do. Now you find the money,’” Hook said, laughing.
Hook shares many of the same great memories that Tanner has, and is also quick to say how much his time, both as a child and an adult, with the recreation department impacted him.
“It’s one of the biggest impacts in my life. I lived it, I breathed it,” he said. “I don’t know where my life would be today without the influence of the Statesboro Recreation Department and the dear friends and the people that were mentors to me, like Max Lockwood, Ralph Turner and Lonice Barrett. It was safe. Your parents didn’t worry where you were. People loved it because it was a safe place to take the children. They knew that we were going to be taken care of.”
Over the years, with all the changes the department has gone through, both Hook and Tanner say they have continued to see the positive impact the programs make in the lives of local residents.
“When I think about the impact of the lives it’s touched in such a positive way, I mean, it’s been a long-time program. You learn how to play baseball, you learn how to get along with people, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose and how to meet people,” Hook said. “It was just a fun place to work and play. I wouldn’t give anything for my experience. I will go to heaven knowing that the Statesboro Recreation Department, if there’s any worth to me at all, was a big factor in my growing up.”