For those who live in the New England, the word “pond” conjures up an image of a quaint, shallow body of fresh water, surrounded by mildly sloping banks, flush with reeds and weeds, and set near woods or in a forest. Small ponds (not the ones you find on a map or with vacation homes built around them) lie scattered about the North American landscape and are products of underground springs, lazy streams, and surface runoff. Some are even formed as a result of the human hand or the damn beaver. Small pond-scapes are pleasant and cozy, not overwhelming and large-scale like the big pond, or its cousin, the lake.
In the summer months, a small pond’s still water mirrors the mood of the sky above, and life teems in and all around its marshy, mucky edges. Tadpoles swim about the reddish, decaying leaf-stained water in frenzied dense black clouds, and birds, mosquitoes, and frogs fill the air around it with a subtle but complex cacophony of background noise. There is not enough depth in the water for boating, nor oxygen to sustain fish of any measure, and the tall reeds are alive and green.
In the winter, a small pond turns into a dense, black tablet of ice, surrounded by hollow, dead reeds rising around the edges, seemingly void of life as it sits quiet and dormant under a white blanket of snow. They remain that way until spring’s warmth begins to gradually wrap itself around the Northern Hemisphere once again. Small ponds are simple, quiet places, and are generally avoided or ignored by people today.
However, there once was a time when the small pond in North America came alive in the dead of winter; a time when people sought out ponds to play the game of pond hockey and when the frigid short days and long nights of January and February were shattered by the sound of steel blades scraping on the ice, the smacking of a rubber puck on a wooden stick, and the shouts of children and adults as they echoed throughout the forests and marshes in New England. The sounds have since been replaced by quiet and stillness.
Many of these small ponds have a history and a story to be told - a story about its birth, life, and ultimate demise as a winter playground. Some stories remain a distant memory and some lay buried in the ground with its care-taker. But there is one pond in Rowley, Massachusetts, whose history is rich, whose lifecycle is interesting, and whose story is very much intertwined with a sport, a town, and a childhood. The latter is only relevant in this story because of the two former.
Rowley, Massachusetts is located in the northeast corner of the state. Main Street is Route 1A, and it links Rowley to its neighbors, Ipswich to the South and Newbury to the North. Rowley is a small town, and its citizens are a blend of older, practical Yankee types and younger, upwardly mobile types.
The First Congregational Church of Rowley sits front and center on Main Street. But hidden out of sight behind the church, and tucked into the edge of the Town Forest, sits Jaycees Pond. That was its name when I lived there in the 1970’s anyway. Since then, the pond has sat largely ignored …but not completely forgotten.
Jaycees Pond was named after the group of men who built it. The Jaycees are members of the Junior Chamber, a non-profit organization comprised of local, young (membership ends at age 40) business men. As an organization, the Jaycees provide men with an opportunity to develop their leadership and management skills and offer their talents to forms of community service. In Rowley, the Jaycees worked together to create a small pond in an area that was marshy surface run-off, and turned it into a skating rink for the town. In my childhood there were some who thought the pond was named for a different maker, one whose spirit resided in the adjacent church and whose initials of “J.C.” sounded the same as the organization. But that is not the case.
Jaycee Pond’s history and my own are very much linked together. In January, 1971, my family moved to Rowley. My dad was hired as the new minister of the Congregational Church, and the Newburyport Daily News printed this fact for all to see. In that same edition, in the Sports section, a far more newsworthy event about a different kind of religion was highlighted on the front page, “Youngsters mob B’s star Bucyk.”
My family arrived in our new home on the same night that Jaycees Pond was christened as the Town’s public skating rink, and the Jaycees brought Boston Bruin Johnny Bucyk in to make the big deal a much bigger deal. My dad remembers pulling into our driveway (which was also served as the entrance to the church) that evening and seeing the parking lot packed with vehicles. His initial thought was that it was a massive welcoming for us by the Congregation. It turned out that people parked their cars and walked down into the woods to see Bucyk.
Ray Hartnett, reporter for the Newburyport News at the time wrote, “Approximately 1,000 people braved the bitter cold here last night for the dedication of the Jaycees’ new skating rink. The big attraction was the appearance of Johnny Bucyk, high scoring left wing of the Boston Bruins hockey team, Stanley Cup champions. Bucyk handed out more than 600 autographed pictures for the throngs of youngsters that greeted his arrival.” The population of Rowley at the time was a mere 3,000 residents. I expect that ceremony had better attendance than my dad would find for his first Sunday morning sermon.
Fresh off a Stanley Cup victory in 1970, and on their way to another in 1972, the Boston Bruins were in their hey-day. The team’s success was attributed to saviors in their own right - saviors named Orr, Esposito, Cheevers, Cashman, and Bucyk. However, indoor rinks and organized leagues were scarce, and the game’s worshipers needed a place to pay homage to their hockey gods, and the cheapest most accessible option was outdoors, on the sheets of ice that Mother Nature provided. Thanks to the Jaycees, the Town had such a place. It makes sense that a group of men with the same work ethic and determination as the town’s forefathers would band together to build a hockey-cathedral for the games' disciples.
Dave Roberts is a local businessman and was a member of the Jaycees at the time, and he remembers, “Working hard to hack the reeds and dig out the muck,” to form the edge of the pond. The Newburyport News article quotes Jaycees President, John Stone as saying, “The area was cleaned, brush removed and a dam built to keep water in. We flooded it numerous times and lights were set up, and we plan to have a warming hut for the rink, and all maintenance and regulations will be handled by the Jaycee’s.” Hours of operation for organized hockey and public skating were established - the pond was open for hockey seven days a week until midnight.
Jaycees Pond was heavily used for almost a decade. It is where I learned to skate and play hockey, but it was much more than that. It is where young children in town caught tad-poles and frogs, and on and around its banks are where older kids gathered year-round to enjoy being unsupervised – to smoke their first cigarette, settle disputes, and hide their beer. Jaycees Pond went from an unusable piece of swamp land to a much used body of water. For a generation of kids in my town it became an outdoor playground.
However, times changed. The wave of popularity that followed the Bruins success led to a host of indoor hockey rinks being built (The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management built 16 indoor rinks in the late 60’s and early 70’s). Sheets of ice were now available year round, 24 hours a day. The climate also changed, making outdoor ice all winter long an uncertainty. In the 1980’s, video games and more organized and structured activities for kids also led to less free time spent outdoors…the need for and draw to an outdoor pond diminished.
I recently returned to the place that was once known as Jaycees Pond. There is a small dam in place and it still fills up with water, but according to one individual that I spoke with it was made by a beaver, not man. There was a recent attempt in 2011 to ressurect the pond for use as a rink, but regulations and wetlands acts made for heavy lifting, and the public passion and demand for skating outdoors by the younger generation just was not there. The reeds have taken over the sides of the pond and access to the water or ice can only be had by bulling ones way through them. The pond is there, but nobody has much use for it.
It was almost almost exactly forty-three years ago to the day that my family moved to Rowley. There is presently a renewed passion for the Bruins and for hockey in New England, but the now nameless shallow body of water that sits behind my old home represents a shallow grave for a time and place that once was.