Last Saturday evening, my wife Brenda and I drove to Dayton to have dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, the Pine Club.
Unfortunately, we arrived to find the wait time would be more than an hour-and-a-half, so we opted to go elsewhere. We walked a block or so down the street to Milano’s restaurant, just down from the University of Dayton campus, where we enjoyed a delicious, less formal meal of pizza.
Having spent considerable time in Dayton at school and on the job, I am familiar with the city and asked Brenda if she would like to cruise around for a bit. She agreed, so we headed down Jefferson Street and soon passed the historic, still operational Price Stores.
I relayed to Brenda a story about the time my mother and I went to the Price Stores to find a suit for me when I was in high school.
“Ahh, Mrs. Haley. How nice to see you,” the elderly tailor said as we entered the large doors. He soon fitted me in a dark blue suit and said, “You can wear a dark blue suit anywhere. Doesn’t he look nice in that suit, Mrs. Haley?” totally ignoring my opinion.
Next, we drove by the cement wall where the old Dayton train station and depot used to stand. A few blocks away was Chaminade-Julienne High School, a private Catholic school. I told Brenda that my mother wanted to send me to Chaminade, which was an all-male school during my high school days.
I don’t know whether it was a lack of transportation or a lack of money, but I never ended-up attending the school. I have often thought how likely my life would have turned out so much differently had I gone to school in downtown Dayton instead of Wilmington High School.
Our next stop was the Old River Park across from the Carillion Park near the Miami River.
Old River was the creation of Colonel Edward Deeds, then president and board chairman of National Cash Register. Colonel Deeds believed a productive employee was a happy one.
According to my dad, who was a 40-year employee of NCR, Colonel Deeds asked the workers if they would forgo their two-week vacation for one year, then he would build them a recreational park second to none in the United States.
The employees agreed, and true to his word, Colonel Deeds did just that. Old River opened in 1939.
The colonel hired the Olmsted brothers, the famous landscape architects who designed New York City’s Central Park, to create its system of lagoons, nature trails, playground areas, and the Olympic size swimming pool, which was the second largest in the world.
Many people from Clinton, Highland, Fayette and Greene counties worked at the National Cash Register Company. In fact, it was “the” place to work at that time. Thousands of employees and their families attended Old River on weekends to enjoy a variety of activities.
The reciprocated loyalty between the company and its workers was unparalleled. On cool summer evenings, NCR’s Old River crew would string a giant screen between the massive trees, spool a film on a projector, and show first-run movies. There were acres of picnic grounds shaded by ancient oaks and maples. You could paddle a canoe on the lagoon that encircled the park.
There was a small bridge connecting the playground and swimming pool that was a gathering place to throw popcorn to giant orange carp that would sometimes jump straight up in the air to catch the kernels.
In 2009, the University of Dayton bought Old River Park, and although the park is being used for ecological education purposes, the tall grass and weathering buildings now gives the historic park a forlorn, deserted look.
Dayton’s Old River Park left generations of residents with warm memories of picnics, band concerts, putt-putt golf, and canoe trips on its scenic lagoon. It’s ironic as you get older how things that were a regular part of your life become more distant memories as time goes by.
Ain’t it funny how time slips away.
Pat Haley is former Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.