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Summer in Greenbelt’s Early Days

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by Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, Greenbelt Museum’s Education and Volunteer Coordinator.

Greenbelt residents garden in their allotment plot. Library of Congress.

In a small community surrounded by trees and bejeweled with a lake, a swimming pool, picnic areas, playgrounds, tennis courts, ball fields, and a movie theater, summers in Greenbelt could feel like a vacation without leaving home. The early residents were thrilled with their environment and jumped in, discovering how much there was to do.

The first summer for Greenbelters was 1938, as most of the first families moved in in late September and October 1937. That earliest summer saw about 600 families and about 2300 people in town. They had a charter, a flag, and a town seal. Excitement was brewing about swimming in the lake. 300 families, fully half of the residents, were busy gardening in the allotment plot gardens. The whole family got involved, and folks were seen trekking through the pedestrian footpaths with gardening equipment for everyone. In the summer of 1939, Greenbelt families showcased all of their garden bounty at the first Town Fair, held on Labor Day Weekend. It would be a beloved Greenbelt tradition and it eventually evolved into our Labor Day Festival. More on that later!

The Greenbelt pool is crowded with swimmers, c. 1950s. Photo by Paul Kasko, Greenbelt Museum Collection

Another big event that summer was the opening of the swimming pool. Greenbelt Lake hadn’t worked out for swimming, so the need for the pool was even more obvious. The pool opened on Memorial Day. Original Greenbelters have spoken of their delight over the brand new pool, and several mentioned that the pool was crowded with children from nearby communities that were bussed in. The last of the neighboring town kids left by 5pm, leaving plenty of room for the Greenbelt young ones, at least until 6pm when mothers started calling them home for dinner!

June 1939 saw the enactment of a controversial law: no shorts on women allowed in the Center. Apparently the opening of the pool had led to some ladies wearing shorts and even swim attire in the (Roosevelt) Center, causing an uproar. The council swiftly took action and banned shorts and bathing suits. A writer to the Cooperator lamented that she was sure to have relatives sending press clippings from all over the country about what “funny people” live in Greenbelt. It was extensively covered, words like “totalitarian” were bandied about. That law was later challenged by a brave Frances Herling, who wore shorts into the Center and was arrested. Her controversial shorts are in the collection of the Greenbelt Museum, and the law was changed soon after the incident. 

Marion Benson (top R), a teenage resident, oversees her charges. Greenbelt Museum Collection

During the WWII years, the town expanded with the new defense housing, and women were busy helping with the war effort. “Baby playgrounds” were organized with specially trained high school girls leading children’s activities during the day. The culmination of that program at summer’s end was a talent show for the adults. These shows were filled with dancing and tumbling. There was the ever-popular baseball in Greenbelt, swimming lessons, tennis lessons, and when it was just too hot, a day at the movies. Movie advertisements in the newspaper boldly highlighted the air conditioning in the theater, a huge draw. Greenbelt children in need of pocket money for the movies could participate in the city-run program that paid youths 25¢ for each pint of Japanese Beetles they captured and turned in. This was an increase from the traditional 25¢ per quart from earlier years.

Labor Day 1975. Greenbelt Museum Collection

The first Labor Day Festival was held in 1955. There were precursors like the earlier Town Fairs, and parades. The event was a success and featured an art show, a “popularity” contest, athletic competitions and the parade. The popularity contest evolved into the Miss Greenbelt Beauty/ Scholarship Pageant. The Labor Day Festival has continued and grown for over 60 years. Carnival rides, community booths, bingo, and the book fair were all popular features.

Later summers in Greenbelt brought canoeing on Greenbelt Lake, fish fry gatherings, ice cream cones from High’s Dairy, Camp Pine Tree, Creative Kid’s Camp and so much more. Summer in Greenbelt has always been filled with activity, nature, creativity and fun.


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