By Becky Allen
Who knows what stirs things up in the psyche; maybe it’s a deep, unfulfilled desire. Maybe it’s something as simple as a song or a smell or the feel of the sun on your face. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s June and I spent many June days (and July and August) at theLake. That’s how it was known. TheLake. I’ve had a hankering lately to revisit theLake. Trouble is, theLake, as we knew it, is no more.
For the first 10 years of my life, I lived a stone’s throw from “America’sFinestInlandBeach.” That’s right—America’s Finest. And quite possibly the first. Shenandoah Acres was the biggest thing going around the little village community of Stuarts Draft, Virginia. Today, Stuarts Draft has the dubious honor of being home to three major manufacturers—Hershey, McKee (Little Debbie), and Hollister, as well as being home to the Target distribution center that serves the entire east coast. Before that, though, it was home to Shenandoah Acres.
My earliest memories of the Lake have me walking up to the beach house with my older sister, towels draped around our shoulders, one hand in hers, the other clutching a quarter—the price of admission into summer heaven. In 1963, this family recreation spot was just that; family-owned and operated for the express purpose of offering family fun. Mom could rest easy knowing her eleven- and nine-year-old daughters were safe and happy until she came later with lunch. After all, the neighbors were watching her kids.
It wasn’t until more than fourty-five years later that I really understood what a unique offering had been created by the Blacka family. According to a piece compiled for the Acres’ 60th Anniversary,
“Back in the late 1920’s it was Rupert A. Blacka’s dream to own his own health resort where people could come for nutritious meals and outdoor recreation. In 1935, Rupert heard about a 300 acre farm that was for sale in the Stuarts Draft area, being sold by a Dr. Dodge, who had his medical practice there. In addition to the numerous orchards and cranberry bogs located on the property, there was a four acre spring-fed lake the local people used to pay to swim in. Rupert and his wife, Helen and three of their seven children moved to the farm, which they purchased, and began to work on the resort.”
What Rupert Blacka purchased was “a swimming ‘lake’ that was nothing more than a mud hole in the middle of a field, filled with muck and debris. What he found under the muck was a nice, sandy bottom. What began as a health resort morphed into a water playground that offered plenty of options for having fun at any age.
I wasn’t there in the ‘40’s for the beauty pageant or the drive-in theater, but I was there for the merry-go-round, the concrete walkway from the beach to the pier with the low diving board and the high diving board, the three slides—little, middle, and BIG—and, most famously, the cables. The “cables” were basically a t-shaped bar attached to zip line that ran from the top of a three story tower down to the water’s edge. Of course, the real thrill seekers dropped off well before that, into water deep enough to safely break a long fall.
Since I can’t go back to the lake, I figured the next best thing would be to reminisce with Jack Blacka, elder of the two brothers who took the business reins from their ailing dad in 1972.
“The first major things to go into theLakewere the two concrete piers; they were built in 1948,” Jack recalls. “And the cinderblock dressing rooms were also built in 1948. I remember, early on, the old wooden bathhouse structure was the first building we put up. On the outside of that was a separate building that we called the lunch room, where we served snacks. And there was a smaller building that we used as the ticket office. And there was a picket fence around the whole lake area.
At the same time we put the piers in we also built four cinderblock cottages on the right, before you turned in to go to the office—they’ve since been torn down. The larger of the two buildings was moved in behind where the little log cabin was and turned into a cottage with a little kitchen unit in it and an even smaller one was moved in beside it. It was just a little one bedroom unit with a sink.”
I clearly remember those cinderblock cottages. As a child, riding by on my bike, those cottages fostered dreams of an ideal life; swimming, eating, and sleeping, day-after-day. I watched those lucky temporary tenants walk across the road any time they felt like it to grab a snack or sit in a lawn chair in the shade and read a book. And then walk back across the road for more water fun. What else was there, really, to summer’s perfection?
The next best thing to renting a cottage was having a summer pass. The power of the summer pass was a splendid thing, offering endless available fun. We could go every day if we wanted and stay just as long as we wanted. Or we could go many times in a day–for a couple of hours in the morning, home for lunch, back for a dip in the afternoon, then back home til Dad returned from work. These kinds of days were my favorites. We had the picnic basket packed and ready so all Dad had to do was change into his swim trunks and off we’d go, the summer pass pouring out its blessing of freedom upon our family.
Even if you didn’t have a summer pass, when you paid your daily admission fee, you let your hand linger, wrist up, to receive the stamp that allowed you to come and go during that day. Though if you were just there for the day, you didn’t want to miss a minute of it. Not a minute of the jukebox blaring the soundtrack to your life, or the smell of suntan lotion mingling with the odors wafting out of the screened-in kitchen—french fries roiling in the deep fryer and hamburgers sizzling on the grill. And best of all—and I’ve never seen these anywhere else–square ice cream cones. These were literally square blocks of ice cream zipped open from their little cardboard envelopes and seated into square-mouthed cones. Somehow, the novelty shape had us convinced that they tasted better than any old regular cone would, and they were a must-have during every Lakevisit. I’ve talked to many people about these—just the idea of a square cone still conjures up all the sensory memories of a perfect carefree Shenandoah Acres summer day.
There was nothing like the feeling you got when you stood in line at the admission counter, looking through the big, open, beach house windows to the water beyond; you knew your best friend was waiting for you on the rooftop, hopscotching over the painted shuffleboard court. When Jack Blacka greeted you by name, you felt the privilege accorded family; you were a member of theInner Circle. You were home and this big ol’ backyard playground was all yours for the taking. Including the cable ride, which, for many years, was the Acres’ signature attraction. I asked Jack about it—who had the idea for the cables?
“The cables were Dad’s idea,” Jack said. “I don’t recall that he saw it anywhere, and the only other place I ever saw a zip line that ended up in the water was Clay’s Park Resort inCanton,Ohio. I was helping the Virginia Travel Council with a travel show there one time. Clay’s Park had an exhibit and a guy took me out to see it. That’s the only other lake I know of that had a zip line.”
It’s a ride I never took. I was never a strong swimmer so having to cross the “channel” to get to the tower was itself a big hurdle for me. The second hurdle was having to climb a three-tiered tower, which meant facing my fear of heights. Once, as a teenager, I determined I would meet both challenges. I didn’t tell anyone my plan, thus avoiding the inevitable humiliation should I fail. I waited until all my friends were otherwise engaged and swam out to the tower. Buoyed by that success, I tackled the ladder to the first tier. (These were literally ladders, not stairs.) My heart was in my stomach and my stomach was in my throat. But I pressed on…climbing higher, to the second tier. I was shaking at that point, and knew the only way I’d get to the top was to not look down. An insistent little voice kept whispering, “you know you have to get back down one way or the other.” I reached the top tier, terrified and triumphant. There were a couple of guys there ahead of me who grabbed the T-handles and hurled themselves, bellowing joyfully, off the tower. I hauled up the rope with the attached handle. When the T was in front of me, I raised my trembling hands to grab it and couldn’t reach it; I would’ve had to jump up to grab on. “Not in this lifetime,” said the little voice. I stood there looking down, feeling sick, and I vowed as God was my witness NEVER, under any circumstances, would I try that again!
Shenandoah Acres grew with the growing community surrounding it. Camping became popular in the ‘60’s so a campground was added, as were riding trails and horses. In the late ‘60’s, Dr. Dodge’s old home was torn down and a new structure was built that housed the front office where campers checked in, that also served as living quarters for the Blacka family. The family members were growing up, too. During that period, Jack, the oldest son, went off to college.
“After college, I went into the Marine Corps as an officer for 3½ years, and my next-to- youngest brother Harold had a couple of years in the Marine Corps. About that time Dad was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. We knew that one of us was either going to have to take over the business or we’d have to bring in some outside management. Brother Harold and I were the two of the seven siblings that stayed to operate the business. That was about 1972, I believe.
I had considered staying in the Marine Corps–getting in the reserve unit and staying until I had twenty or twenty-five years and then draw a pension from that. There was a reserve unit inHarrisonburgwith about twenty in the group—they were all captains, majors, lieutenant colonials (I was a first lieutenant), and they were organized as a pistol unit–a rifle and pistol team. I was told by the major who was trying to recruit me, ‘we’ll have matches just about every weekend from spring through summer, into early fall; we don’t do much in the winter.’
I got to thinking, with Dad’s condition the way it is, I’m going to have to be here at the business. And I couldn’t be gone every weekend. The philosophy of “if you want something done, you have to do it yourself” with a family business means you have to be hands-on.
So for the next thirty years, Jack and Harold were both the hands-on and behind-the-scenes operators of their family’s business. Part of their success can certainly be attributed to Jack’s proactive endeavors to spread the good word.
“Of course, we were active in the travel industry. The first travel meeting I ever went to, Dad was on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Travel Council. They had a meeting inFredericksburgwhile I was stationed atQuantico. I went up for the meeting for a couple of hours and then, when I got out of the service, I became active in both the Virginia Travel Council and the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association. I was president of both those organizations.” Jack cites an example, “We were written up in Southern Living magazine; through the Virginia Travel Industry, a representative came and decided to do what they called the ‘Back Yard Beaches ofAmerica.’”
In an age before “marketing” became a buzzword, the Blackas took their unique operation and did what today would be called branding. Shenandoah Acres was America’s Finest Inland Beach; it was the cables and other water amusements, it was the beach house with its always-current juke box tunes blaring, it was sand and beach food and picnic areas and camping and horseback riding. And, most importantly, it was the implied promise of endless days—and evenings—of summer fun. It was, quite possibly,America’s first water park.
Given the nature of the business, the Blackas were constantly walking a fine line between keeping their patrons safe and allowing them plenty of freedom to enjoy theLake. From the ‘60’s on, the insurance industry began casting a long, dark shadow over fun-in-the-sun at Shenandoah Acres.
“We’d been fighting liability insurance for years and years,” Jack explains. “You might be with the same insurance company three or four years in a row, then they’d drop you and you’d have to find somebody else. They were scared to death of anything associated with water. We lost the diving boards in the late ‘60s. We originally had a three meter board and a one meter board on the pier at the end of the walkway, we had a board on the first deck of the tower, and we had a board on the other concrete pier with the big slide, but we had to take them all down. Of course we survived that. But in the end, there was no diving anywhere in lake.”
Over the years a plethora of non-aquatic activities were added–the horseback riding, miniature golf, tennis, bike rentals, ball fields, hiking trails, as well as horseshoes, croquet, shuffleboard, and volleyball. These added draws became necessary as insurance companies clamped down.
The one constant through all the changes, though, was that Shenandoah Acres remained a family business, dedicated to serving up family entertainment. Every year adults who had come to the lake as children came back, their kids in tow. Then those kids grew up and had kids and three generations shared the experience. Jack reflects, “I think Shenandoah Acres has played a huge part in the development of Stuarts Draft. It’s been one of the major businesses here. We brought a lot of people to Stuarts Draft. I think a lot of people moved into this area because of theLake. They found Stuarts Draft to be a nice community with family recreation where they could bring the kids out—they figured it would be a nice place to settle down.
A lot of kids got their first job experience here. For two or three summers we worked with theAugustaCountyandWaynesboroschools’ Distributive Education programs. We always supported the Staunton Braves baseball team. There were a couple of summers where we had some of their guys on staff. I remember one year we had two of their pitchers working for us as lifeguards.
There was never any real trouble on the property—an occasional squabble, you’ll always have that, but no trouble. Harold and I were both Conservators of the Peace forAugustaCounty. That’s a little known law available to businesses—some big shopping centers have it—it involves a special appointment by the circuit court judge; Judge William Moffett appointed us. Davis, the clerk, handled everything for us through our attorney.
We wore a little badge that hung over our belts that said Augusta County Conservator of the Peace, which gave us basically the same authority that a Deputy Sheriff might have on Shenandoah Acres property. We had official signs posted in the beach house that cited the code numbers and named us as Conservators of the Peace.
Once people saw those, it nipped a lot of stuff in the bud before anything got serious. No alcoholic beverages was one of our rules; of course you can’t control it all, and we had a few people break the rules, but if you can’t see it, you can’t say anything about it. We didn’t have any big problem with that. Generally, if somebody got out of hand, we’d usher them back to their campsite and they’d generally stay there.
Of course in later years, we had some security—retired police, that sort of thing—who’d stay on-site after we closed the Lake at 10 o‘clock. They’d make their presence known, maybe drive through the campground a few times until twelve or one o’clock. They were able to keep order. If anything happened, our first call would be to the sheriff’s department. We used to give all those guys season passes for their families—all the troopers and sheriffs; we got to be pretty good friends with some of them.”
In the end, it was the insurance issue that brought the lake, as we knew it, to a close. Jack clarifies:
“Back in the late ‘90’s I was spending at least a quarter of my time off-season trying to find insurance. And when I’d find it, I’d have to take out a bank loan to make the down payment. It was just eating us alive. In the spring of 2000, if I remember right, we were insured by a company out ofNew York. They sent a couple of guys down in suits and ties to shut the cables down. Now, we’d been in this business since 1935 and this is what we’d built the business on.
Just prior to Memorial Day weekend that year, after the insurance guys had been there, they sent another fellow down with a camera to take a picture of the rides lying on the floor of the store room, to prove that we weren’t using them. That season, the paid admissions through the beach house dropped by 50%, if you can believe that. We’d have whole groups of twenty-five or thirty people show up and a couple of people would pay to get in and stand on the porch looking around. When they saw the cables weren’t in operation we’d have to refund them and the whole group would leave.”
The handwriting was on the wall; Shenandoah Acres shut down operations in 2004, and the business was sold in 2005 (more on that in another issue.) By then most of the original “toys” had been replaced with insurance company approved equipment. I never experienced the Pink Zipper, nor Clyde-the-Slide (created by local artist Marc Cline). I never played tennis on the tennis courts nor camped in the campground. But many people did, and happily so. For seventy-five years “theLake” has been around, even if it exists as it once did only in memory. While operational, the Blackas provided an affordable, easily accessible, clean and safe venue for families to enjoy together, and had a positive financial impact on their community.
The ripple of the good vibes from Shenandoah Acres can still be felt–all you have to do around these parts is mention theLakeand the stories pour forth. There’s a Facebook page, you know, “Remembering Shenandoah Acres.” To date, there are 654 members. You can find it at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=89258916742.
I asked Jack what it would take to re-create the lake as it was originally and he guessed, “In order to create what we had in that same spot, it would probably take ten or twelve million dollars, and the insurance would probably run about twice what we had—around four million.”
Well, I don’t have that in my checking account, so the best I can do is look at some old photos and reminisce with family and friends. And extend a heart-felt thank-you to the Blackas, especially Jack and Harold, for dedicating a big part of their lives to making life more fun, not just for me and others in my community, but for three generations of visitors from all over who found their way to America’s Finest Inland Beach!
(Ed. Note: I asked Jack how many people he thought had come to Shenandoah Acres. His response, “I don’t have any idea of the number of patrons over the years. If I had to guess I would probably figure a few million!”)