SI Vault
THE OLD SWIMMIN'-HOLE James Whitcomb Riley—1883
Bil Gilbert
October 21, 1968
Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare thecrick so still and deepLooked like a baby-river that waslaying half asleep,And the gurgle of the worter roundthe drift jest belowSounded like the laugh of somethingwe onc't ust to knowBefore we could remember anythingbut the eyesOf the angels lookin' out as we leftParadise;But the merry days of youth is beyondour controle,And it's hard to part ferever with theOld Swimmin'-hole.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 21, 1968

The Old Swimmin'-hole James Whitcomb Riley—1883

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare the
crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was
laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round
the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something
we onc't ust to know
Before we could remember anything
but the eyes
Of the angels lookin' out as we left
But the merry days of youth is beyond
our controle,
And it's hard to part ferever with the
Old Swimmin'-hole.

Greenfield, Ind. lies 20 miles east of Indianapolis, and, more than ever, its chief function is to serve as another undistinguished back bedroom for the big city. The principal, apparent difference between Greenfield and other flat, uninspiring cities of 11,000 is that James Whitcomb Riley was born there in 1849. In consequence and out of necessity, not having much else to push, Greenfield boosts the poet. There is a statue of JWR in the center of Greenfield at the front door of the Hancock County Courthouse. There is the Riley Memorial Park and the Hoosier Poet Motel. The house in which he was born has been preserved and restored by the Riley Old Home Society. Ladies of the society escort visitors, at 50� a head, through the house, pointing out the bed in which "our poet slept" and reciting appropriate lines of Little Orphant Annie when the tour reaches the servants' quarters. Then, also in a commemorative way, in Greenfield, on the bridge in town where U.S. Highway 40 crosses Brandywine Creek, there is a bronze plaque indicating that the water below was Riley's, too.

Immortalize is a large, emphatic word, like always, forever, and truly, and it should be used gingerly, if at all. Therefore, rather than claiming that our poet immortalized the "gurglin' worters" of the Brandywine, it is safer to say that he only scooped out a spot for them in the heartland of mythic America under the blueberry-pie trees, in front of the old ball park, beyond the waving fields of grain.

This notion—that while The Old Swimmin'-Hole may not be great literature, it is great myth—seems to be the only one that accounts for the fact that Brandywine Creek, the water from which the legend was distilled, created a national news flurry this past summer. In mid-July the sanitarian of Hancock County, Dick Wilson, put up a sign in the Brandywine, 100 yards upstream from the bronze plaque, which prohibited swimming and wading in the creek on the grounds that the water was sufficiently polluted to constitute a health hazard. A young reporter, Dick Baumbach, took a picture of the closing while his editor, Dick Spencer, wrote a corresponding story for The Greenfield Daily Reporter. Both picture and story were subsequently picked up and published all over the country. Editorials of proper dismay and anguish followed.

This caused a good many nettled citizens of Greenfield to point out that there are a number of bodies of water that have been officially designated as polluted and innumerable others that probably should or could be. This is true but irrelevant. When you poison the Hudson River, Lake Michigan or Chesapeake Bay, you are only contaminating water. But if you poison the Old Swimmin'-Hole you are messing with mythic water.

So one morning in Greenfield I walked through Riley Park, along the banks of the Brandywine, from the Route 40 bridge, past the Stay Out-No Swimming-Wading-Danger-Disease sign. It is a distance of 712 paces, and local authorities told me that someplace in the course of this stroll I was almost sure to pass a place where our poet swam. The Brandywine is 50 feet or so wide and about a foot deep, except in several elbow turns where there are deep holes. The current of the Brandywine is sluggish, the water gray-green in color, greasy in appearance, rank in odor. What can be seen of the bottom is silty. The banks are low, fringed with reeds, buttonbush, Queen Anne's lace, poison ivy, a few small sycamores.

In the Brandywine that morning were: 76 tin cans (beer and soft drink containers being the most numerous), 12 paper and six Styrofoam cups, 11 glass bottles, three broken park benches, three automobile tires, three light bulbs, two plastic detergent bottles, two piles of broken brick, two dead rats and one (or part of one) of each of the following: steel cable, oil can, bundle of newspapers, lard bucket, highway guardrail, sandal, boot, toolbox, car seat, watermelon rind. In an animate way I saw several patches of duckweed, three schools of either dace or shiner minnows, half a dozen grass frogs and one stinkpot turtle.

In this stretch there are three tiny tributaries flowing into the Brandywine. Beneath the municipal swimming pool, which is set above the east bank, there is a drain, presumably serving some function in the pool's plumbing system. Fifty yards upstream on the west bank, a very small, apparently freshwater spring oozes up from beneath the roots of a sycamore. Someone had stashed the remains of a picnic lunch into this spring-hole, so that the water, before reaching the Brandywine, had to pass through a cold-meat-sandwich filter. Finally, above the No Swimming sign there is an open drain, through which seeps (at a rate of about two cups a minute) a thick, blackish liquid that smells bad. Dick Wilson, who, as sanitarian, had officially closed the Brandywine, said that though what came out of the drain was pretty much pure sewage, it was not from McCuller's slaughterhouse. He was not certain what was the source but he suspected an illegal septic tank and he planned to check it out when he had some spare time.

Directly above the drain the park ends in a tangled, swampy thicket. Beyond, the Brandywine flows first through suburban backyards, then into farmland, fenced fields, and on to what appears to be its source, a boggy woodlot 15 miles or so northeast of Greenfield. After leaving the Old Swimmin'-Hole proper, I stopped making a detailed body count of debris and concentrated more on what might be called the ecology of pollution.

At the edge of Greenfield there is an abattoir directly on the bank of the Brandywine, the loading and holding pens nearly extending down to the water. Dick Wilson explained that formerly this had been a serious source of pollution—"blood, guts, hair, offal." However, the operator had put in a settling tank, which had reduced, though not eliminated, the problem. Hancock County is not principally stock country, but fairly frequently the Brandywine runs past cattle yards or through pig pens. Five miles above town there is a surprising ranch with a field full of ostriches, buffaloes, zebras, antelopes and other exotics, imported and pastured along the Brandywine by a local ready-mix cement tycoon. Brandywine Creek must be one of the few streams in Indiana that carries ostrich feathers and zebra dung.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5