By Theresa Curry
It was a recreational hub to be proud of. The Greenwood Community Center, dedicated in 1950, boasted a full-size swimming pool, four bowling alleys in the basement, pool tables and a baseball field. Later, Rev. Lee Marston, the main force behind the center’s construction, put a blanket of urethane down on the beautiful wooden floor upstairs, sent away for dozens of skates in all sizes, and opened up the indoor meeting place to rollerskating.
“It was definitely the center of life for us when we were growing up,” said Charlotte Jane (Marston) Pope, Rev. Marston’s daughter. Her father had taken over the ministry of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in 1937. By the time the Community Center was built, Pope said, he knew just about everyone in the community who could lift a hammer or a paintbrush. “He was used to gathering the community together whenever a home or a barn burned down, so it was no problem for him to find help for the center’s construction.”
The plan was for the center to honor all the community’s young men who fought in the world wars, and to be a memorial for those who died. After local society leader Ella Smith and her committee considered all types of structures, including statues, flags and plaques, the community met in August of 1947, heard a speech by local celebrity Lady Nancy Astor, and voted for a memorial that would serve the neighborhood. Ella Smith, who had overseen many construction projects at the Rose Hill estate of her parents—including her own historic home, Casa Maria—was involved in the construction process and became a lifetime patron of the center.
Nancy Astor by then had vacated her term as the first woman seated in Britain’s parliament, and was a frequent visitor to her childhood home of Mirador. Like Smith, her friend and fellow rural socialite, she was an ardent supporter of the community effort. Pope remembers her showing up for fundraisers and fairs, sharp-tongued and fashionably dressed. She participated in the center’s fourth birthday party, auctioning off a cake and donating a check for $1,000.
Pope thinks the returning servicemen themselves helped push the decision to fund a gathering place rather than just a symbolic monument to their service. “They’d been all over, in places where there was a lot to do, even in the small towns,” she said.
Once the center was dedicated in 1950, it provided employment as well as recreation. “I remember well being a pin boy there,” said Lang Gibson, who now lives in Richmond. “And there were many other jobs as well.”
At first, the only lifeguard was Rev. Marston himself. “He had to spend a week in West Virginia to be certified,” Pope remembered. Marston’s children figure that their father taught literally thousands of children to swim. The Marston children became lifeguards, too.
When the center opened with much fanfare, including a speech by Lady Astor, Marston unceremoniously threw some kids in the pool. “He hated segregation and wanted the black population of Greenwood to use the center and the pool, Pope said. “Two of the kids in the pool were Dusty and Rusty Sims, who played with all the white kids anyway.”
Others followed. Pope doesn’t remember any backlash from the community, and she served as a lifeguard for many years. Her brother, H. Lee (Minor) Marston said in his Remembrances of H. Lee Marston, that Albemarle county was furious but they were powerless to stop it.
Shelton Sprouse grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in the Buck Mountain neighborhood. Sprouse, a guitarist, said, his first band, “Poison,” played its debut gig at the center. “There was always music there,” he said. “Where else would you go on a Saturday night?”
Mostly, it was country music rather than heavy metal, though, Sprouse said. The multi-talented Rev. Marston had a flare for entertainment. He was the caller for square dances, and introduced Friday night movies to the community center, Minor Lee Marston recorded in his book.
No one needed to stay away for lack of a ride, as the minister always had a huge station wagon and made the rounds of the countryside, picking up swimmers, skaters and lifeguards. MariClair Hale said that by the time she moved to the area, there was a legend about the Marston station wagon. “I always heard that the free transit started during the war,” she said. Ministers were able to buy gas, despite rationing, so Rev. Marston would drive everyone in the community around. “People said that he could fit 20 people in his car and did this regularly,” she said. Minor Lee said the all-time record was 38, with adults sitting up front, layers of children on their laps, and six or seven boys hanging on the sides.
People also rented the center for parties and family reunions. Turkey shoots and rummage sales helped raise funds for the center and other community charities. “It’s not what it sounds like,” Pope said. “All we shot at were targets outside. The winner got the turkey.”
In later years, Albemarle County took over the center and filled in the pool. The playing fields and basketball courts remain, as does the children’s playground. And the interior is used almost every day: for yoga classes, martial arts, rollerskating, contra dances and birthday parties. “It’s a great space, with good light and acoustics,” said Carol Brown, who teaches yoga in the former bowling alley.
To find out about spring and summer classes in Greenwood, or rent the center for a private party, call Albemarle County Parks and Recreation at 434-296-5844, or visit www.albemarle.org/parks.