Family fun needn’t take you far away: Ask Kitty

As a young child I thought of my world as huge, with so much to see and enjoy. Every time I went a few blocks farther from home (my safe haven), I discovered new things and was filled with excitement. And even in times as challenging as today’s, there are exciting adventures for you and your family that don’t have to take you very far — or cost you very much.

I grew up in Archbald, Pa. — a small coal mining town near Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania — in the 1920s and ’30s. My siblings and I had plenty of local parks and small lakes in the area to visit and enjoy. The boys went to the baseball fields almost daily, and we girls (five of my nine siblings were girls) tagged along. Weekends we went further afield in my uncle's car (my father, a miner, didn’t have one).

The Rocky Glen and Lake Ariel amusement parks nearby were among our favorite spots. They’re both gone now, but back then you could go on the rides for 5 cents. Rocky Glen had the Mighty Lightnin’ roller coaster; it was 55 feet high, but it looked a lot bigger than that to me. There was also the Whip, a miniature train, and an ice-cream stand.

There was also Carbondale Gravity Park, site of the first railroad in the Western Hemisphere. The railroad was used to haul coal from the mines; mules pulled the loaded cars. And Lackawanna State Park was only 10 miles north of Scranton (and still is). All these parks had picnic tables, but grills for outdoor cooking didn't come until years later.

The hole truthBut little as Archbald was, we had a claim to fame right in our own backyard: the Archbald Pothole. It eventually became a 150-acre state park, but in my childhood, it was just a deep hole in the ground. Today it’s recognized as the world's largest glacial pothole.

Archbald Pothole was discovered back in 1884 by one Patrick Mahon (likely an Irish-American coal miner, just like my father), who was blasting a coal seam underground when he unknowingly uncorked the pothole. After he made a small blast, he was surprised to see smooth, round stones pouring into the mine shaft.

Moran and his fellow miners scampered to safety as all the stones that had filled the pothole were released into the mine. Afterward, the hole was emptied and was used as a ventilation shaft for the mine below. The miners kept a fire burning in the bottom of the pothole to suck air through the mine shafts around and below it. In short, it worked just like a chimney.

The pothole soon became a tourist attraction, and my brothers and sisters went there often. Today it’s the center of Archbald Pothole State Park, and still an attraction — especially after some improvements were made in 2002.

My siblings and I also visited nearby Nay Aug Park, designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted. It had a small, man-made lake with a water slide into it, picnic tables, a hiking trail, a footbridge and even a little zoo. The park still exists today, and my relatives and their children go there frequently. Today one of its chief attractions is a small steam-powered locomotive and train that came from a now-closed amusement park in Florida.

Newton Lake Park, a mile or so from Archbald on another small lake, had a large pavilion, and bands came there to play from all over the country. In its heyday, up to 75,000 people would visit over holidays like the Fourth of July. The nearby Pocono Mountains also became sites for huge vacation resorts, and restaurants there provided summer jobs for hundreds of young adults, including my brothers. (My father wouldn’t let us girls work there.)

Closer to home
But we didn’t have to go to resorts or amusement parks to have fun. Many local churches had annual picnics with games and food (mostly homemade) that all the townspeople supported and attended. They still do today. And in Buffalo, N.Y., where I later trained as a nurse and raised a family, preschoolers attended a free church camp where young adults guided and taught them in any number of activities.

There is very likely free or inexpensive summer recreation in your community, too. Most towns and cities have free public swimming pools and sports facilities, including baseball, soccer, golf and more. Modestly priced summer camps are provided by the YMCA, YWCA, local Boy and Girl Scout troops and churches, as well as cities and towns.

And all these programs and activities provide opportunities to teach good behavior and healthy interplay among children, as well as getting them outdoors and giving them appreciation for the environment. Little League and community sports for boys and girls are rewarding not just for the children, but for the coaches who donate their time and the parents who participate.

And if you have a backyard, don’t underestimate its value. My husband learned how to cast for fish in his 30-foot-wide backyard, and some of the best memories I have involve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a picnic table in the backyard with a few neighborhood children.

We played baseball and catch. There was hopscotch, and jump-rope contests, dodgeball and touch football. If there were too many to fit in the backyard, there was the church field up the street.

Things really aren’t that much different today, 75 years later. Looking for fun? Just look around you!

Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here.