Back in the days when Sonoma Valley had many commercially-operated public swimming pools, the biggest and most popular was the Boyes Springs Bathhouse.
Located just north of the Sonoma Creek Bridge on Boyes Boulevard, the bathhouse had been a Valley resort since it was founded in the 1880s by Capt. H.E. Boyes. Destroyed by the 1923 fire that burned virtually all of Boyes Hot Springs, it was rebuilt and operated continuously as a swimming resort until it burned again in 1969, and was closed down and replaced by a housing development.
It was a large resort, covering several acres, that included a 150-foot by 75-foot indoor main pool, and a smaller indoor hydrotherapy pool filled with the hot mineral waters that Capt. Boyes made famous.
In addition, there was a large indoor dance hall (and roller skating rink), an arcade area, large outdoor sunbathing lawn area, and a full-sized baseball field with grandstands on which Pacific Coast baseball teams like the San Francisco Seals and Oakland Oaks held spring training.
Popular with Bay Area residents as a weekend retreat, it was also the place where many generations of Sonoma kids learned to swim under the direction of Red Cross-certified instructors. My dad, whose favorite pastime was swimming, introduced me to the bathhouse pool when I was barely able to walk. My oldest memories of the resort were that the pool was huge. To me, then, it seemed as big as a lake.
When I was 5 or 6, I was old enough to take the beginners class, and spent many mornings with other local kids reviewing the basics, which my dad had already taught me. I remember that the final test required us to jump off the lower diving board and swim to the side of the pool. It was a big deal to pass and get that certificate.
Like most of my friends, once we knew how to swim, you couldn’t keep us out of the water. It was a place that parents could drop us off to spend the day and know that we were safe and well looked after.
Among those looking after us was Lucien Massa, the instructor and lifeguard at the pool. His son, Gary, who still lives in Sonoma and was a high school classmate of mine, gave me a great photo of his dad (see below) diving from the rafters into the pool (which was only about eight-feet deep.)
In addition to swimming, many of us spent hours roller-skating in the rink that was connected to the pool building. It was another place where parents often dropped off their kids for the day.
If you were there at the right time of the year, you could also watch some great ball players who played for the Seals and Oaks in the PCL (many who became major leaguers), going through their spring drills. In the 1950s and early ’60s, some NFL teams, including the Chicago Bears, worked out there and at the Hanna Boys Center field, before playing the Niners at Kezar Stadium.
My Dad told me a story about a time when the nuns at Hanna took the boys to watch a Bears’ practice. Not only did they get really close to the players, they could hear their conversations.
Afterward, one of the nuns told Father W.L. O’Connor, director of Hanna, that not only were the Bear players very big, they were also religious – because they kept discussing Saint Claire.