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Stories: Ray Skinner

Ray Skinner in Overton Park

This post is the first in a new series called Overton Park Stories.  We’re talking to people who love the park and sharing their memories.  But we need YOUR stories and photos to make it happen!  Learn how to participate here.

Ray Skinner practically grew up in Overton Park.  His family lived on Autumn Avenue in the 1930s and 1940s, and he and his friends spent countless hours cycling, ice skating, and watching shows at Overton Park.  He shares with us some of his memories of that time.

“When we lived on Autumn, we’d go to the playground, which at the time was next to the streetcar line at the zoo entrance.  At this time, Prentiss Place was still called Galloway.  The swings in the playground at the front off the zoo were 11 feet tall.  People ‘looped the loop’ on them.  The closest I ever came to getting into trouble in the park was when a couple of my buddies and I were in the park at night off Galloway.  The night watchman chased us on his bicycle but he couldn’t catch us.

“My buddy Granville Allison lived on Galloway when I lived on Autumn, and our houses backed up to each other.  We rigged up one of those lines with tin cans and would talk to each other out our back windows.  One day we got the brave idea of building a boat to go sail on Rainbow Lake.  We had odds and ends of timber nailed to make the framework—a bunch of two-by-fours and stuff like that…heavy.  We took great big tin cans and we’d split them and nail them onto the wood.  We took tar and patched up the seams and holes where the nails were.  They retarred McLean every summer, so we went and got some of that tar and melted it.

“Of course, we were on Galloway and we had to take that dadgum thing to the lake.  We drug that boat all the way, and it just sank like a stone.  This was when the lake had a completely mud bottom and sides.  We couldn’t have lifted it if we tried, but it was in the nasty end of the lake that was filled with grass and slime.  So we just left it.  It stayed for months, and we never told anybody.  Eventually the City came by and removed it during one of their regular cleanings of the lake.

Rainbow Lake in Overton Park
courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

“Rainbow Lake was named for the lights that shined up from under a curtain of water.  In the 30s, there were regular plays held in the lake area.  Behind the water curtain, there were dressing rooms for the actors.  The audience would sit on the greensward and watch the shows.  There were also light poles, and at night there were fly-casting tournaments, where rings were sunk into the lake and fishermen would practice casting into them.  There was a lot of activity at the lake, but eventually when the Shell was built, it made a lot of the Rainbow Lake programming obsolete.

“There was once a small lake where the Memphis College of Art parking lot currently stands.  It was drained and filled in during World War II, but before that it was a popular ice skating spot.  There was an island in the center and a drain between the island and Veterans Plaza.  The lake was set low, and the trees shaded it, so it would freeze about six inches thick.  Rainbow Lake wouldn’t freeze enough to skate on except for one shaded part near the playground.  The sidewalk coming down from the Levitt Shell was a good place to sled; you could start up there and sled right down to the lake.  At night, the City would put barrels and wood out near the benches and light fires to keep people warm.  People would shine their car lights onto the lake after dark.”

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