Jeffersonian Era – Land Originally Purchased
In 1822 Mary Jane Barksdale married James Francis Fry. Fry was the grandson of Joshua Fry, who with Peter Jefferson patented Albemarle County. Barksdale was the granddaughter of Jesse P. Lewis and the daughter of Nelson Barksdale. In 1839 Nelson Barksdale gave his son-in-law about 300 acres along Moore’s Creek. It was here that Fry built his estate, Azalea Hall; and it was on this land that what, to this day, is known as Fry’s Spring was to be found.
Mid-1800s to 1890s – Interest in the Spring Grows
By mid-century interest in the spring water had spread and the site of the spring was developed. A few artifacts of that development remain: the ruins of a stone foundation around the spring; old undated photos showing a gazebo shading the spring; and a carved stone font on display in the Clubhouse of the Fry’s Spring Beach Club. This font is marked as follows: J F FRY 1858.
In 1875 Captain James Harris bought some of the Fry estate and started a trend when he held the first steeplechase in Albemarle County there. Other recreational uses followed and by 1905 The Albemarle Horse Show Association had established its show grounds on the site, with many shows and exhibits over the following years.
Immediately adjacent to the property was The Jefferson Park Hotel, built in 1892. The hotel served as a resort and spa for those who came to relax and recover from various ailments. The waters of the spring were promoted as the third most powerful of their kind in the world. A small railroad serving the hotel, known as the dummy-line, wound through what is now Forest Hills and Johnson Village, and a steam locomotive carried spa-goers from the West Main train station to the hotel. Wonderland, a menagerie, was also on the site.
1900 to 1920 – Movie Picture Shows and Dettor Purchases Land
In 1910 The Jefferson Park Hotel burned down. Salvaged building materials were then used in the construction of several near-by homes. The local trolley company bought the land and expanded the Wonderland offerings to include the first moving picture shows in Charlottesville, among other attractions. But as the Teens wound down and the Twenties began to roar, one man believed that people were ready for something new.
In 1920 J. Russell Dettor purchased the land from the trolley company. Mr. Dettor had been active in the building and management of the Jefferson Theatre, on East Main Street, and was ready for a business of his own. In a grassy hollow under magnificent shade trees he built a concrete swimming pool almost 100 meters in length. He also built a dam on Moore’s Creek about a quarter of a mile away. Two pump-houses, one on the bank next to the dam and the other near the top of the line, were also built at this time. Pool water was pumped from the creek though rubber/canvas fire-hoses. Today the ruins of that dam and pump house can be seen from the Rivanna Trail Foundation’s trail at the foot of McElroy Drive in the City.
1921 – The Club is Born
The Fry’s Spring Beach Club opened for business in the summer of 1921. The late local writer, Booten Herndon, recalled going through the gate on opening day. He was six years old at the time. His mother signed him up for swimming lessons. The pool water was unfiltered and untreated. People loved it. Going to he Beach became the thing to do. In the Club’s earliest years the regulars would put up portable wooden cabanas at the beginning of the season, taking them back down and home for storage at season’s end. Mr. Dettor expanded his offerings to include changing rooms. Outdoor bathing, evening dance parties, moonlit strolls along shadowy lanes, all offered among the trees at the town’s outer edge: it is no wonder that a common joke from this time was, “Charlottesville is divided into two parts: Charlottesville proper, and Fry’s Spring improper”. The Club prospered through the next decades.
Post World War II Era
Following World War II Mr. Dettor changed the corporate charter to that of a private club. This new arrangement allowed him to serve liquor at Club functions. For over a decade the Fry’s Spring Beach Club was the only venue in town allowed to serve liquor to its patrons. Also at this time Mr. Dettor renovated both the clubhouse and pool, adding, among other things, terrace and bar room to the clubhouse, and city water, filtration, and chlorine treatment for the pool. Mr. Dettor thought that he could increase business for the Club by having a youth swimming team. He hired the well respected coach and teacher, Ralph Law to start a team. Dettor and Law were instrumental in building The Jefferson Swim League as part of this promotion. Today The Jefferson Swim League is one of the largest youth sports organizations in Central Virginia.
1950’s to 1990 – Period of Segregation, Dettor Sells Club to Member Families
In the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954), many public accommodations throughout the country began to desegregate. Private facilities had no such legal obligation. Unfortunately, in this period the Club retained its past policy of prejudicial discrimination. By 1968 Mr. Dettor was ready to retire. He was considering selling the land to a real estate developer who wanted to build an apartment complex on the site. Eight current member families formed Fry’s Spring, Inc. and purchased the Club and its property. The new owners vowed to keep the Club open as a multi-faceted recreational facility. They abandoned the old policy of segregation and opened the Club to all who wished to join. True to their word they ran the Club through a time of great change in the community. The Swim Team won a number of league championships. The Swing-Era ballroom Rocked, Boogied, Shagged, and Booga-loo-ed.
1990 to Present – FSBC, Inc. is Born and Club Continues its Journey
But by 1990 the owners were looking to retire. In 1992 Fry’s Spring Beach Club, Inc. purchased the Club and its properties. A 501(c)(7) corporation, FSBC, Inc is owned by the Clubâ€™s voting membership. Under this new structure the Club remains open to all. Its primary mission is to preserve the Club’s facilities to serve the social and recreational needs of its members. To this end an ambitious program of preservation, restoration, and renovation is under way. Already completed is the complete renovation of the pool. Works in progress include corporate restructuring with an eye toward State and National Historic Designations, restoration of the original springhouse facility, clubhouse renovation, and the melding of the grounds with the new designs for Old Lynchburg Road.
This summer, as in all the summers before, swimmers of all ages and abilities will enjoy the softness of the grass, the shelter of the vast leafy boughs, and the cooling waters of the new-old-fashioned pool. It really is worth a visit. Many years ago, James Francis Fry took possession of a substantial piece of property that had on it a spring. Eighteen years later he put his name on that spring; carved it in stone, along with the date.
Today his estate, Azalea Hall, is long gone. The land was divided and sold, again and again. This land eventually grew into a community, the neighborhood known as Fry’s Spring. It is one of the most interesting and diverse of all of the City’s neighborhoods, as well as its largest.
In the early days of the Commonwealth, as in many other parts of the country, towns and cities were not often incorporated; they just amalgamated out of homesteads and forges, mills and taverns, or perhaps wide places where two paths crossed. Each little entity had its local name. Such names will typically carry forward as part of the local “color” of a community, but then fade away as the city’s infrastructure and sophistication grows.
Today, Charlottesvillians seldom, if ever, use or hear such place-names as Tinsleytown, Big Hill, or Hog Waller in our daily conversations. The land encompassing those places remains. Their histories are mostly gone. Fry’s Spring is different. It is a term that is in common use. You will find it on City stationery, buses, tax maps, the internet, you name it. As for The Spring itself, it lies within the beautiful sylvan park that is The Fry’s Spring Beach Club. Today the water surges from the porous iron-rich stone of its aquifer, through a cleft deep in the earth, and into the still, dappled light of a deeply shaded hollow; just as it did the first time J. F. Fry saw it.