Some Georgians born in the early 1960s and earlier may have memories of swimming and boating at one of the more scenic parks along Lake Allatoona.

In its heyday, it played host to famed entertainers, hosted its own water skiing club and served as a weekend getaway spot for some prominent Atlanta residents.

It also was reserved only for African-Americans at a time they were not allowed to use most public recreational facilities and state parks in Georgia and the closest beach open to them was hundreds of miles away.

George Washington Carver Park and its historic sandy beach area have come back to life in a big way after decades of declining usage.

The facility hosted its fourth annual Memories Day over the weekend. The event is designed to bring attention to the park and its recent renovations totaling about $100,000, officials estimated.

Cartersville-Bartow County Convention and Visitors Bureau took over its operation in 2017 after 42 years of it being a county-run facility named Bartow Carver Park at the end of Bartow Carver Road in eastern Bartow.

The park’s beginnings date to 1950 when the federal government completed Allatoona Dam atop the Etowah River. The lake’s creation led then-Gov. Herman Talmadge to lease shoreline from the Corps of Engineers to create Red Top Mountain State Park.

He also established the first “Georgia State Park for Negroes,” formally named George Washington Carver Park, on 345 acres east of Red Top Mountain.

According to a variety of sources, Talmadge established the park at the urging of World War II veteran John Loyd Atkinson, who had personally leased the same land to establish a park before Bartow County refused to give him a permit.

Atkinson became the first black state park superintendent in Georgia and helped build a clubhouse, concession stand, playground, boat ramp, boat and fishing docks, a swim beach with diving platform, and a residence. He operated the park until 1958 when Cartersville native Clarence Benham replaced him.

Benham’s son, State Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, said his siblings helped their father operate the park, performing such tasks as selling snow cones at the concession stand and working as lifeguards.

Robert Benham lived at the park’s residence until age 16 and fondly recalled it being a weekend and holiday “refuge” for blacks from the pressures of life in a segregated society.

“It was an institution where people of color could go,” he said. “Its history is a glorious history. I have nothing but fond memories.”

Benham said he likes to look at the positive benefits it brought to black Georgians and not remember it as a state park they were forced to use for recreation before public facilities were desegregated.

“I look past that,” Benham said. “It does not diminish its significance. Sometimes, it’s good for young people to understand that.”

Many users learned how to swim at Carver Park at a time when blacks were typically barred from public pools and found relief from the heat at alternative locations, he said.

“It probably saved some lives of people swimming in creeks,” Benham said.

The park hosted performances by Ray Charles and Little Richard, and was the summer home of the only black water ski club in Georgia, the St. John’s Ski Bees. Most of the black high schools hosted after-prom events at the park, he said.

Coretta Scott King was among those who spent time at “The Beach” during church outings. Benham recalled five to six busloads of church groups coming to the park after Sunday services.

Bartow County took ownership of the park in 1975 after budget cuts forced state officials to remove Carver and others from the state park list. The county renamed it Bartow Carver Park but eventually closed the beach area.

After county officials and others, including Benham, showed renewed interest in keeping the park’s legacy alive, the county worked with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to seek grants and donations to renovate the park’s buildings and restore the sandy beachfront.

It is now operated by the Bureau as a day use park that groups also can reserve for exclusive use for large-scale events like reunions or corporate picnics.

Kim Noble Brown, who manages the park for the Bureau, said her agency saw an opportunity to increase the number of visitors to Bartow County with the historic park’s renovation and reopening of its beach.

“The love for it had not gone,” Brown said.

Brown, a former county parks and recreation employee, said she worked with public officials like County Commissioner Steve Taylor and Keep Bartow Beautiful coordinator Sheri Henshaw to make the changes after “years and years of conversations” about the possibility. Others like Benham and Cartersville City Council member Calvin Cooley lent their support, she said.

The Bureau restored the park’s original name and began renovations, which took about a year and were completed in 2018.

It included new floors and plumbing replacement in the bathroom and kitchen in the main activity building; addition of exterior showers for beach users; restoration of the grill area to its 1950s appearance; new paving; landscaping and other renovations throughout the park, Brown said.

The Bureau also opened the park as a year-round facility rather than closing it in the winter and spring months as had been the norm. Attendance increased by 40 percent annually and it began hosting large-scale, catered events, Brown said.

Brown and the Bureau also are working to manage and market a neighboring facility Atkinson had built as a camp for black Girl Scout troops.

Pine Acres Retreat features cabins and camping spots at a 200-acre facility the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta operated until 2017. Reopening is planned for March.

Brown said plans call for “co-mingling” of the two parks and seeking grants to pay for installation of mountain bike trails and dog walks.

For more information or reservations, call 770-387-1357 or visit https://visitcartersvillega.org/gwcp/.

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