Swimming Was a Privilege: The By-Gone Days of Lake Jonah

Mention Lake Jonah to anyone who has been around Cranbrook since 1999, and the response will be immediate – bittersweet. Fond memories mixed with sadness that it is not used as a swimming hole any longer. Originally referred to as the “Milles Fountain Lake,” the man-made lake is also known as Jonah Lake or Jonah Pool. Funded by George Booth as a place for community members to swim during the summer months, Lake Jonah, built in 1933, became a gathering place – for Trustees and Directors and their families, Academy of Art students and faculty, Summer Theatre and Summer Institute campers, Horizons-Upward Bound students, and hundreds of Cranbrook-Kingswood day and boarding school students, who all loved to hang out in the natural setting.

George Booth originally intended for the lake to be a water feature at the end of Academy Way, but quickly realized that people would swim in it anyway, so he turned it into a swimming pool. When the water was first turned on, a large amount of seepage was discovered so waterproofing of the pool bottom began in July 1934.

Lining the bottom of Lake Jonah

Lining the bottom of Lake Jonah, Sep 1934. Richard G. Askew, photographer.

The cost of construction was just over $34,000. This included the liner, the drain, paving, and landscaping around the pool, designed by Detroit landscape architect, Edward Eichstaedt. The pools covered 54,375 square feet (or 1.248 acres) and held 3,082,830 gallons of water.

Swimming lessons Summer Institute

Swimming lessons, Summer Institute, Jul 1946. Harvey Croze, photographer.

Initially overseen by the Cranbrook Central Committee (a department of the Cranbrook Foundation), Lake Jonah gradually became too expensive and too risky for Cranbrook Educational Community to maintain. Swimmers snuck onto campus at all hours and swam in the pools without lifeguard supervision. After the summer of 1999, the decision was made to close Lake Jonah for swimming and thus ended decades of summer memories.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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8 thoughts on “Swimming Was a Privilege: The By-Gone Days of Lake Jonah

  1. I cannot begin to express how much we all miss swimming in Jonah. For starters, it’s where I learned basic swimming during two summers at day camp. After camp and lunch at home, my mother and I would return for more swimming. It was really a hangout for many of our family members, and was an easy bike ride from what was then Bloomfield Village. Speaking of bikes, it was a blast to ride up and down the sides of Big Jonah as it was being filled late each spring. And playing Frisbee, one player on each side of the pool, was a favorite pastime, too.

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    • I am another faculty brat who lived next door to Sarah Snyder (see her comment) although a few years earlier. Yes, Jonah played a large role in my summers, too. For Sumner Theatre School students, I was a lifeguard and taught swimming in their afternoon program.

      Before The Jonah pools were built, Cranbrook had an arrangement with Orchard Lake Country Club for faculty to use their waterfront, so that’s where I learned to swim.

      When the pool was first filled, it had no lining and water filled the basements of some Faculty Row houses removing the labels from all the canning efforts of one faculty wife.

      In the 1940’s, a six sided raft was held in place by a chain attached to the bottom. The trick was to follow the chain 16 feet down and touch the bottom. Some rowdy swimmers tried to tip the raft over. Needless to say, ithe raft was removed.

      Still today, when the weather turns warm, my thoughts automatically turn to sitting in the sun beside Big Jonah and taking a dip when getting hot! I really miss Jonah.

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  2. Leslie, enjoyed this article very much!!!

    My granddaughter Kristen [the older one] and I were discussing Lake Jonah recently – she went to summer camp at Cranbrook, before enrolling in school there later. I copied it and will take it when we meet for dinner tomorrow. It answers all the things we were wondering about in our conversation and then some!!!

    Thanks, Lois

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  3. As a faculty brat from Cranbrook School for Boys in the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s, I spent most summer days hanging out at Jonah Pool and the smaller bubble pools. My mother made us kids learn to swim before letting us loose at the pool. It was a quick walk from Faculty Row (Way).

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      • Could it be? Sarah Snyder? or Scilla? . . . that’s how I remember her. Scilla, a rambunctious little girl who ran circles around the rest of us growing up on Faculty Row (Faculty Way now). Big Jonah was what we called the upper pool, and that’s where I learned to swim and spend hours gulping down and spitting out that water – must have been healthy – never got sick from it. In early spring, when the pool was emptied for annual renovation, I got equal use of it by running my bicycle in and out of it. It had a platform then – from which I learned backflips. What memories! Sarah – I need a photo of your dad for a book I’m writing. Do you remember my mother working in the library for your dad?

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  4. Dwight Davis, I just read your comment about Big Jonah. My sister’s name was Cilla (short for Priscilla). If you’re still writing the book and want a picture of my dad, you’ll have to let me know. I’m on Facebook and live in Natick, MA

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