Would you ever imagine that you could find a rifle range, naked swimming and a sea captain all in one place? Well, you can find all that and more in Downtown Fargo at the Fercho YMCA. This week we investigated more into the “Y” sign that has stood tall in Fargo ever since they first broke ground in 1961. First, we have to take you back to 1844 in London, England when a young man named George Williams and his friends first founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA was then brought to the United States in Boston in 1851 thanks to Thomas Sullivan, who was a retired sea captain. Flash forward to 1886 when Fargo’s first YMCA began in the old Country Courthouse. A few short years later in 1961, the Downtown Fargo YMCA broke ground and that my friends is where our story begins.
Picture courtesy of the NDSU Archives
You’ll shoot your eye out kid….
The Fercho YMCA first broke ground in 1961 after raising significant funds to purchase the land. Shortly after completion in 1962, the iconic Y was installed purchased by Tom Dawson’s, of Dawson Insurance, grandfather. This sign did stump us as there is not too much knowledge regarding its purchase or why it is just a Y. Although one thing we did find out is that the YMCA has always been a family affair, two children can be seen breaking ground in the picture below, in addition to a large gathering for the laying of the cornerstone. Now the Fercho YMCA wasn’t actually named Fercho until 2009; however, prior to the name change the downtown Y saw many great times. The basement was formerly home to a rifle range where individuals could earn badges for rifle skills. Unfortunately for us, the range closed in the late 80s to accommodate the changing needs of YMCA members. In addition, the Y was also home to the National Handball Tournament in 1979 with several courts added to accommodate the crowd. These courts were unique in that they didn’t have doors and had to be entered from the top, climbing down to get to the action. The funds for these extra courts were hotly debated, as was the concept for a bomb shelter that would hold 2,500 people to the tune of $60,000. However, this idea never came to fruition as the board voted to turn down the idea in May of 1961.
Photo courtesy of the YMCA
Naked Swims, teen dances & canteens
Quite the headline we know. The search for more information on the YMCA led us to some crazy places including a Facebook page filled with stories of memories’ past. Some of these memories mentioned that the YMCA used to be home to naked swims. We aren’t too sure exactly why this happened but a few stories contributed it to a concern with lint and dyes from swimsuits interfering with the pool. However, it did seem to be a normal practice for the time. There were also stories of teen dances held on Friday nights at the YMCA. Filled with popcorn, chocolate milk in bottles, visits to the Canteen and of course hormones, we can only imagine what fun was had back in the day. Speaking of old time fun, we heard stories of soap box derby races being held on the hill outside of the Y. We don’t know what safety policies, if any, were in place at the time, but next time you drive down that hill imagine yourself as a soap box racer just seconds from childhood victory.
It’s (not) electric
Camp Cormorant has been a staple of the YMCA for years, well since 1903 to be exact. Camp Cormorant first opened with only four sleeping tents, a dining tent, a kitchen and a wash area. The camp didn’t even have electricity, I suppose there was no need to charge ten different mobile devices a night back then. However, we did discover that the camp was home to the Red River Valley SCUBA Diving Tournament, the first tournament of its kind. Armed with friends and good times, campers enjoyed all elements of a summer camp that many children still enjoy today including this sign that has welcomed campers since 1993. Fast forward to 1997 when the the Schlossman Family YMCA opened complete with climbing wall, child care center, fitness space and a youth/teen center. When you enter the Schlossman YMCA, you may notice that it resembles a barn and that’s exactly what it used to be. In order to obtain the land from a local farmer, the YMCA had to agree to use to their barn in the new development. The other barn sits at Rabanus Park and was moved in 1990.
Photos courtesy of the YMCA
Although this week’s adventures didn’t teach us too much about the “Y” sign itself, we sure learned a lot about the history and many memories that have gone into the YMCA. We were honored to work with so many different individuals from Facebook groups to NDSU Archives to Dawson Insurance and of course the YMCA. Thank you for letting us tell a story of soapbox derbys, rifle ranges, naked swims and most importantly the Fargo community. If any individuals have more information regarding the “Y” sign, please reach out, we need closure on this mystery of a sign! Stay tuned for the next edition of Signs of Fargo’s Past as we hunt down the memories behind the signs of our community.
Written by: Addie Long