Summer fun: Parks, picnic and theater were big features of early Spokane Valley leisure

From picnics to theater, summer in the Spokane Valley has always offered an assortment of places to relax.

The biggest picnic in the state began in 1922 and was called the All Valley Picnic. It was held at Liberty Lake Park near the Pavillion that stretched out onto the lake. Businesses would close for the day and people would come from all over the Valley and parts beyond to join as a community in summer games and celebrations.

Arrival options included:

  • Car, if you had one
  • Walking if you weren’t far
  • Taking the Inland Empire Electric Train to Liberty Lake

Events, entertainment and competitions filled the day. A 16×16-foot stage provided a place for music and to announce winners of such events as the horseshoe tournament, three-legged race and baseball game. Parades of aprons, sewing exhibits and even a sleight of hand performance by Father John Dosch offered entertainment for everyone.

In 1933, Washington Gov. Clarence Martin attended and gave a speech offering hope for prosperity following the Great Depression.

Over the years, attendance ran as high as 24,000, with about 7,000 being the average.

The All Valley Picnic slowly fizzled out as other attractions and the popularity of the car gave Spokane Valley residents the option of exploring other areas. The picnic was a lot of work, and volunteers were harder to assemble. By World War II, the picnic ceased altogether.

The resort lake towns

Liberty Lake was a destination any time of summer. With more than six resorts by 1933, everything from camping, boating, fishing and picnicking were good reasons to head to the lake.

The park had a merry-go-round, a snack bar and other amusements.

The large Dance Pavillion over the water hosted many romantic evenings. Other resorts, with names like Ted Week’s, Sig’s and Sandy Beach, were places for Valley folks to cool off, picnic, play on a water wheel, water slide and fish. Many visitors rented cabins by the week or month.

Newman Lake also offered options for summer recreation. Several resorts, including Honeymoon Bay, Sutton’s Bay, Hampton’s Resort and the Taylor Hotel, were gathering places to bathe, rent a row boat or just relax on the beach.

In 1910, the Cliff House Resort Pavilion was the place to dance on a warm summer evening. Cabins were offered for rent by the weekend or a full week at most of the resorts. Sutton’s Bay owned the Gypsy, a wooden boat that sat six people. A tour of the lake on the Gypsy was the height of summertime fun.

Honeymoon Bay was another great destination for dinner and dancing. The dance pavilion was built over the lake like the one at Liberty Lake Park. Norm Thue’s Band usually attracted a good share of dancers. In 1936, the band leased the Honeymoon Bay dance hall for the summer season.

Guests could also rent row boats for $1 per day. Bass fishing was always good in the early days. Men could be seen dressed in suits and ties fishing off Granite Point. Leisure of that ear was still taken in proper attire!

Bathing — or swimming as we now know it — was done in a heavy wool bathing suit. Both Newman and Liberty lakes had bathhouses where guests could change into the proper attire.

Into the ditches!

For folks whose days kept them on the farm, the Corbin irrigation ditches were the best opportunity to cool off, swim and float the ditches for long distances on make-shift rafts.

The ditch water was often fast moving and cold.

Some young entrepreneurs would sell watermelon and lemonade at points along the ditch.

Parents often warned of the dangers of swimming in the ditches and forbade it. That rule was often ignored, as the water was the quickest way to cool off.

Good ole days of drive-in theaters and the Nat

Summer evenings became larger than life with the opening of the East Trent Motor In Theater in June 1946.

It was the first outdoor theater to open in the region.

The first movie shown was Doll Face, starring Perry Como. The 48×37-foot screen made it easy for people on the outside of the theater to see the movie but without speakers, they couldn’t hear the sound.

Even some paying customers had a hard time tuning in. Sometimes in a hurry to leave after the movie, cars would drive off with the speaker still attached to the window, leaving the next car to take that spot without sound.

Families took kids in pajamas, as they usually fell asleep before the movie ended. Playground equipment was up near the screen and intermission was the signal to slide, ride the merry-go-round or go to the snack bar for refreshments.

Other outdoor theaters soon opened. The West End, The Y, The Cedar and the East Sprague entertained thousands.

A must-go summer experience for many in the Valley opened closer to Spokane proper at Natatorium Park. Originally opened as Twickenham Park in July 1890, an article in the Spokane Falls Review dated July 11, 1889, stated:

It enables a population to accomplish much more than it otherwise could, not only in the strict lines of business, but in the pursuit of pleasure and social duties as well.

Located on the west side of Spokane, folks travelled by Spokane Street Railways and later the Cable Line or Trolley, or by bus and car in later years.
roller coaster spokane
Early-day amusements included baseball games, shooting tournaments and music and dancing. Gradually, zoo animals and Vaudeville players were a part of the fun. On May 31, 1893, work began on the enormous outdoor swimming bath (the word pool was not used at this time) that was 100×200 feet and heated.

The Latin word for this “bath” was “Natatorium” and, as the resort grew in popularity, it became known as Natatorium Park or Nat Park — eventually just “the Nat.”

Many Valley families went to the park over the years to enjoy all it had to offer, and no summer was complete without a picnic, amusement park ride, dance or concert at dear old Nat. By the mid-1960s, Natatorium Park fell in disrepair, had owner issues and generally declined. The Looff Carousel that lured riders with the promise of a gold ring now resides at Riverfront Park.

It sometimes seems our pursuit of pleasure has found its way indoors.

Computers, indoor movies, indoor pools and other activities make some folks long for a stroll through the Nat on a soft summer night.

Visit the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum to buy historic pictures of summer fun at the lake resorts, Natatorium Park and the drive-in theaters.