When Swimming in the Pond Could Get You a Medal

January 26, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH


Photo courtesy Carlos Bradshaw/Jack Wentworth
A.J. Hankey’s first-place medal for a quarter-mile swim in Jamaica Pond in 1899.

PONDSIDE—If you go swimming in Jamaica Pond today, you might get arrested.

But if you went swimming in Jamaica Pond 110 years ago, you might get a medal.

A.J. Hankey, who seems to have been the Michael Phelps of historic Jamaica Plain, won at least three wa-ter-racing medals at the pond in the 1890s, all apparently awarded by the City of Boston during the massive Fourth of July celebrations of the era.

Those glamorous-looking medals have surfaced once again in small-town North Carolina, where current owner Carlos Bradshaw has been wondering about their history and hoping a Boston-area museum will purchase and preserve them.

“I’ve often wondered how the medals came so far,” Bradshaw said in a recent Gazette phone interview from his home in Nebo, N.C.

Two of the medals are silver-colored, awarded for first and second place in “tub races” in 1890 and 1891. Decorated with laurel wreaths, they hang by small chains from a bar reading “City of Boston.”

The third, gold-colored medal was for first place in a quarter-mile swim in the pond in 1899. It is shaped like a heavy cross with an eagle atop it, hanging by chains from a bar reading “1st Prize.”

They came in a case bearing the mark of Hancocks & Co., a famed British custom jeweler whose patrons in-clude the royal family. But it is unclear whether the case originally went with any of the medals. Hankey’s name is engraved on at least one medal. At least two of them make it clear they were won at Jamaica Pond.

Bradshaw said he bought the medals about six years ago from a flea market booth operator named Lucille in nearby Marion, N.C. She was 86 years old at the time and had owned the medals since the 1930s.

Lucille got the medals when, at age 18, an admiring boy gave them to her as a courting gift.

“She was a beautiful woman when she was 86,” Bradshaw said. “For him to give her something like that, he must have really wanted to go with her.”

Reportedly, Lucille kept the medals but did not keep the boy.

Bradshaw said Lucille sold the medals only because she needed money after a different kind of aquatic event—a flea market flood. She cried during the sale, he said, but not about the price, which he boosted to help her fundraising.

“I didn’t get ’em cheap, let’s put it that way,” Bradshaw said.

Even the obvious parts of the medals were at first a mystery to Bradshaw—including the identity of Ja-maica Pond. “I’d never heard of it and [Lucille] didn’t know anything about it,” he said.

In recent years, he’s been researching the medals with the help of his friend Jack Wentworth in New York State. Wentworth notified the Jamaica Plain Historical Society (JPHS) about the medals, which first wrote about them in its Winter 2008 newsletter.

In the pond’s recent history, swimming has been officially banned, though secret summertime skinnydipping is widely known to take place. In 2007, a woman drowned in the pond during an illicit swim. She was one of three people to drown in the pond in the past 19 years, at least two of whom were illicit swimmers.

There is an annual small-scale debate about lifting the swimming ban. Last fall, the issue got official attention at a forum of park activist organizations. Boston Parks and Recreation Department officials—including Commissioner Antonia Pollak—noted that the department could not afford lifeguards. Environmental damage to the pond and its surrounding park was another concern, especially since officially approved swim-ming probably would require constructing a beach and providing more parking.

Meanwhile, sailboating and rowboating remain available, though tub races are out of the question.

But in previous centuries, the pond was full of swimmers and even boasted bathhouses. The medals are ar-tifacts from that swimming era.

They also reflect another long-lost use of the pond: the epicenter of gigantic Fourth of July celebra-tions, including fireworks, organized by the Jamaica Plain Carnival Association. All of the medals were won as part of day-long Independence Day events.

The one historical reference to Hankey that the Gazette was able to locate is in the Boston Globe’s ac-count of the 1901 Fourth of July at the pond. That year, Jamaica Pond was the location of Boston’s official Fourth of July celebration, featuring visits from the mayor and the Spanish-American War hero Capt. (later Rear Admiral) Richmond Pearson Hobson.

The celebration included fireworks launched from a raft on the pond and colorful “illuminary” lights ar-rayed around the shoreline. Events included a parade and bicycle racing on the Jamaicaway.

That year, Hankey was mentioned not as a competitor, but as an official overseeing canoe races on the pond. Those events included nine-person “war canoes” with competitors coming from as far as Worcester.

The Hankeys were a well-known Pondside family, Alsatian immigrants who arrived in the early 1800s, ac-cording to the JPHS web site. They built the house at 5 Eliot St. in Monument Square. It is unclear whether A.J. Hankey had any other claims to fame.

Bradshaw said the history has fascinated him as he learns more of it. He and his wife have even consid-ered making a visit to JP and the pond, he said.

As for the medals, they’re sitting in a safe deposit box while Bradshaw seeks a buyer. He said he would like to turn a profit, but would also like to see them go to a worthy place.

He said he called some people in Boston with the same last name as Hankey and got some interest in pur-chasing the medals, but noted there was no way he could check whether it was really Hankey’s descendents.

“I’d rather it be a museum up there” that acquires them, Bradshaw said.

“They belong in Jamaica Plain, not Nebo, North Carolina,” Wentworth said.

Anyone with more information or interest about the medals can contact Bradsaw at (828) 659-7296 or 8426 US Hwy 70 E, Nebo, NC 28761.

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