The old WPA Gym in Dover witnessed basketball games, dances and kids just passing the time. But after 77 years, bitter news about the fate of the old gym hit the community. Reports from a structural engineer, the state fire marshal, and the Arkansas Department of Education deemed the building unsafe. The Dover Board of Education voted unanimously to demolish the gym.
The gym, affectionately referred to as the old gym, saw its last high school basket in 1992 before the new Dover gym was put into use. Time took its toll on the old building. The gray paint that covered the bleachers was peeling and chipping revealing the previous black color. Hand rails that led to what was once the concession stand area were rusted, and wooden shelves that once held trophies were empty. The score clock still showed 1st State Bank as a sponsor and fluorescent lights still burned. Ceiling tiles had fallen onto the hardwood floors while some barely held on. At the scoreboard bench a machine sat waiting for someone to start the clock on a new game. There was no sound of the buzzer, no squeaking shoes, no cheering crowd, and the heat of summer only contributed to a faint musty smell that filled the gym.
But the heat did not seem to bother members of the community as they gathered together to say goodbye to the old gym on a muggy summer evening, just two days before its scheduled June 6 demolition.
The June 4 public memorial service was full of memories. Several people walked around the gym reminiscing and some even picked up the old basketballs lying around to dribble on the hardwood floor. Some pretended to shoot, as the goals had been removed so one could be placed in the high school gym.
“It’s going to go, but its spirit will stay,” Marcus Kilburn, an alumnus from Dover said.
The Pirate family and friends gathered outside the old gym to listen to stories and partake in a candlelight service. “That’s just what you did. You came to the gym,” Kilburn said.
For Kilburn, the old gym held several memories including a few firsts. Kilburn recalled having his first kiss on the top row of bleachers near the girl’s dressing room on the far end of the gym. Although he would not reveal her name, he did say it was more than just a simple peck on the cheek or lips, but a “real lock-lip” The gym is also where he said his first real cuss word, saw a few fights, and gave the 7th graders their rite of passage.
Kilburn also got his first taste of tobacco in the very spot he had his first kiss, though, the tobacco happened a few years earlier. A chew of Days Work tobacco was offered to Kilburn when he was in the fourth grade, and he couldn’t say no when his “best buddy” offered. It was the last time Kilburn tried chewing tobacco as he ran from the bleachers in search of a place to “hurl.”
Kilburn’s sister, Marsha Hanson, had tears in her eyes as she recalled sitting at basketball games listening to stories told on the sidelines. The gym was a place where her brother and uncle played basketball, a place where she talked to her mother and aunt. It was where she grew up.
“This was a place where you shared your life,” Hanson said.
Former student and coach, William “Nubbin” Boley, gave the crowd a glimpse into the past during his speech.
During his coaching career at Dover High School, the gym roof needed to be replaced. Two men stripped the roof off the gym that Thursday and Friday, and they were supposed to finish the job on Saturday. Saturday afternoon it began to rain. It rained for a few days and the men never returned. Boley saw the gym floor covered in one to three inches of water and the boards no longer lying flat. He knew he needed to fix the floor and only one idea came to mind.
Boley called his friend, Delbert Pelham, from the Arkansas Highway Department and asked if he was brave enough to bring his concrete roller into the gym. The roller went right up the sidewalk, up wooden boards the men had laid down to allow access up the stairs and into the gym. While Pelham rolled, Boley secured the boards down with nails. Boley’s plan worked and the floor remained.
Boley also recalled his Pirate playing days as the glory days. “We scored 88 points in 32 minutes. “There just was no losing,” said Boley. He spent Saturday mornings at the gym when he would play one-on-one games with his coach, Willy Click. He recalls never beating Click. “He was smarter than me.” Boley went on to play for Arkansas Tech University for four years. After school he coached at Cotter and then returned to Dover to coach.
At the end of the ceremony and speeches, candles were lit and those who chose to participate walked to the high school gym to deliver the wooden memory box containing stories, photographs, and even a pair of shoes that Boley had coached in. The wooden box, however, is not a permanent home for the mementos. The memories will be permanently placed in a replica of the old gym. The replica will rest on a base of a section of flooring from the old gym, and the WPA plaque from the front of the building will be inset into a pedestal of rocks from the building.
Even after a new gym was built, the old WPA gym was still used for various activities. It was still part of people’s lives. For Megan Musgrove it was “an identifiable relic connecting us to the past.”
Musgrove was appointed chairperson of the Dover Old Gym Memorial Committee by the school board. When she realized that the building could not be preserved she began brainstorming about preserving the memories that were created in the building.
Musgrove helped plan the memorial service, the replica made of rock and plaque from the gym that will be placed in the high school gym, and other ideas.
Musgrove began her career in the Dover school district at age eight. She attended Dover until she graduated in 1997. Throughout her school career, Musgrove was a cheerleader. During her pee wee and 7th grade year she recalls it was “always freezing” as she stood in the northwest corner of the old gym at basketball games. “I vividly remember being an awkward 7th grader cheering in that freezing corner, performing many a halftime routine out on the floor.”
Her own children attend Dover today, and as they used the old gym the past and present blurred for their mother. Not only did Musgrove cheer in the old gym, but she coaches cheerleading both inside and outside the gym, just as she had practiced as a young cheerleader. “Things will be different now. I don’t know what the new space will be used for, but new memories will be created there and we will do our best to hang onto our old ones. They will live on in our minds, and now we will have a greater responsibility to share those memories with the younger generations, as they will no longer be creating their own memories there.”
There is speculation as to what will fill the space once occupied by the old gym, including the idea of a field house. For now, there is a vacant piece of land where the gym once stood.