Lakeless

A big grassy depression in the ground is the state of the lake at Crystal Springs, located alongside Alabama 204 west of Jacksonville, near the highway's intersection with U.S. 431. The venerable swimming hole will not open for business this year.

For decades, Christine “Memaw” Watkins was a staple of Crystal Springs Lake in Duke. On any summer day, the lake’s owner might be seen in her white T-shirt and purple cotton pants, watering the Boston ferns swinging from the office porch or chipping old paint from the lake house overhang.  

This summer, though, after Watkins’ death about a month ago at age 92, Crystal Springs Lake will stay dry. The lake bed grass will grow taller, and the lonely sun will beam down, no swimmers below to soak it up.

Since 1929, Crystal Springs Lake, a spring-filled, man-made swimming hole, has been a go-to destination for locals during the summer swelter.

But Tyler Parris, Watkins’ grandson, says that the family plans to keep the summertime staple closed this year after his grandmother’s passing, which he says was “expected, but unexpected.”

It wasn’t an easy decision to keep Crystal Springs closed. Parris cried explaining why it wasn’t possible to keep it open this year.
“The preparations for the summer were hampered by everything we’ve been going through,” Parris said. “But it was a difficult decision. It was the subject of intense discussion in the family. We want people to know that we know Memaw would have wanted the lake open. We wish it was open as well.”
Parris wasn’t exaggerating about Watkin’s wishes. Her commitment to the lake — and to life generally — was clear even in her death.
“If you wish to honor Mrs. Christine Watkins,” her obituary read, “live to glorify God daily, spend holidays with all your extended family, cherish summertime, play as many beach volleyball games as possible, keep your pool or lake clean of moss and ready to swim in at all times, have the most beautiful flower garden on the block, eat ice cream daily, Clorox everything, and treat all people with dignity and respect.”
But Parris said that the work necessary to open the lake exceeds what the family is able to do this year.

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A temporary closure of Crystal Springs, a lake with a storied past, is rare.

Before Watkins and her commitment to Crystal Springs, there was Lillian Held.
Held, Crystal Springs Lake’s first owner, was a performer once billed on Broadway as “the girl with dancing eyes,” according to Star reporting from 1975.
But Held moved to Alabama when her then-fiancée promised a financial boon from a business venture involving a lake somewhere in the Heart of Dixie.  
Held would never see that lake, and she’d break off her engagement with the man who’d promised it, calling him a “little stinker.”
She would, though, find Crystal Springs Lake, and she would make it her own, opening the spot to members beginning in 1929.
Held would eventually meet the Watkins family, leasing them some of her land for their carpet golf business.
Many summers later, in the early 1960s, the Watkins family began leasing and managing the lake itself. By 1971, the family says, they’d bought the property from Held, who lived nearby until her death.

But membership access didn’t mean universal access. By 1989, the lake had been placed on Fort McClellan’s “off limits” list for allegedly discriminating against African-American patrons. Army officials sent both a white and black investigator to the lake to look into the claims.
“The white investigator had no difficulty getting inside,” The Star’s reporting said at the time, paraphrasing an Army official. “The black investigator was denied access.”

Those conclusions led to the lake’s spot on the “off limits” list, according to a military official at the time.

Christine Watkins was quoted in the article denying the claims.
“We have had blacks,” she said at the time. “One came less than two weeks ago with a member.”
All these years later, Watkins' son Garry says he still doesn’t believe the allegations.
“Maybe they were alluding to the ‘members only’ sign,” he said, “but we had loosened those restrictions.”
Asked whether he’d ever known a time African Americans weren’t allowed at the lake, he was unequivocal.
“No. I never remember that.”
What Garry Watkins does remember is the way he saw his mother treat others.
“I want people to know that she treated every person exactly the same,” he said.
Tyler Parris echoed his uncle’s sentiments, saying his grandmother always took joy in others’ happiness.
“One of the things that brought her the most joy was seeing all the kids play,” Parris said, unsuccessfully stifling tears. “No doubt, that will continue in the future. “We apologize for not having the lake open this summer, but we’ll be back.”
Expect bigger and better flowers at the lake, too, Parris said.
“Memaw always wanted the flowers to be bigger every year,” he said. “That’s something we’re committed to.”

Star Staff Writer Lee Hedgepeth: 256-600-2463. On Twitter: @lhedgepeth_star