Landrum Wanderings: Remembering summer fun at Rainbow Lake

Published 10:00 pm Monday, April 24, 2017

The days are sunny, the temperatures mild, it’s the time of year when I like to take a drive down some country roads. Today I’m headed down Rainbow Lake Road, leading out of Fingerville.  I’ve learned that Rainbow Lake no longer exists, but I’m curious. I want to see if I can locate where this popular summer bathing and picnic spot once existed.

I’ve done my research and learned that Rainbow Lake was created by the Spartanburg Water District and existed from 1929 until 1967. A trip to the Spartanburg Historical Society gave me background information. Ron Swain at the museum dug out a wonderful print by Mike Turnage entitled “Summer’s Call” depicting a busy day at the lake.

I drive out Route 11, turning right at the sign that reads “Rainbow Lake Road.” The first time I saw this sign I envisioned a pretty lake, perfect for fishing and small motorboats. I was saddened to learn that it had been drained. But if you are of a certain age, were a teenager in the late 50s or early 60s, you probably have some nostalgic memories of afternoons spent at Rainbow Lake.

Highway Sign

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When I Google Rainbow Lake on my computer, I discover videos, slide shows, and descriptions of fun times at the lake. In 2006, John Lane posted “I lived for the moment at the first of June when my mother finally said, ‘This weekend, Rainbow Lake is open.’ When that happened I knew I could stay out at the lake all day every Saturday and watch the teen boys do cannonballs and jackknives and suicide dives off the three-story concrete tower. The dive off the tower was a rite of passage I never achieved at Rainbow Lake. They closed the lake before it happened.”

The entry continues, “And if I didn’t want to swim or sit I could always eat French fries or drink a cherry Coke made with real syrup at the pavilion and wait 30 minutes and then go back in.”

A video shows teenage girls in two piece bathing suits, wading in the water, protecting their poufy hairdos from getting wet. The boys are showing off diving, a lifeguard patrols in a rowboat, sunbathers rub on sun tan lotion to help their skin absorb the sun, not block it. There’s a lot of smiling and splashing as the film plays out.

Most of the structures, bathhouses, rest rooms, pavilions, and rock walls were built by the CCC Camps of the 1920s. A video made in 2008, when some former Rainbow Lake regulars had an opportunity to revisit the grounds, shows these old stone structures along with the large field that was once a lake. I was hoping to locate this field on my drive and discover whether these structures still existed, but the location eluded me.

I pass Rainbow Lake Middle School and cross the bridge over the wide, rapidly flowing Pacolet River. I surmise that perhaps the river had been the water source for the lake. Heading back towards Fingerville, I turn off on a narrow road, crossing a creek. I’m surprised by some large candy canes leading to the entrance of a Christmas tree farm called Christmas Hill. I’ll tuck this place away for a possible story next Christmas. The signs along the road indicate it’s a popular place to find the perfect Christmas tree. The road dead ends so I retrace my route and head back to the main road.

Continuing my journey back on Route 11, I decide to stop for strawberries at Geary Jolley Farms fruit stand, The Peach Basket. I select a pint of red, luscious looking berries and proceed to the counter where Robert McKinney rings up the sale. I decide to probe a little and find out if Robert has memories of Rainbow Lake. He smiles, “Rainbow Lake was a part of growing up. They had a wading area for little kids. The bottom of the lake was all sand, the water was clear and not at all muddy. Beach music played all the time and you could buy hotdogs. It was a lot of fun.”

I inquire about the structures that I saw in the video and he describes a pavilion that is still in use. “They enclosed a pavilion and now you can rent it. My family rented it every Christmas. We’d put up a Christmas tree and have a feast there. It has a kitchen, tables and chairs, and a big gas burning fireplace. You rent it from Spartanburg Water and it’s used all the time for weddings, reunions, and family gatherings. We would call January 1 to reserve it for the next Christmas,” he laughs.

I read online about an effort in 2001 to revive the old lake. Shelia Bailey spearheaded a plan to redevelop Rainbow Lake. The entry online reads, “After listening to a friend reminisce about the old lake, she decided to drive to the property and have a look around. Bailey saw a grassy field, but she ‘could hear the kids playing and just felt this awesome place.’ Rainbow Lake became a mission for Bailey. Council members, however, were reluctant to bite.” 

As I depart with my strawberries, music from an old Cowsills song, “Indian Lake,” written by Tony Romeo, plays in my mind. If I substitute the words, “Rainbow Lake,” I’m sure it describes this South Carolina, summer fun spot.

The air is fine with the sweet smelling pine

And the countryside’s pretty,

Indian Lake, is a scene you should make, with your little one,

Keep it in mind if you’re looking to find, a place in the summer sun,

Swim in the cove, have a snack in the grove,

Or you can rent a canoe

At Indian Lake

To quote John Lane again, “Losing Rainbow Lake was like losing a little of our soul. There’s something about swimming in lake water that’s never been replaced for me.”