The Green Shed

It was a magical, mysterious space.

The inside was dark and windowless with the musty smell of countless warm days. 

It was also a welcoming place with gifts and surprises that would spill from it every day. When the city would drop them at the neighborhood parks around town in early June, you knew summer was upon us.

How could a green shed hold so much memory?

For those who grew up in Madison in the ’50s and ’60s, the green shed was the physical representation of a robust summer program. At select neighborhood parks the green huts, and young park attendants who managed them—clad in white T-shirts with authoritative blue piping—would make Madison a welcoming place for kids to do something, and nothing, all summer long.

For free.

On the near west side there were green sheds and attendants at Wingra, Vilas and Hoyt Park next to the reservoir.

In the morning the padlock would open, the hasp would swing free and the day’s activities would be revealed. There would be washers, mill and checkerboards, tetherballs and colorful spools of plastic yarn called gymp. You would wind the stuff around an orange juice container and give it to your dad as a pencil holder. Or create a wonderful petroleum-based bracelet for Mom.

The city picnic tables would surround the staging areas and pockets of kids would swarm about throughout the day, with a kind of activity that must have mirrored the same doings of the Native Americans who first inhabited our lakeshores.

Occasionally a traveling theater company would arrive in a wagon that unfolded into a stage. They would put on a play. The stars of the production were other kids.

There were also things to do at the beaches. The high school kids played lifeguard, their noses covered in white zinc ointment. There were swimming lessons in the morning, in the clean water. You would lay out in the sand and flirt, back when the sun wasn’t a menace.

On some summer evenings, in the shelters at the big parks, there would be dances. 

Adding to all this activity would be the summer baseball leagues. It was a boy thing then as girls weren’t encouraged or allowed to play organized sports. Hard to believe when you think about it.

The leagues were classified by age: Flyweight for the youngest kids and Midgets for the older boys. The games would be played in the mornings and afternoons, with durable rubber-coated baseballs for the sake of economy. Many of the fields were dirt, covered with a crust of aromatic oil, no doubt toxic, that was applied regularly by city crews to keep the dust down. The bats were made of a remarkable substance called wood. 

On the near west side, the kids played on teams named The Shamrocks, Deerfield Butter and Heifetz Scrap. We’d ride our bikes to the games. The umpires were high school kids. The uniforms were simple brightly colored, silken T-shirts. Some might have a zipper at the collar. The day they arrived was better than Christmas. Occasionally a parent would attend a game, but it was no big deal.

The baseball year would culminate in a championship game at Breese Stevens Field, where the big boys played.

There would be basketball games on the outdoor courts. Fishing for bullheads and bluegills in the lagoons. The big Fourth of July fireworks show took place at Vilas Park, a tradition that ended when they realized it was too frightening for the zoo animals. That summer magic still seems doomed to move like a foster child in our town, searching for a home.

If there was a tipping point for Madison summers, you could point to the rise of the West Side Little League. The ball fields were on the perimeter of town with bleachers and outfield walls. We wore complete uniforms with pants. The coaches and umps and organizers were adults. You had to get in a car to go to practice and games. It cost money. 

Slowly, over time, Madison’s neighborhood parks ceased being a magnet for kids.

They couldn’t compete with the new malls on the far east and west sides.

So the parks program went away. So did the baseball leagues. 

The lakes got scummy, so a lot of the beaches closed.

And the city got out of the business of kids, neighborhoods, jobs and summer.

And the green sheds vanished.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

Find more of John Roach's columns here.

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