Roamers Rest was rockin' place to be in 1940s
Lifeguard Gino Damico worked at the iconic park and had more than a few adventures
More than 60 years after Gino Damico was a lifeguard at the popular Roamers Rest on 99W, he still retains the muscular and tanned look of a lifeguard.
Gino, now 87, worked as a lifeguard during the summers of 1946 through 1948 at Roamers Rest, which from the 1920s on provided a haven for teenagers and families seeking fun and recreation.
In its heyday, the bucolic setting along the banks of the Tualatin River just west of King City, now home to an RV park with the same name, was the place to go to swim, jump from the diving towers, ride a toboggan slide into the depths of the Tualatin, play ball, take a boat ride, enjoy a drink in the tavern or jive in the dance hall.
Just after World War II, jobs were hard to get, according to Gino, so he was grateful for the $2-an-hour job.
Now living at nearby Summerfield Estates for the past year, he has made two trips back to Roamers Rest over the past six weeks, where the park employees liked talking to him about the "old days," and he enjoyed reminiscing.
"I helped built the swim docks," Gino said of the swimming area that was 200 feet long and divided into separate tanks lined with wood decks. For the brave swimmers, there was a 6-foot-high diving platform and a 12-foot-high platform.
"We used to swim long distances down the Tualatin," Gino said. "The water wasn't that dirty then, and no one drowned.
In addition to swimming, people could check out canoes and boats, and fishing also was a pasttime.
"I caught bass and sea-run cutthroat trout that came through Gill's Creek until they built Scoggins Dam," Gino said, adding, "There were no meal breaks - I was always on duty. Once or twice a week, I'd have to jump in and save someone."
According to Gino, who also worked as the park groundskeeper, Al Hamilton, the park owner, "was a good guy to work for."
"Companies would hold their company picnics there, and there would be softball games going on, and people would be dancing in the dance hall," Gino said. "They had a jukebox, and some of them were pretty good dancers.
My sister worked there in the concession stand. My mom and dad had come from Italy, and my mom would bring a big pot of spaghetti down and feed everyone.
"It cost 25 cents to get in or 50 cents for a carload, so people would cram as many people as possible into their cars."
Gino would start working around 10 a.m. and work all day, turning the floodlights on when dusk came and staying until the last car left.
A big crowd draw was a slide on rollers where swimmers would climb steps, pick up a board that had a keel in the center and ride it down. "It shot you practically across the river, and sometimes guys were drunk when they did it," Gino said.
When asked if he had any girlfriends during his summers as a lifeguard, Gino replied with a smile, "There were a few."
Gino owned a 1929 Model A convertible "with a rumble seat" in those days, which he used to commute from his parents' home in Portland.
"But sometimes I had to hitchhike," he said.
Other times, when he worked late and had to be back the next morning, Gino would sleep in the basement of the tavern, noting that although it could be noisy and occasionally a fight would break out, "I was tired so I had no trouble sleeping, and it would be a waste of gas to drive home and back."
His family members and friends often spent time at the park, making it a family affair.
Gino was born in a small town near Centralia in Washington, and moved to Oregon when he was young. He attended Shattuck Grade School and Lincoln High School but left at 17 to enter the service even though technically he was too young.
"My three older brothers were all in the service, and I joined the Coast Guard in 1945," Gino said. He was first sent to Manhattan Beach, Calif., and then New London, Conn., to the Coast Guard Academy.
"I swam all my life in the 'crick' and ended up teaching swimming there," Gino said. "It was a beautiful place. Then the war ended, and I was given a choice of going home or staying in. I chose to go home."
Having already been a lifeguard at Rockaway Beach, he easily got a lifeguard job at Roamers Rest, and he revealed the secret to the deep tan he always sported: "Olive oil."
After his lifeguard days were over, Gino went on to marry, have a son and daughter, and hold several jobs over the decades, primaly as an operating engineer and crane operator for 54 years.
At one point, "I went to Hawaii for 30 days and stayed for seven years, working as an operating engineer," Gino said. He only came back to the Mainland after his brother Nick died.
Another time, he owned Gino's Turquoise Room on Barbur Boulevard that featured a five-piece band and dance contests.
Gino spent another 12 years working at Beaverton Foods, a family-run company that is still in business today making horseradish, mustard and similar condiments for other companies.
"Also, I used to raise horses and Labrador dogs when I had 20 acres on the river," said Gino, who after retiring moved to Arizona for 12 years. After suffering a stroke, his nephew Bruce McGavin moved him back to Portland, and because Gino wanted to live on the westside where his friends were, Bruce's wife Linda found Summerfield Estates, where Gino enjoys living.
He couldn't be any closer to Roamers Rest, saying, "Every time I go over that bridge on 99W, I look down."
All in all, "I've had a good life," Gino added.