The history of Twin Lakes State Park near Farmville extends far beyond the swimming area and the campsites.
For decades, one of the lakes in the 540-acre tract was operated solely for African American visitors, long operating under the name Prince Edward State Park for Negroes.
The other was called Goodwin Lake State Park and was reserved solely for white guests.
Veronica Flick, who manages the park that was merged and renamed Twin Lakes State Park in 1986, said she’s heard a story about something that was seen as a dare for park visitors back then.
“The rumor was that people from either sides of the two lakes would go as far as they could toward the other side on a trail that connects them, to test the limits of what was allowed,” said Flick. “It was said that they’d carve their names onto trees to show how far they got.”
She said the side-by-side lakes and surrounding facilities just off U.S. 360 in Prince Edward County began as separate recreational areas on land purchased by the federal government in 1939. Soon after that, the Civilian Conservation Corps built two dams that created the lakes, one dubbed Prince Edward Lake and the other Goodwin Lake.
“I don’t think they were officially created as segregated, but that was the practice of the day, so that’s how they each operated,” she said.
When a Virginia man named Conrad Martin successfully sued the commonwealth in 1948 after he and his family were denied access to Staunton River State Park because they were black, change came quickly to the state park system.
That’s when roughly half the park became Prince Edward State Park for Negroes, the eighth park in the Virginia system. A bathhouse, a sandy beach, a diving tower, shelters, a restaurant and cabins were added or improved.
The upgrades caused the park’s visitation to increase dramatically, from 16,000 in 1949 to 52,000 in 1951.
A plaque in what’s now known as the Cedar Crest conference center on the Prince Edward Lake side of the park—once a hopping restaurant and night spot—notes that the recreational improvements drew people from all over Virginia and surrounding states.
“On summer weekends,” it reads, “families, church groups and social and civic groups came by the busload from such distant places as Hampton, Fredericksburg and Roanoke.”
There are pictures in a display about those times, with black visitors gathering for picnics, swimming and taking advantage of the cabins on the 30-acre lake’s shoreline.
Flick said Prince Edward State Park was popular because African Americans had limited options at the time. The park was served by an all-black staff, and the Godwin Lake side had an all-white staff.
It would take the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation and the “separate but equal” doctrine, to force the merger of the two facilities that suddenly became known as “Prince Edward/Goodwin Lake State Park.
State park historical documents state that “regardless of the name change, the separate races continued to frequent the parks to which they had grown accustomed. Integration did not effectively occur at the park until 1986, when it was renamed and became Twin Lakes State Park.”
For decades now, the difference between the two lakes has had more to do with use than skin color.
The area around Prince Edward Lake is more the residential side of the park, where people rent cabins and gather in the conference center, where there’s a catering kitchen and room for some 135 to gather.
The original cabins are still there—most have been updated over the years—and new cabins and a large lodge with six bedrooms have been added.
The Goodwin side, where the lake covers 15 acres, is where day-use activities are centered. There’s a beach area with lifeguards on duty during the summer, a snack bar is busy on days when hundreds of folks flow through the park’s gates and boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards can be rented.
The park also has 33 campsites that are typically fully occupied on summer weekends.
Like all state parks in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Twin Lakes has closed down its camping and cabins, the swimming area and all park programing, which will reopen when state leaders allow.
Flick, a mountain-loving West Virginia native who came to the park system after managing food service for the Department of Defense in Hampton Roads, said visitors bring up the park’s segregated history now and then. She said the staff simply treats it as history to be shared.
The park chief is thrilled when visitors to Twin Lakes turn out to be folks who are returning to revive old memories.
“We’ll get families where children are bringing their parents back to walk down memory lane,” said Flick.
One visitor gave her a piece of history she treasures: a pin with a number on it.
“When Prince Edward Lake had a swimming area, visitors could rent bathing suits,” Flick explained. “When they did, they’d put their clothes in a bag that went into a basket with a number on it. You wore the pin with the number of the basket on your bathing suit. I think it’s so neat that we have this little piece of history.”
In normal times, it’s an interesting mix of busy summer day-use and year-round rentals of cabins and the conference center, which gets a lot of use by the state park system itself for training and conferences.
In a typical summer, the big day-use draw is the beach.
“The Prince Edward side, with the cabins and overnight guests is very quaint and more calm and quiet,” said Flick. “And those guests can still come over to the Goodwin Lake side to enjoy the fun activities.
And for those who simply want to get back to nature—again, when the virus lets normal activities resume—there’s one other thing that makes visitors feel like they’ve left the work-day world behind.
“We’ve got state forest on three sides of the park,” Flick said, noting there’s a nearby equestrian trail. “It’s nice to know that nature will continue to surround us.”