The Fountain Project
Memorial Fountain History & Future
The Victorian fountain was donated to the village by A.B.Valentine, a local mill owner. It was rescued from the scrap heap by Milton Surdam, a local mason. It has been restored by the Bennington Rotary Club, with some advice on rust removal from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. And now after 135 years after it was first placed in front of the newly-built Bennington Graded School in 1874, a broad-based effort is under way to place the ornate Victorian fountain in a new basin in a small public park on South Street.
The project is rooted in the belief that the fountain is not only historically important and a symbol of Bennington's past, but that placing it in the park between the Superior Court and the former blacksmith shop on South Street -- along with a retaining wall, a paved plaza, ornamental trees, gardens and vintage lighting -- would be an interesting and engaging enhancement to downtown.
The Bennington Rotary has already committed $10,000 to the project, and its members have done the physical work of removing the rust and covering it with four coats of black paint. A more ambitious fund-raising effort is now being launched to attract broad support not just from businesses, individuals, and community groups, but also from pocket change that shoppers, in effect, can throw into the fouuntain by putting it into containers that will be placed near cash registers throughout town. "Coins In The Fountain" is the fund-raising theme.
Jerry Albert, the chairman of the group overseeing the restoration and fundraising, says the group feels the project is important for three reasons: the fountain is historic in its own right; it's a symbol of Victorian-era Bennington, with its textile mill, manufacturing base and strong commitment to public education; and placing it in a landscaped public park would create a relaxing haven in downtown for years to come.
The cast iron fountain is about eight feet tall, with two spill basins, a pineapple top, and a whimsical base that has otters peering through bullrushes. Such fountains were common in the Victorian era, and sometimes were mass-produced, like Civil War memorials. Bennington, in fact, once had a number of them. In addition to this one at the Graded School, there was a large fountain at the Veterans' Home that still exists but hasn't operated for years; another at the Putnam Mansion; a horse trough later converted into a drinking fountain for pedestrians in the center of Old Bennington; a cobblestone fountain at St. Francis de Sales Elementary School; and another ornate fountain at the far east end of Main Street, where Stewart's now is located. The fact that so many of these Victorian-era fountains were destroyed in demolition projects, melted down in wartime scrap drives, or allowed to fall into ruin, makes the very existence of the fountain unusual and historically valuable.
It's not known where this fountain was manufactured, but it is known how it got to Bennington and how it escaped the fate of so many others. It was donated to the brand new Bennington Graded School by A.B. Valentine, who owned a knitting mill behind the school. This was at a time when the rivers of Bennington provided power for many textile mills and for factories manufacturing sewing machines, needles and other goods. The Bennington Graded School was considered one of the most impressive schools in Vermont at the time, a large Renaissance-style building with a Mansard roof and a tall square tower that was located on School Street, right adhacent to the Walloomsac River. It was considered a progressive -- even radical -- area, because it was an early attempt at consolidation, converting many small and bare-bones neighborhood schools into a single large and well-equipped one. Until 1914, it also included the high school, and for a time included a "Normal School" where high school graduates, most of them being women, were trained to become teachers. So the fountain that stood in front of it was a symbol not only of Bennington's commitment to education, but -- because of Valentine's donation of it -- of the industrial base that caused much of Bennington's 19th century wealth.
The Graded School was demolished in 1954, and the fountain -- by then unused and rusted -- was about to be carted off to the dump when Milton Surdam, a local mason who had attended the Graded School, asked the demolition crew what they were doing with it. When they said they were taking it to the dump, he asked if he could have it. They asked him what he wanted the fountain for and Surdam said he always liked it. Surdam hired a wrecker to haul the fountain to his house, and eventually moved it with him to three different houses in Bennington and Pownal.
The restoration plans grew out of a Rotary Club luncheon at which Robert Matteson was speaking about his memories of Bennington in years past, and said that he missed the fountains, that disappeared one by one. When Surdam's son, also Milton, said that he had the fountain from the Graded School, the restoration project was soon underway. Milt and his siblings said it was their parents wish to donate the fountain to the town and they were thrilled that it was going to be displayed in such a beautiful setting. A committee was then formed to explore ways of doing it.
What began as a Bennington Rotary Club project to restore the fountain has been expanded to include the enhanced park and to include representatives from the town, the Better Bennington Corporation, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Master Gardeners Association and Bennington in Bloom. A design for the park was developed by Michael McDonough, a local architect long involved in historic preservation and local planning. It includes a large fountain basin, a retaining wall, a paved plaza, ornamental trees, lilacs, flowers, benches, and lighting. Once in place, the town will maintain the fountain and assume the costs of lighting the park and running the water pump.
The park already includes the 9-11 Memorial Bench, which was donated by the Baptist Church. That will be joined by a piece of 9-11 "sculpture" in the form of a twisted and rusted I-beam from the World Trade Center site that was donated to the town through the efforts of Rich Ryder, the host of WBTN's "Daybreak" radio show. Town Manager Stuart Hurd says that the lighting and landscaping will create a welcoming atmosphere both day and night, and that the park will "create a place for contemplation, relaxation and quiet time."
The total cost of the project is expected to be around $80,000. In addition to the donation by the Bennington Rotary, Bennington Cooling & Heating will donate the piping and pump for the fountain. The town is acting as the financial agent for the project, and any donations -- which are tax deductible -- can be made to the Town of Bennington/ Fountain Committee. The hope of the restoration committee is to involve a broad cross-section of Bennington residents in the financing of the project, from contributions by businesses, individuals, and community groups, to people offering up spare change just as they might throw coins into a fountain while making a wish, a tradition that dates back to Roman-British and Celtic mythology. In this case, the wish is for the restoration of a historic fountain that is a handsome symbol of Bennington's Victorian era, and the improvement of downtown with a pleasantly-enhanced public park.