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Bennington Rotary to Donate Fountain

May 5, 2010

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After two and a half years of planning, fund-raising and considerable work to remove rust and refurbish it with four coats of black paint, the historic Victorian-era fountain from the old Bennington Graded School will be activated and turned over to the town of Bennington by the Bennington Rotary Club in a presentation ceremony on May 28.

"This has been a labor of love for our club. We have been thrilled to restore a piece of Bennington's history and help add to the beauty of our modern-day downtown," said Lisa Byer, the president of the Bennington Rotary Club, whose members contributed $10,000 and did much of the restoration work. "Now that the fountain has found a new home, I can't wait for the water to begin flowing! I have no doubt that it will be enjoyed for generations to come."

The new home will be in the small park -- to be renamed Memorial Fountain Park -- between the Superior Courthouse and the old stone blacksmith's shop on South Street that houses the Better Bennington Corp. While the fountain itself has been restored and set into a new stone basin, the park will continue to be a work in progress for some time to come, with funds still being raised and work being done to add walkways, a low wall, and landscaping (ornamental trees, lilacs, and flowers) intended to provide a tranquil setting in downtown Bennington.

It also will be the site of a twisted and rusted piece of metal I-beam that was recovered from the World Trade Center site after the terrorist attack, along with the 9/11 memorial bench already in place, which was donated by the Baptist Church. Individual memorial benches are expected to be added as well, the first of them in memory of Thomas Bluto.

Eventually, the fountain will be lighted, but for the moment it will operate only in daylight hours. The ornate fountain is about eight feet tall, with two spill basins for water to cascade over, a pineapple top, and a whimsical base that has otters peering through bullrushes. It was first brought to Bennington in 1874, which was 15 years before the Bennington Battle Monument was completed.

It's not known just when or where it was cast, but it was donated by A.B. Valentine, a local mill owner, to be placed in front of the newBennington Graded School, which was a large Renaissance-style building with a Mansard roof tower that was located on School Street, next to the Walloomsac River and just west of Valentine's knitting mill.

At the time it was built, the Graded School was one of the largest and most impressive in the state. It also was considered a progressive idea, since it was an early attempt to consolidate many small neighborhood schools into a single large and well-equipped one. Although called the "Graded School," it also housed the high school until 1914, and for a time also included a "Normal School," where high school graduates, most of them women, were trained to become teachers. "The fountain is important to Bennington for several reasons," says Jerry Albert, who helped steer the Rotary Club's project. "It's older than the battle monument, so it's historic in its own right. It's a reminder of Bennington's commitment to education. And it's a reminder of our industrial past, when there were many mills here like Valentine's that operated with water power."

The Graded School was demolished in 1954, and the fountain -- by then not functioning and badly rusted -- was salvaged by the late Milton Surdam, a local mason, just as it was about to be hauled off to the dump. Surdam, who had attended the Graded School, asked if he could have it instead, telling the demolition crew, "I've always liked it." He then hired a wrecker to haul it to his home, where he and his family cleaned it up, painted it, and got it working again.

The restoration project grew out of a Bennington Rotary Club luncheon more than two years ago at which Robert Matteson was talking about Bennington in years past and mentioned that he missed the fountains that had disappeared one by one. After that talk, the Surdam family offered to donate the fountain back to the community, and the Rotary Club voted to take on the fountain restoration as a project.

Advice on rust removal through electrolysis was given by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, and it was decided to paint it black, which Anne Bugbee, who did research on the fountain, thinks may have been the original color. At some point it may have been painted green, and old pictures show that in the period around 1900 it was painted white. Such fountains were common in the Victorian era, and often were mass-produced, like Civil War monuments. Many of them were lost over time, either rusted into ruin or melted down in wartime scrap drives. Bennington had a large number of them, both public and private. There were private fountains at the Park-McCullough House in North Bennington; at the Henry Putnam home; at the G.S. Bradford home; and at the Everett Estate, which now is on the Southern Vermont College campus.

There also was a fountain installed in 1866 at the Hunt estate at Maple Grove, which later became the Veterans Home, that drew water from Battles Brook, 6,600 feet away.

The 30-foot drop from the brook down to Maple Grove allowed the gravity-fed fountain to have enough pressure to throw jets of water more than 100 feet into the air, which was said to be the highest of any private fountain in the country at the time.

In addition to the Graded School fountain, the public fountains were a large cast iron fountain at the entrance to the Village Cemetery on Route 9, where Stewart's Ice Cream Shop now is located; a cobblestone fountain in the school yard at the St. Frances de Sales Elementary School; and a granite fountain placed in Old Bennington by the National Humane Alliance in 1907 to provide drinking water both for horses (from the top) and for dogs (from the bottom).

That last still exists in a traffic island on Monument Avenue, updated with two bronze lion heads sculpted by Elaine Franz Witten in 1991 to replace the originals, which had long ago disappeared.

In addition to the Rotary Club volunteers, the project was helped by others who either donated time and materials or provided them at cost, including wiring by Hathaway Electric; piping by Bennington Cooling and Heating; masonry by Surdam Masonry and McGovern Masonry; design work by M.P. McDonough Architect; concrete work by Tatro Concrete and excavation by the Town Highway Department.

Author: Dawson Raspuzzi
Compliments of: The Bennington Banner

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