by Suzanne Daub
On March 4 of 2020, Nantucket lost a beloved artifact when a motorist (reportedly suffering from glare) struck and broke the iconic fountain that stood on Main Street for more than a century.
Donated to the town in 1885, the fountain was originally installed at the top of Main Street. It was connected to a water main, and the lower, round basin was used to water horses. Spigots higher up provided fresh water for people. Eight years later, when street lighting was installed, the fountain was moved to the bottom of Main Street and disconnected from the water main.
Extensive research done by Hillary Hedges Rayport, Chair of the Nantucket Historical Commission, revealed a number of little-known facts about the fountain, which she shared with us.
The information she found reveals that there were at least two public fountains on Main Street in the 1880s. An article in a July 22, 1893 edition of The Inquirer & Mirror (from the online newspaper archives created and kept by the Nantucket Atheneum) mentions a special Town Meeting called to discuss relocating the fountain “on the Upper Square,” to which the Water Company had been s u p p l y i n g water free of charge, but wanted to begin to charge the town $100 per year. The article goes on to state “The offer is made that, should the fountain be relocated on the Lower Square, in place of the small one now in front of the Pacific Club room, the annual water rent will be $75.”
Further reference in the article to the second fountain reads “In case of the relocation, to set the smaller one on Orange street, near the residence of Mr. Allen Smith, and furnish water free during warm weather.”
An article Rayport found in The Nantucket Journal dated August 3, 1893 reports that “the committee on fountains” voted to move the fountain in front of W.T. Devlan & Co.’s store “to some point in the middle of Main street between the Pacific bank and the Pacific club room… the exact locality has not yet been determined on, but the committee are thinking strongly of placing it opposite Federal street.” The article also confirms that the fountain that was on the Lower Square was to be moved to Orange street “as suggested by the Wannacomet Water Co.”
Rayport found another article published 30 years later about issues with the public fountain that had been moved to the Lower Square on Main Street. She shared with us an article in the Atheneum archives that was published in a July 21, 1923 edition of The Inquirer & Mirror. This article, actually more of an opinion piece, was entitled “Fountain in The Way of Traffic. Selectmen Perplexed.” and refers to the problem of traffic congestion due to the fountain:
“…if a team drives along from the northward, through South Water street, and the horse stops at the fountain for a drink, all traffic coming from the north is held up until the horse is through and the driver chuckles to him to move along. The same thing occurs if a team drives up from lower Main street and the driver turns the horse in towards South Water street and stops at the fountain.”
The article also covers some history, stating that the fountain was “first placed on Main street in 1882” close to the curb opposite Orange Street: “the fountain then quenches thirst of both man and beast, and four heavy iron drinking cups were fastened to chains which dangled from the bowl. Men and boys — and women, too—drank from those iron cups—germ laden we presume—but in those days there was not such a grand fight against the poor little germ as there is today.”
In 1932, the lower section of Main Street and the fountain there were dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Max Wagner, husband of Jennie Macy who was a decendant of one of the first English families to settle on Nantucket. Lt. Wagner was a member of the 26th Massachusetts Regiment who died of wounds he received fighting in the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War.
Over the decades, the Lt. Max Wagner Memorial Fountain has become a much photographed island landmark. Though the incident last March was not the first time the structure had been damaged, it was the first time in recent memory that it had to be removed for such a length of time. Now, nearly nine months after the accident, according to DPW Director Robert McNeil, the fountain repairs are almost complete. “We expect to have it back in the beginning of December, some time before Christmas,” he said.
McNeil explained that the wrought iron fountain had been repaired several times over the past century, but that this repair is a “complete restoration” being done by Cassidy Brothers Forge, a restoration specialist in Rowley, Mass. He also mentioned that it took a considerable amount of time between March and September to negotiate an agreement with the insurance company to fund the repair.
“Having the opportunity to do a full restoration is great, and I’m delighted to be a part of it,” McNeil commented, “I learned a lot during the procedure.
“When I first arrived on the island, the paint on the fountain was chipped and fading. It was such a focal point, and I thought it would be a good idea to have it repainted, also Max Wagner’s plaque had not been serviced in a long time. So we made it one of the priorities to have it painted. We put the primer on it on a Friday… the amount of phone calls we got over the weekend…” McNeil chuckled “… it caused SUCH a stir. I was not expecting that. It was quite an introduction to Nantucket. In the end it looked great… up until it got hit. I know the Garden Club is dying to have it back!”
In 1973, the Nantucket Garden Club took responsiblity for adorning the fountain seasonally and caring for the plantings. “We do it year-round,” explained Garden Club President Maryann Wasik, “it’s a labor of love for us, and quite an undertaking: getting the plants, putting them in, and making sure it gets watered— that’s one of the hardest parts, it gets quite dry during the summer months. We’re happy to do it…Jill Sandole has been doing it for years and Dottie Gennaro has been helping this year with the urn.”
McNeil thought it was important to maintain something where the fountain stood until it could be replaced so that drivers did not get accustomed to the fountain not being there. Bartlett’s Farm donated the urn, and the Garden Club members “have been doing our best with it.”
“We will be absolutely thrilled to have the fountain back—it’s important to us,” Wasik commented. “Jill and Heidi Drew have already planted spring bulbs indoors to prepare for a massive display come spring.”
Most island residents and many visitors have missed seeing the beautiful decorations in the historic fountain and will be happy to see it back in place on Main Street. As McNeil put it: the return of the fountain “will be another sign of the good that is yet to come in 2021.”