Fountains of history bubble in Barker Commons

These objects have stood for well over 100 years while history, like a parade through time, has unfolded. Countless people have stopped to admire their beauty and enjoy the cool mist from them on a hot summer day. These icons are the centerpiece of Fredonia’s Barker Commons. Nearly every local person is familiar with the twin Mark Fountains in the park.

Visitors are sure to notice the quaint fountains, particularly at such events as community festivals. Parents from across the state and beyond see them as they bring their children to college in Fredonia. Who knows how many photographs have been taken in front of them throughout all seasons?

The accompanying photo captures a moment 64 years ago this fall when one mother came to visit her daughter, a college freshman.It’s a good time to once again appreciate and revisit our fountains’ history before they are turned off because of the upcoming cold weather.

Ashes figure into the real beginning of the current fountains. In fact, ashes were the key to much of the earliest development of western New York and our county. Ashes and tons of them. Potash and pearl ash.

Some may recall that this was a huge industry in the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Settlers burned felled trees as they cleared the land of the dense forests. The resulting ashes were liquefied with added water and boiled in a pot until “black salt” remained. Used for gunpowder, this could be further processed under high temperatures to make pearl ash, which was in high demand in Europe for the making of glass, soap, and preparing wool for the textile industry. The makers of the ashes earned good money. A chapter from a book by P. Keesler states that a large elm could produce 200 pounds of black salts which was enough to purchase two acres of land. This “black gold” was one early business of the Mark family who established a local ashery the early 1800s. It was Charles Mark who donated the fountains at a cost of over $2000 a significant amount of money in 1900.

The fountains have always been important and a centerpiece of the village as evidenced by an earlier set in the Commons as early as 1858 that included naiads (female spirits) and dolphins, with basins that were 20 feet in diameter, as well as a bird fountain on the west side of the park. Over time with wear and tear, Charles Mark offered to donate the present fountains to the village in 1900. Minutes from the Board of Trustees in that year include a letter from Mr. Mark. In part it said, “I desire to present the village of Fredonia two fountains with coping for basins and with eight vases for flowers to be placed on the coping of each fountain.” He listed a few conditions, one of which was that the village would keep the fountains in good repair and painted bronze. Another was to furnish sufficient water to make a good display during the summer.

The village of Fredonia has done a fine job maintaining its fountains, especially considering their advanced age. They have had to be repaired over the years, and once restored to their original form back in the summer of 1991 under the direction of Robert Booth, then chairman of the college’s arts department. Layers of paint were chipped away and damaged parts were recast to give them more stability. An article in the OBSERVER at that time noted how such fine details as finding two birds’ feet were discovered on the west fountain. Mr. Booth and his small crew figured out what type of bird it had been and then molded and casted a replica. The east fountain had to have similar research and work done on recreating an ostrich.

During the work that summer, Mr. Booth noted how surprised he was by the number of people who traveled through the park and how it really is a focus for the village. Some 22 years later, festivals and music as well the lighting of the Christmas tree occur in the commons. The fountains have witnessed it all and remain a treasure for the village.

The freshman who posed at the fountain in the fall of 1949, has her 60th SUNY Fredonia class reunion this October. Rosamond Gillespie Burns and a number of former classmates are looking forward to meeting again and will most likely reminisce of their “yesterday” times in good old Fredonia when tuition was free.

It is also interesting to note that according to the collected research and artifacts at the Fredonia Barker Museum, the Mark Fountains were manufactured by the well-known firm of J.W. Fiske. Sound familiar? This is the same crafter of the Neptune fountain of Dunkirk. Those who know history recall that this fountain was originally in front of the Brooks Locomotive Works and then beautifully graced Washington Park. It was nothing short of beautiful with the spray, lights, and garden. In time, it fell into disrepair and was removed from the park and put in storage. It too was restored by Robert Booth in 2001 and under the direction of the Dunkirk Historical Society, is housed indoors at the college.

When will it happily spray water again as a fountain should remains to be seen. Also a treasure, it needs a home where it can be protected, but like Fredonia, it also deserves to take its place in history and be the centerpiece of Dunkirk where it can be enjoyed by all its citizens. Perhaps at the waterfront that’s something Fredonia doesn’t have.

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