Spray Day: Olcott Park Fountain project winds down with 1st spray

Greg Gilness monitors the final touches being placed on the Olcott Park Fountain in Virginia before it is turned back on Thursday.

VIRGINIA — “It’s time for the big reveal!” said Kathy Merkel with a happy laugh over the phone Wednesday. Merkel is a member of the committee for the Olcott Park Fountain’s restoration and the planned upcoming celebration for this historic event.

The project is almost complete and only a little money is left to be raised, but the Olcott Park Fountain will be dedicated Thursday with a celebration in the park.

Rain or shine, there will be a picnic celebration from 4 to 10 p.m. in Olcott Park. Be sure to bring your lawn chair (and umbrella), and since Thursday doubles as the kickoff night for the Land of the Loon festival, vendors will be ready for you to come enjoy their food and purchase their goods.

Kathy Merkel and other members of the Virginia Community Foundation’s Olcott Park Fountain Restoration Fund committee have been working hard to get to this point.

“I am super excited — it will be absolutely amazing,” Merkel said. “We are bringing back a community icon.”

She recalled being a little girl and visiting Olcott Park with the animals and beautiful fountain. When she moved home after a career in the city she heard there was an opportunity to get involved with bringing the fountain back. “I know I had to get involved. Seeing this project completed is a dream come true.”

Along with music, there will be speakers recalling the history of the fountain and the hard work and dedication of the community to see it restored.

“This project showed the focus and commitment of the community,” Merkel added.

At 4 p.m. The Divas, a local music group, will perform at the gazebo. Speakers and presentations will begin at 5:30 p.m. The main event, the fountain’s first spray, will occur at 6 p.m. The city band will begin their performance at 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., on the fountain’s platform, local music group Bittersweet will perform. There will be speakers at 9 p.m. and the fountain light show will begin at 9:30 p.m.

The Olcott Greenhouse and Historical Heritage Museum will be giving prizes to the first 50 kids under 12 at either location, both of which will be open extended hours for viewing.

Parking will be available at the Parkview Learning Center and the Essentia Hospital parking lot across from the fountain area.

The Olcott Park Fountain Restoration Fund of the Virginia Community Foundation has less than $50,000 left to raise for the completion of the project. This money will go toward final landscaping costs. All contributions to the Olcott Park Restoration Fund of the Virginia Community Foundation are tax deductible.

History rooted in depression

Deep into the Great Depression, men worked in Olcott Park as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). For three years, from 1935-1937, they completed other projects throughout town building the Olcott Greenhouse, Monkey Island and the zoo.

This project was different though — instead of focusing on flora and fauna, the main ingredient was water.

The Olcott Fountain “was put into service on August 16, 1937,” said Greg Gilness during an interview Wednesday. Gilness is the driving force behind the fountain’s restoration and has been part of the project since the beginning.

From memory, ee continued to tell the long-ago history as a story he could see playing out.

“For the area, for that time, it was a tremendous sight,” he said of the original fountain. “It was built with top of the line electricity.” Although the city was electrically wired by 1937, most houses outside of town weren’t.

Gilness explained that over time repairs were needed and with World War II going on, the bronze parts were not possible to get. So, in 1941, the fountain was turned off and not turned back on until 1944.

Years of area residents enjoying the fountain passed, but it soon started to age and repairs became more and more costly.

“The fountain was turned on in 2013 for the Land of the Loon Festival,” Gilness said. This would prove to be for the last time.

People missed the light and water displays. Gilness, an active community member in the Parks and Recreation Department, began to measure the public’s interest in financing a restoration project. The answer came from the mouths of youth.

Chris Holmes was a fifth grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary who worked to teach civic engagement to his students. In the winter of 2014-2015, his students shoveled for the elderly who lived near the school. Although not expected, some gave money to the class.

Continuing the lesson on community engagement, they were encouraged to donate this money. The class chose to donate their money to the restoration of Olcott Park Fountain, a project that had not yet been officially started.

“‘Is there public interest?’ I asked myself,” recalled Gilness. “The answer was yes!”

A community meeting was called and an ad hoc committee was formed. The group decided to request to come under the Virginia Community Foundation and fundraising began.

Now, years later, the project’s completion is within sight. The fountain is working and the stonework is completed. All that remains is landscaping and installation of trash bins and benches.

“I never anticipated that this project would run this long.” Not that he is counting, but Gilness said this is his 51st month on this project — four years and three months. “The committee has been amazing. There are about 15 members who have always been committed and stayed with this project.”

So far, the Olcott Park Fountain Restoration Fund has raised over $1,060,000, 60% from private sources. The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation has contributed $320,000, the Virginia Community Foundation has given support and resources and the city of Virginia has given $100,000 along with in-kind labor.

“This event is going to be a historic moment in the history of Virginia,” said Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr., over the phone Wednesday, when asked about the fountian’s dedication event. “I’m really excited about this. The city is very excited about this.”

On Wednesday, Parks and Recreation Director Brian Silver was seen helping with final touches. With his jeans rolled up to his knees, he waded through the filled fountain from one underwater light fixture to the next, making adjustments.

Two older sisters, just released for summer vacation, wheeled their baby brother around the observation area in a stroller. A Caterpillar, used to collect remaining construction debris, crawled toward a truck to dump its load.

An older couple on a walk through the park stopped to rest and look at the fountain.

“The fountain is the centerpiece of Olcott Park,” said Cuffe. “It has sat dormant for years.” He stated his gratitude for the group that organized and raised funds for its restoration.

“Where the city and other organizations have failed, this grassroots committee has succeeded to restore this fountain to be enjoyed for generations to come.”

But it isn’t done.

The city and its residents must wait for the grass to grow and the Juniper bushes to be planted and mature for all to be complete. But during the wait, they will be entertained by the programmable water and lighting features and entertained by music playing through the new speaker system.

While the community waits for Mother Nature, several area couples have already begun to plan weddings at the fountain.

“It would be a great place for anniversary parties and photos, too,” said Gilness.

Those interested in hosting an event at Olcott Park should contact the Parks and Recreation Department.

“It is good to see this project come to an end,” said Gilness, thinking back over his years given to the fountain. “I’ve always wanted to be a contributing member in the community I live. It has been very satisfying seeing people step up and help with this project.”

Gilness said his biggest regret, the one that rings in his ears, is that of the donors who have passed before the project was completed. “Losing John Bachman was very tough.”

Bachman, a former director of the Parks and Recreation Department, worked with Gilness on this project from the beginning saying he wanted this to be his final hurrah before his retirement. He died in 2016, the weekend of the Land of the Loon Festival, never seeing the project complete.

This Land of the Loon, however, the Olcott Park Fountain will spray again.

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