The fountain of history in Whitewater

Nov. 5, 2014

By Vesna Brajkovic

It begins with a boy and his love for his hometown. It ends with a 17-foot high, 100-year-old fountain sitting on the junction of North and Main streets in Whitewater.

In the middle, there is a boy named Julius Birge – the first child born to William and Mary Alvina Birge, who were among the first pioneers to settle in the Whitewater area. Credited with being the first child born to Europeans settlers in Walworth County, Julius Birge made history before he knew it.

Born Nov. 18, 1839, Birge grew up in Whitewater but spent the majority of his life in St. Louis, Missouri, until his death in 1923 at age 84. He inherited a milling business and “cultivated a substantial livelihood,” according to a 1985 Whitewater Register article.

On July 4, 1903, Julius Birge donated the Birge Fountain, now a historical landmark, to the city of Whitewater. He wanted the fountain to be placed on the former schoolhouse site where he was educated, where it currently stands today.

Main Street was once an Indian trail leading west from Milwaukee, immigrants to the region would camp on this triangular piece of land at the intersections of Main and W. North streets, eat lunch and drink water from the nearby Birge household, according to a 1985 Whitewater Register article.

“It’s really interesting to me that Julius didn’t really live in Whitewater all that long, he was only here in his youth really,” said Lynn Binnie, former Common Council representative for the Birge Fountain Committee. “And it was decades later that he decided to donate the fountain to the city, so that city must of have meant a lot of him from the short time that he lived there.”

The fountain, one of the largest in Walworth County at the time, according to the Whitewater Historic Landmark Guide, was purchased from the J.W. Fiske Company of New York during the winter of 1903.

The fountain was purchased through a type of catalogue, so it is not an original according to a 2003 Daily Jefferson County Union article. Identical fountains, with slightly larger basins, are located in Nova Scotia, Canada and Lancaster, Ohio.

Although it’s not technically an original, it holds a special place in the Whitewater community.

“Since Old Main burned down, it is the most recognizable historical piece of the city,” Binnie said. “It reminds us of our roots.”

The fountain is a two-tiered structure depicting dolphin-riding cherubs holding spears and topped by a female figure known as the “Maid in the Mist,” who is described as a water nymph thought to represent Undine.

Birge Fountain
Birge Fountain

It was originally created in cast iron and zinc. The original material was light and brittle, characteristics that made the fountain an easy target for vandals throughout its history.

The most recent vandalism occurred this summer on May 16, when two people stole a spear from the fountain.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a couple of times when someone has removed the spear, which takes quite a bit of effort to get off of there, and its not an easy thing to replace,” Binnie said. “It’s very disillusioning to the committee, as well as – I’m sure – to the citizens of Whitewater to have somebody vandalizing such a historic monument.”

But previously, the fountain had been on the receiving end of even more drastic vandalism.

In 1983, one of the cherubs was taken from the fountain and later found by police, broken and ditched on Converse road. The cherubs, being only 50 pounds, were relatively easy to be taken.

The fountain is under constant surveillance in front of the Whitewater Chamber of Commerce Building.

Vandalism and aging led way for the fountain to be recast in bronze. In 1984, UW-Whitewater art professor, James Wenkle, donated his services in recasting the cherubs. The cherubs went from 50 pounds to 200 in the recasting.

The Maid also was recast in bronze by Fort Atkinson artist Gerald Saqer.

Most of the working components of the fountain have been replaced with longer-lasting materials so that the fountain can stand the test of time.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email