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MEMORIES IN FOCUS:   It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it

MARION HISTORICAL MUSUEM PHOTO

For nearly three decades, street-sprinkling wagons like this one, owned and operated at the turn of the century by Karl Gottleib Kline (1842-1907), also known as Carl Klein, were commonplace on Marion’s unpaved Main St. Wagons were hired by businesses and others to spray water that would reduce dust and wash away horse manure and urine. In this photo, Kline’s wagon was in front of the city fire station at the time in the 100 block of W. Main St., just east of present- day Arlie’s Collision Specialists.

By the end of the 1880s, Marion had a thriving business district, an impressive array of stone buildings, a rapidly growing population that exceeded today’s, and a serious problem.

The heart of town was Main St., but the street was little more than a graded patch of dirt. In wet weather, it was a quagmire. In dry weather, it was even worse.

Dust settled on everything from desktops to fresh produce in downtown stores. And it wasn’t just dirt. Manure and urine from horses traversing the busy street combined to create not just offensive odor but also significant health hazards — tuberculosis, cholera, and polio.

The cloud of dust raised by a hearty “Hi ho, Silver!” of the day not only would have obscured vision and choked breathing. It also could have been lethal.

Modern technology had a solution, patented just a few years earlier: street sprinklers — horse-drawn water tanks that would spray down the dust and wash the manure and urine off to the side.

Pleas for street sprinkling were commonplace in newspapers of the late 1880s, as the city more than doubled in population over 10 years.

The first to step up and provide the service was not the city but a private businessman —veterinarian Samuel Crosson Freeland (1859-1947), owner of Rink Livery, a roller rink turned stable at 1st and Main Sts.

“Mr. Freeland has fitted up a fine street sprinkler and has kept the dust properly subdued this week,” the Record wrote in April 1888. “He has asked no support for the project as far, preferring to exhibit its merits first, but we are confident our businessmen will not let him stop the good work for lack of necessary support.”

Freeland continued to operate the service on a subscription basis — typically, 25 cents a week ($6.75 in today’s dollars) from each business — until 1893, when Charles Silas Locklin (1866-1958) took over.

Charley’s first year was not easy, and the problems were less local than global.

Protectionist tariffs supported by President William McKinley amid an economic panic led to unexpected increases in prices of many local goods — including water needed to make street-sprinkling work.

In those days, water wasn’t something city government supplied. A private waterworks sold water to businesses and homes in town.

“Manufacturers of this much needed commodity have taken advantage of the protection afforded to home industries by the McKinley bill and raised the price 25 cents a day to Main St. consumers,” the Marion Headlight, later to merge with the Record, wrote in September 1893. “This is unfortunate, especially at this time, when the southern September breezes are transferring real estate to the discomfort of Main St. loafers.

“The only solution to the perplexing problem is the ownership of the waterworks by the municipality, which would afford the city an abundance of pure, unadulterated contents of Mud Creek as a minimal cost and do away with the monopoly that is now forcing the businessmen on Main St. to go dry.”

Public ownership of the waterworks didn’t happen until 1908, but prices settled down enough to allow subscription spraying to resume in April 1895.

Still, there were other challenges. Water was pumped from the river by windmills. On calm days, the waterworks could not provide enough water for the sprinkler to operate.

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad came to the rescue, supplying a steam-powered pump for the waterworks in exchange for free water to fill its engines passing through town.

“With wind power for general and constant use,” the Marion Register wrote, “the steam pump will be used only a short time, at intervals of several days, and yet be sufficient to supply all possible demands.”

Pumping at a rate of 500 gallons per minute, the Register said, it could fill the waterworks’ 60,000 gallon supply tank in two hours.

Not all communities in the state were as supportive of street-sprinkling — a fact that Marion editorialists were eager to point out.

“The queerest parade ever witnessed in Hutchinson was given on Main St. there July 3,” the Headlight wrote in 1901. “The city refused to pay for sprinkling Main St., and the work was done on the subscription plan. Some of the merchants refused to contribute, and as a result the street sprinklers went on a strike.

“The dust was terrible, and between 50 and 100 citizens made a parade, headed by a brass band. Everybody in the procession carried sprinkling cans and scattered water on Main St.”

Karl Gottleib Kline (1842-1907), also known as Carl Klein, eventually took over the street-sprinkling business, enhancing it by purchasing a more modern sprinkler in 1902 at a cost of $250 ($7,500 today).

“It will be an ornament to the streets as well as an improvement over the old one,” the Record wrote, “and we hope our businessmen and others will appreciate this enterprise on the part of Mr. Klein and give him the liberal support he and his good work deserve.”

A year later, he sold the business to Isaac Kuhn (1839-1914). A year after that, amputee Cy Allen, seriously injured in a boiler explosion at a feed mill in 1890, purchased the service and operated it.

“Cy’s cork leg and other infirmities limit his possible occupations,” the Record wrote in 1904. “Our people will mix fine sentiment with good business in patronizing him.”

Street sprinkling continued as a spring-through-fall ritual even for a while after the advent of automobiles and the paving of Main St. in 1912. Fred Bender (1871-1952) purchased the business from Allen in 1915. Few references to street sprinkling exist in Marion papers after 1917.

Last modified Oct. 3, 2019

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