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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: A fount of inspiration for community spirit years ago

This undated postcard shows the original bird-shaped headpiece of the 122-year-old fountain that long has been a symbol of Marion’s Central Park.

One of Marion’s most iconic though rarely featured landmarks is an active reminder of how rival factions with a city can unite behind an enduring goal.

The 122-year-old fountain in Central Park has stood the test of time as a monument to the community spirit that created a park that almost wasn’t.

Original settler Levi Billings had gradually purchased the land that now comprises the park since arriving in town.

After many years of maintaining it and another park, the area just south of present-day Marion Marble and Granite, for the common good, he began looking in 1887 to recover some of his cost and hired a surveyor to begin subdividing the land into lots he would sell off.

He offered the undivided land to the city for $10,000 — the equivalent of more than $269,000 today — but several attempts to purchase it met with legal challenges and voter opposition.

Seven years later, after the park had fallen victim to vandalism and neglect, he cut his price to $1,000, and in a somewhat controversial move, the city became the park’s owner.

Billings later donated the $1,000 to help pay for construction of the state’s first YMCA building, a magnificent three-story stone structure, destroyed by fire in 1955, diagonally adjacent to the park at the northwest corner of 5th and Main Sts. in Marion.

Record editor E.W. Hoch, who later became Kansas governor, was among the park’s biggest supporter.

Just two years after its purchase, he called for the addition of what, for more than a century afterward, would become its enduring image.

“The more we see of Central Park the prouder we are of it,” he wrote in 1896. “Every member of the city government who helped to save that splendid property . . . deserves the everlasting gratitude of every citizen.

“The pittance of $1,000 paid for it was the best expenditure ever spent by Marion. Not for ten times the amount could the city afford to part with it.

“Let every citizen feel a greater and greater interest in it. Let it be sacredly guarded. Let the boy or man who would damage a tree in it be counted a public enemy and treated as such. Let us improve it and adorn it as fast as possible.

“Let the opening out to the street be filled with trees next spring. Let the speaker’s stand be finished and painted red, white, and blue. Let generous private donations, if possible, provide a handsome fountain for the park. Let some flowerbeds adorn the place. Let those squirrels be protected. Let a bridge be built across the Luta. Let a permanent approach to the spring be made.

“In a word, let the interest and ingenuity of all our citizens be aroused to devise and execute plans for the improvement of that beautiful and immensely valuable possession.”

Soon enough, trees were planted. The speakers’ stand was finished and painted. A foot bridge across Luta Creek, which at the time meanderingly bisected the park, was built.

But the fountain needed more than just Hoch behind it, and its birth came like a phoenix from the ashes of another local institution.

In 1897, Caroline (Riddle) Doster, wife of Hoch’s political rival, persevering populist Frank Doster, soon to become chief justice of the state supreme court, wrote an open letter that appeared in Hoch’s paper.

Marion’s library association, of which she had been treasurer, had not operated for years, yet it still had a balance of nearly $100 in an account that somehow had managed to survive the failure of the bank that housed it during the Panic of 1893.

She proposed using the money as the seed for building the fountain Hoch had envisioned, and she backed it up by organizing a musical comedy benefit, featuring music by the community’s Choral Union and monologues by her 16-year-old daughter, who went on to become famous New York portrait and still-life artist and teacher Lenore Doster Cooke.

With money flowing, the fountain soon would be, too.

A month later, a decorative eight-foot-tall statue, bronzed at no charge by local painter Bernard Apel, was installed on a platform in a concrete excavation 12 feet wide under the management of noted Marion architect Fred Lewis, who later oversaw construction of the state historical society building in Topeka and classroom buildings at state colleges in Emporia and Pittsburg.

The fountain was spewing forth by the next spring and has done so for 121 years since, losing only the original top piece of its statuary.

City council members followed up in 1899 with an ordinance to ensure tranquility of the park, making it unlawful in the park:

  • “To kill, main, or injure in any manner whatever, or throw at or strike at, any squirrel or bird.”
  • “To play any game of cards or dive or bring in or drink any beer, malt, vinous, or other intoxicating liquor.”
  • “To use any profane, obscene, vulgar or indecent language.”
  • “For any male person or persons to loiter about or enter the ladies’ privy.”
  • “To take any dog or dogs in or allow any dog or dogs belonging to them to follow or remain with them.”
  • “To place, hang, or erect any swing or hammock.”

Last modified July 31, 2019

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