Historic Iron Range fountain comes back to life

The restored Olcott Park Fountain in Virginia, Minn.
The restored Olcott Park Fountain in Virginia, Minn., is seen on June 12, 2019, just before resuming operation.
Courtesy of Greg Gilness

A historic fountain built during the Great Depression that was closed for six years after falling into disrepair is once again spraying water and dazzling crowds in the Iron Range city of Virginia.

The Olcott Park Fountain was built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration, an employment and infrastructure program created during the Depression.

It featured a handcrafted, sunken stone pool 60 feet across, an observation deck, and colored lights that sparkled in the streams of water — and it was a destination.

"Every parent would get their kids into their pajamas, and head over to the fountain site," recalled Greg Gilness, who grew up in Virginia during the 1950s. If he was lucky, he said, they'd get ice cream at the Tastee-Freez afterwards.

But it gradually wore down. Spare parts for a fountain built in the 1930s became increasingly difficult to find. The pumps failed. By 2013, it was shut off, and Gilness said it had become clear that it either needed to be repaired or torn down.

The historic Olcott Park Fountain in Virginia, Minn.
The historic Olcott Park Fountain in Virginia, Minn., is seen in September 1938. The fountain was restored and resumed operation in June 2019.
Courtesy of Greg Gilness

Gilness, who was on the Parks and Recreation Commission for the city of Virginia at the time, tried to secure grants to rehabilitate the fountain. But he said they never met the grant criteria. So, in 2017, he called a community meeting, a last-ditch effort to see if there was enough local interest to try to save it.

To his surprise, 40 people showed up, eager to help. Gilness said it was then he knew there was broad community interest in trying to save the fountain. They organized a committee through the Virginia Community Foundation, and started fundraising.

Four years later, after securing $100,000 from the city of Virginia, along with donations from 1,400 mainly local people and businesses — as well as many anonymous donations — they had raised more than $600,000.

Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state agency that funnels revenue from iron ore mines back into northeastern Minnesota communities, agreed to kick in one-third of the cost, if volunteers raised the other two-thirds.

"They were pretty sure we weren't going to make it," said Gilness, laughing, but he said they stood by their word.

All total, they raised more than $1 million. Work on restoring the fountain began in 2017. Underground pumps were installed last fall. When the ground finally thawed in May, Gilness said they tested the fountain for the first time.

"They hit the start button and there it went. The jets were working and the pumps were working. It was a feeling of relief."

The fountain officially opened Thursday night. When it finally got dark, the new LED lights turned on — green, red, yellow and other bright colors, the light playing off the streams of water — 60 percent more water than the old fountain.

The Olcott Park Fountain seen at night
The Olcott Park Fountain, built in 1937, was closed for six years but is now active again in Virginia, Minn.
Courtesy photo by Steve Lah

"The darker it gets the more illuminated it gets," said Gilness. It's very vibrant, very bright; it has a tremendous effect."

Gilness said at the event celebrating the restoration, people who had grown up in Virginia shared their stories of major life events that had happened in front of the old fountain.

"They talked about getting engaged at the fountain, their first kiss, all those romantic things," he said.

Work isn't quite complete on the fountain. Gilness said they need to raise about another $50,000 to complete landscaping. But he said people have told him they're already planning to have engagement parties and wedding photos in front of the newly restored fountain.

"That was gratifying, to hear how gratifying and how grateful people were for having this back in service," he said. "It meant a lot to so many people."

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