Freeport asks travelers to help save smiling water tower

The iconic smiley-face water tower in Freeport, Minn.
The iconic smiley-face water tower in Freeport, Minn., is seen on March 5, 2020.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

By Sarah Kocher, St. Cloud Times

What will it take to keep the Freeport water tower happy?

The town is not quite sure yet, but it's asking for $75,000.

The water tower hit centennial status this year, and for many of those years, it's sported a friendly face for travelers along Interstate Highway 94. The Freeport Preservation Committee, a group of Chamber of Commerce members created to help preserve the smiling tower, is spearheading a GoFundMe fundraiser to "Save the Smile."

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"If it has brought a smile to someone else's face, we hope that they're willing to help us out," said Pam Rue, member of the Freeport Preservation Committee and treasurer for the Chamber of Commerce.

In December, the City Council agreed to set aside $2,500 to do an updated study on the water tower's condition. The last one was conducted in 2003, and showed lead and chromium-based paint, Freeport Mayor Mike Eveslage said. In spots where the paint is thin, the tower is also rusting.

The study will not be conducted until spring, the St. Cloud Times reported.

Freeport Preservation Committee member Pam Rue
Freeport Preservation Committee member Pam Rue smiles near a sign at the base of the town's iconic water tower in Freeport, Minn., on March 5, 2020. The Freeport Preservation Committee, a group of Chamber of Commerce members created to help preserve the smiling tower, is spearheading a GoFundMe fundraiser to "Save the Smile."
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times via AP

Fundraising for the tower's improvements, whatever they may be, is an effort to keep the city from a delay in addressing what concerns come up in the study. The city does have a water tower preservation fund, but Eveslage said Freeport is weighing out what it can responsibly spend.

"We don't want to wait another two years for us to ... have to take action," Eveslage said. "We want to grab this and go."

However, if the study comes back with results calling for exorbitant repairs, "we're realists in doing this," he said. "If it comes back at something crazy like that, then yeah, we'll have a talk."

Rue grew up in Freeport and has lived there most her life. When she lived in Fargo for 15 years, people would recognize her hometown because of the water tower. It's a landmark, Rue said. Eveslage has similar stories.

"The smiley part is what connects people to it, feeling that it's more than just a water tower," Rue said. "... Even people that aren't from Freeport I think have a connection to it and feel that connection to what it offers."

The GoFundMe started following a Star Tribune editorial pushing the city to set one up, Eveslage said.

"This has probably been one of the best shot in the arms we could have had to become more engaged and become more active in this," he said.

But attachment to the water tower dates back further. The landmark is the centerpiece of the city's seal. The signature smile is incorporated into the Freeport Chamber of Commerce logo. A water tower — sans smile, but with the same profile as the one standing on the sidelines of Interstate 94 — tops a metal decoration nestled between the eaves in a shelter alongside Lake Wobegon Trail.

It's part of Freeport's brand, Eveslage said, and Freeport wants to do what it can for something that adds novelty to the community.

"It is a little piece of — I don't know if it's Lake Wobegon or Americana or both — that, you know, if it's something that people are attracted to or people notice about it, it's got to be good for us economically," Eveslage said.

The town has a newer water tower that came into commission in 2012 that does the work, a move that made smiling the older water tower's only full-time gig. Eveslage said they thought about putting a smiling face on the new water tower, but "it's about as generic a space shuttle design as you get."

The smiling tower was built after the first one, a wooden water tower, burned down in 1920. At the time, the community raised $12,000 to build the metal tower on donated land. Its smile is a piece of local legend. Some claim a local clambered up and painted the smile one night.

But a Melrose Beacon story of an unknown date cites former city maintenance man Mark Middendorf, who hired high school student Jim Marthaler to work part-time during the summer of 1976. According to the article, it was Marthaler who suggested the smiley face be added when the tower was already being painted, then cut up a refrigerator box as a stencil for the men painting the tower.

"This is stuff that, once it's gone, you don't just put it back up," Eveslage said of the tower.

Eveslage said a lot of positive energy has been generated from people who donate, travel and see the story of the smiling water tower in the media. It's the city's chance to take that momentum and use it to preserve a Freeport cultural landmark.

"It's what makes Freeport home to a lot of people," Rue said. "... I just feel that the skyline of Freeport would never be the same (without it)."