Lady of the Fountain’s History Unfolds in The Comet Newspaper

Today's column  is the first of three articles dealing with the Lady of the Fountain's origin in downtown Johnson City. The other two pieces are larger feature stories presenting my research that spans 1894 (when the fountain was first conceived) to 1909 (when it became fully operational).

Lady of the Fountain on Fountain Square (Archives of Appalachia, Wofford “Pat” Watson Collection)

Former Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, Marianne Odom, wrote an article for the paper in August, 1983. Her work coincided with Lady's returned to Johnson City from Henderson, NC to resume her role as a part of the city's past and future. She had been absent 46 years.

The Lady measures seven and a half feet tall, which includes the vase on her shoulder. The dedication ceremony was held on Sept. 20 that year. The figure that once graced Fountain Square found a new home inside the Johnson City Public Library that acquired the land on the north side of Mayne Williams Library after the old Science Hill High School was razed and the hill leveled. About 30 people attended the ceremony that day.

Mayor Raymond Huff described himself as one of the few residents of Johnson City who could actually remember the figure in her original resting place and then proclaimed Sept. 20 as “Lady of the Fountain Day.” The statue was placed in the main lobby of the library, surrounded by live plants.

In the early 1900s, Mayor James A. Summers and other city officials voted to erect a fountain on the square to honor U.S. Rep. Walter Preston Brownlow. The congressman had been instrumental in making Johnson City the location of the Mountain Branch of the National Homes for Disabled Veterans, today known as the Mountain Home VA Medical Center.

I consulted Carol Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator, of the Smithsonian Institute and was told that our statue was definitely the “Greek Water Carrier,” sculptured by Alan George Newman (1875–1940) and copyrighted in 1905 by the J.L. Mott Iron Works (118-120 Fifth Avenue, NY). The water fountain below the statue was fabricated at a Lenoir City foundry, which also did railroad repair work.

In 1937, the fountain had to be moved to correct traffic problems at Fountain Square. The Lady was relocated from downtown to Roosevelt (later renamed Memorial) Stadium where she stood near the Doughboy statue. Later the city hauled the fountain to the city dump.

Fortunately, the statue was saved from metal recycling by Alice Summers, who acquired her and kept her in a barn for several years before shipping her to Henderson, North Carolina to grace the garden of Mr. and Mrs. John Zollicoffer. Mrs. Zollicoffer was the former Helen Summers of Johnson City. Her son has been very helpful in piecing together the history of the Lady.

Members of the Chamber of Commerce became interested in the statue several years later. At Johnson City's Centennial, Dan Wexler, Jr. managed to locate the figure in the private Henderson, NC garden.

When contacted by members of the chamber, the owners were unwilling to part with the piece, which had by that time fallen into severe disrepair. Her legs were cracked and concrete had been used to repair the damage.

Later, however, she was dedicated to the city and shipped back in 1983. Several local residents were instrumental in obtaining the Lady's return.

Mike Rose, a Carter County high school teacher and sculptor, was asked to restore the piece to her original beauty. With the help of several students, the team began stripping paint and removing concrete from the base of the statue.

Rose and his students used special materials to repair the cracks and returned the statue to her original slate blue color. The cost of the project was in excess of $5,000.

My two upcoming features, providing added details from old newspapers about the early days of the beautiful Lady of the Fountain, will occur in a few weeks.