On the way home yesterday afternoon I stopped at this little park at the end of Erin Street, a place that, because it's a bit off the beaten track, I haven't visited for years, even though it's in my part of town. As far as I can tell, the park has no name, though it's often referred to as "the former pedestrian entrance to the Vilas Park Zoo." [View photo large on black.]
The fountain, however, does have a name -- the Annie C. Stewart Memorial Fountain. Viewing it through the surrounding trees is like looking through a crack in time at a much earlier Madison, one whose past has always been disappearing as its future was being built. [View photo large on black.]
One thing that disappeared was the Dividing Ridge, a long glacial gravel ridge between Lake Wingra and Lake Monona, that was 75 feet high in some places and as wide as 150 feet. The fountain stands on the last little remnant of this ridge, which was totally leveled starting in 1870 to provide gravel for Madison streets. With the Loss of the Dividing Ridge, Madison lost not only a scenic feature, but a lot of Native American history as well. Historic Madison recalls what had been there.
The ridge was used by ancient Native Americans as a campsite and workshop. A trail wound along the crest, and another followed its base on the Lake Monona side. It was also a ceremonial site; over the centuries at least 25 effigy mounds were built on the center portion of the ridge, some as much as ten feet tall. Many more mounds were created on the northern and southern ends of the ridge. Among the shapes were thunderbird, water spirit, turtle, conical, and linear. Many of the mounds served as graves.Archaeologist Charles E. Brown said of the loss, “the destruction of the Dividing Ridge was a crime which should never have been perpetuated. It was one of Madison’s most charming scenic features.”
In 1859 Increase A. Lapham, Wisconsin’s first scientist, platted the mounds as part of his survey of the antiquities of Wisconsin. By that time some of the mounds had already been damaged by settlers making “improvements” to land they’d purchased upon the ridge, and others had been excavated by relic seekers. In the decades that followed the Dividing Ridge yielded fireplaces, flint chips, numerous skeletons, arrowheads, potsherds, grooved stone axes, a copper awl, and a clay trade pipe.
Perhaps what remains of the Dividing Ridge is cursed. Certainly the fountain that stands there now has shared in this history of despoliation. It was vandalized not long after it was erected in 1925, as DANEnet recounts in their Brief History of the Vilas Neighborhood.
At the end of Erin Street, above the black bears in the Vilas Zoo, is a fountain. Water no longer pours from the marble conch shell cradled in the mermaid's arms, but it once did. The water filled a basin that today collects leaves, a sorry memorial to Annie Stewart, in whose memory the fountain was erected. The site was given to the city in 1911, and Frederic J. Clasgens, an artist who studied with Rodin, was selected to design the fountain. He devised concentric circles and shallow basins, spilling into a concrete basin and capped by a Triton, a mermaid and a porpoise. Water filled smaller shells at various levels, to provide drinking water for adults and children.Now the fountain is the oldest work in the Madison Arts Commission's colection, and one of the works most in need of repair at a time of tight resources. Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf was interviewed a couple years ago in a Wisconsin State Journal story, "Madison's public sculptures are decaying," about the challenges.
Mary E. Stewart provided funds for the project, but she never saw the completed memorial to her daughter, Annie. Frank Stewart, Annie's father, was a clerk in federal court. He and his wife died before World War I, when work on the fountain was interrupted. Finally, in 1942 1,500 pounds of Vermont marble was shipped to Clasgens in Cincinnati. He sculpted it and shipped it on to Madison. The fountain was completed in 1925. E.N. Warner, president of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association, said of the fountain that year, "It will be highly cherished and admired by the Madison citizens and the thousands of visitors from other parts of the state and country who come to the park each year."
But the fountain, and memory of Annie Stewart, have not survived well. By 1931, vandals had attacked the fountain with sledge hammers or other similar tools. They destroyed the Triton figure and the drinking fountains. No attempts were made to restore them.
Wolf said the Annie C. Stewart Fountain at the old entrance to the Vilas Zoo, the oldest piece in the city's collection, is in terrible disrepair. "There are those who have tried to save the fountain in the past and say it can't be done, that it is too expensive," Wolf said. "I think we can do it and I would like to resurrect their effort."So far nobody has stepped forward, and given all the other problems the city faces now, it doesn't seem likely any time soon. Time will likely continue to have its way with the fountain. If nothing else, what remains of the Divding Ridge will continue to be a quiet, melancholy place to contemplate time and change and the price we pay for progress.
The fountain hasn't worked in years and collects trash, [former conservator of the state Capitol Anton] Rajer wrote, and pieces of the original statuary are missing or broken.
Restoring the fountain is a mountain, Wolf said. "If you know anyone with an extra $150,000 and a passion for history and art, it would be the cable car ride to the top," she added.