Sunday 31 August 2014

The origin of the Blacksmith Fountain

As noted in an earlier post, St. George's Square is the centre of some controversy. The Square is due for some infrastructure upgrades and, it is proposed, some reconfiguration. More specifically, one proposal calls for the establishment of a large island in its middle. The island would be the site of various attractions and events, as yet not specified.

In that earlier post, I summarized the history of the previous island in the square. That history began with the construction of the Blacksmith Fountain and its surrounding garden in 1885. Of course, that history leaves open an important question: How did the Blacksmith Fountain get there? That takes some explaining.

Here is another postcard in which the Fountain has center stage.

If you look closely at the edge of the grass right under the Fountain, you can see an old reel lawn mower. There also appears to be a young man relaxing behind a post at the left edge of the grass. Perhaps he is supposed to be pushing the mower.

This image is actually the same as the one in the earlier posting but not colourized. It was published by Warwick Bro’s & Rutter in Toronto and was posted 5 Dec. 1908. Curiously, the message reads:

How do you like these stone buildings? The P. O. [Post Office] is in the foreground. Am here at the Winter Fair. Your letter came safely and will answer soon. P. F. C.
In fact, the Fountain is in the foreground. The P.O. is in the background. Nevermind.

As with the current situation, the story of the Blacksmith Fountain begins with some infrastructure upgrades. In 1878, the Royal City began planning a water works, that is, a system of town-wide water distribution through pipes from a central reservoir, located upstream of the town on the Eramosa ("Guelph water supply", Gilbank 1969). By the end of 1880, some ten miles of pipe had been laid.

The aim of the effort was focussed on the provision of hydrants for fire control. Some 94 were positioned by the end of 1880. However, the townsfolk had further ambitions for the system. As Alderman Read put it in 1883, after the citizens had sunk thousands of dollars into the construction of the water works, they still could not get a drink (Guelph Mercury, 21 Aug. 1883). Already in 1880, people were thinking in terms of a fountain for St. George's Square (5 May 1880):

The suggestion had been made that a cheap drinking fountain for horses should be placed in the centre of St. George's Square. The city may contemplate placing a large fountain there at some future day...
No cheap fountain was put in place, that I am aware of. However, the idea for a grand installation seems to have stuck in people's minds.

So, the infrastructure was underground and the idea was in the air. However, the cash was lacking. That problem was addressed by the generosity of the city's leading men of industry. In the summer of 1883, the town council received a "liberal offer" from Mr. David McCrae (see photo here). McCrae, father of the famous John McCrae, was a farm owner and animal breeder, co-owner of the profitable Armstrong, McCrae & Co., a woolen clothing factory, and also captain of the Ontario Battery of the 1st Provisional Brigade of Field Artillery, formed in 1880 (Johnson 1977, p. 211). Mr. McCrae offered to pay the town one or even two years of his taxation exemption (think "tax refund") as a contribution towards some civic improvement (21 Aug. 1883). The council leaped at the chance and talk turned immediately to fountains. Alderman Read suggested four or five "not expensive" fountains might be placed around the town. Alderman Stevenson, however, was keen on something more dramatic:

Ald. Stevenson was in favor of having something grand–say an imposing fountain on St. George's Square, and the work to be commenced at once.
Alderman Laing suggested a park. However, Ald. Stevenson's idea carried the day and the council struck a Special Committee to pursue the matter.

By October, it became clear that the council did not have money enough for the imposing fountain it desired. It is not clear why. Either McCrae's donation was not sufficient, or perhaps they split it up amongst several projects. In any event, they began to look for additional sources of funding (2 Oct. 1883).

The Committee collected money by subscriptions throughout the fall and winter. In this way, they collected the substantial sum of $500 (8 Apr. 1884). However, the breakthrough came in May with the arrival of another generous donation from a well-to-do business man, Mr. J. B. Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong sent the following open letter to Mayor Caleb Chase, reprinted in the Mercury (6 May 1884):

To His Worship the Mayor and Corporation of the City of Guelph:
In reply to a wish by the Council toward erecting and fitting up a fountain on St. George's Square, I beg to say I should be pleased to present the city with a fountain according to the accompanying design, the other subscribers to furnish the base surrounding and fit it up. It will be about 12 or 14 feet high, the central figure representing Industry.
Mr. Hall has kindly furnished the accompanying sketch, and will furnish you any particulars you want.
Yours very truly,
J. B. Armstrong.
Too bad that the paper did not publish the sketch!

J. B. Armstrong (who seems always to be referred to as "J. B." instead of "John" or "James") is listed as a 33-year-old carriage maker in the 1871 census. The Industrial Number of the Mercury in 1908 states that the business was founded in 1834 and incorporated under the name J. B. Armstrong in 1876. Its addresses were 41, 43 & 45 Macdonnell St. Clearly, Mr. Armstrong was doing well.

Why he decided to contribute to the fountain in St. George's Square is not clear. Perhaps he was related to the Armstrong who was David McCrae's business partner and was persuaded to climb aboard the project. Perhaps, like Mr. McCrae, he was a civic booster with a desire to improve the city and make a splash. Perhaps he thought that a monument to industry was overdue. None of the material I have found makes the matter any clearer.

The City gratefully accepted the offer. The form and location of the fountain were now set. However, even with this generous donation, funds were a little short (20 May 1884). That is when the Guelph Amateur Dramatic Club entered the stage.

The Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) was a group of drama enthusiasts who put on occasional performances in the city. Sometimes, they would donate their box office proceeds to worthy causes. The ADC had just put on a performance of a drama called "Meg's Diversion" and the farce "Done on both sides." The show was a sell-out and the ADC had decided to put on another performance with the proceeds going to the Fountain fund. The proposal, made in a letter to council by ADC President, Mr. E. F. B. Johnston, was immediately accepted (2 Jun. 1884). And so, Guelphites were treated to a repeat performance.

The plot of Meg's diversion is complex (30 May 1884). Meg is persuaded by her father Jeremy Crow to affect feelings for Jasper Pidgeon so that Jeremy can borrow money from Jasper to pay off his looming debts. The ruse works but is then exposed by Japser's older brother Roland. Roland then pursues Meg and wins her affections. However, Meg then discovers that Roland really loves her sister Cornelia and was merely toying with her for revenge. Cornelia, though, is promised to Ashley Merton, Esq. However, Ashley actually prefers Mrs. Netwell (who, I assume, is a widow) and so is relieved to give up his engagement to Cornelia who, then, is free to marry Roland. Jasper, meanwhile, renews his attentions to Meg, who finds that she loves him after all. Finally, Jasper discovers that he has made a fortune (it is not clear how), meaning that he and Meg can live happily ever after in spite of their devious relatives.

The performance was praised in the Mercury:

Miss [Lizzie] Mercer ["Meg"], always a favorite on such occasions, excelled herself... She was accurate throughout, and succeeded in bringing out the double character of a flirt and sincere lover very successfully. ... Mr. [E. F. B.] Johnston ["Jasper"] brought out effectually the value of the true heart and honest, manly character and bearing which belonged to the rough exterior of the carpenter.

The farce Done on both sides is less complex. Mr. Brownjohn visits the Whiffle family to woo Lydia Whiffle and invites himself to dinner. The Whiffles are perplexed because they are hard up and have nothing to eat. The situation is saved by the timely arrival of Mr. Pygmalion Phibbs who is a veterinary surgeon carrying a haunch of venison as a gift for the President of the Veterinary College. The Whiffles tell Phibbs that Brownjohn is the President, whereupon Brownjohn orders Phibbs to prepare the venison for the family dinner, much to Phibbs' dismay. Finally, the truth is revealed and everyone, ludicrously, is reconciled.

The audience seems to have enjoyed it. Perhaps the characters were parodies of local bigwigs.

The event raised around $40 or $50 towards the fountain, which was considered an appreciable sum (6 Jun. 1884). Perhaps it put the project over the top. Mr. J. B. Armstrong soon gave the contract for construction of the granite foundation to Mr. J. H. Hamilton (14 Jun. 1884), owner of a "Monumental Works" on Woolwich St. founded in 1871. The measurements for the statue's base were four feet square by eighteen inches high.

The Blacksmith Fountain was officially inaugurated on Queen Victoria's birthday in 1885. It is described in its historic designation as follows:

The statue of a blacksmith is cast in a metal alloy. Supporting the statue is an octagonal basin, held by a Rococo-style cast iron pedestal. The water spouts from the mouths of eight rams heads that decorate the basin's rim. The base is constructed of red-granite and bears the historic inscription, “Presented by J.B. Armstrong 1884”.
But the tale of the origin of the Blacksmith Fountain is not a tale of iron and granite. It is a tale of plumbing, industry, and amateur dramatics.

PS. The Blacksmith Fountain was removed from St. George's Square in 1922 so that the roadway could run through the middle of the Square. If the middle becomes an island again, should the old gentleman return as well? What would the Fountain Family say?