People sitting around the Lady of the Fountain. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
Dozens of spectators cheered Friday morning when the four jets surrounding the rejuvenated Lady of the Fountain sprayed forth, ending years of drought in Johnson City’s Fountain Square.
But for Tibby Hodges, the dedication meant more than just a rebirth of the downtown area, for her, it was a return to her childhood and the realization of one of her late husband’s ambitions.
“When I was 10 years old, my father would come to downtown Johnson City to get a haircut and get his shoes shined, and my mother and I would go over to Parks-Belk,” Hodges said, grasping the two lucky pennies she intended to toss into the fountain’s basin. “I remember seeing the fountain, and I always wanted to get a drink of water from it, but my mother told me I couldn’t because it was for the WWI soldiers.”
Years later, when the next world war broke out, the zinc statue, then standing at Roosevelt Stadium, was the last her husband, Robert, saw of his hometown from the open door of a troop transport train.
When Robert returned from his deployment, the Lady had been summarily discarded by the city, and disappeared until 1951, when she was found as an ornament in a Henderson, N.C., flower garden.
There she stayed for more than 30 years, until the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, led in part by then board member Robert Hodges, negotiated her safe return to the city.
“When they got the statue back from the woman who owned it, she said all she wanted was for it to be displayed like it should,” Tibby Hodges said. “My husband told her it would happen, and now it has happened.”
The statue that now graces Fountain Square is actually a recast of the original. Her older sister is posted in the city municipal and safety building.
But Hodges said having a Lady back in downtown is exciting.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with joy right now,” she said. “Robert gave his word that she would be back, and he was a person whose word was his bond.”
Washington County Economic Development Council Director of Redevelopment Shannon Castillo largely led the effort to bring the fountain back to Fountain Square.
She headed a fundraising campaign selling personalized bricks and plaques that raised more than $20,000 to pay for the water system and improvements.
“This is a great day for downtown Johnson City,” Castillo said. “It feels great to bring this from a vision to a reality.”
For Castillo and other development and city officials, the beautification projects undertaken downtown are a major step toward enticing people and businesses to the downtown area.
“When we were testing the fountain at night, there were people sitting in front of it and taking pictures, just gathering around it,” she said. “That’s exactly what we’re hoping for, that people will get together here to each lunch or come here to see a live band.”