Jim Harmon/Missoula Current 

Bottled water is ubiquitous today.

Tourists, walkers, runners, school kids - all of us - seem to have water bottles wherever we go. Why, you feel downright undressed if you leave home without your water. 

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Only a few decades ago, before plastic bottles were a thing, there were public water fountains. Remember them?

You could find a fountain at any park, public school, library and even on downtown street corners.

In the summer of 1890, the Butte Water Company took delivery of two drinking fountains ordered from New York.

The first, “an elaborate affair made of bronze, measuring 5 feet 5 inches in height, designed for man, horse and dog,” was placed at Main and Broadway. A second, less elaborate in form, was located at Main and Galena streets.

Butte officials declared, “The fountains will be most welcome to the thirsty public, and a marked diminution in beer drinking is expected.”

One of Missoula’s first fountains was built just before the turn of the century when the International Organization of Good Templars, a fraternal organization promoting an alcohol- and drug-free life, began promoting public water fountains nationwide.

The Missoula Templars started their subscription drive for a drinking fountain at the intersection of Higgins and Main in the winter of 1896.

Missoulian 7-30-1898
Missoulian 7-30-1898
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The specific fountain selected was described as “a handsome one (which) will make an excellent (downtown) ornament.”

“It is of iron, finished in bronze and it is provided with basins for watering horses and dogs, and faucets for drinking purposes.”

More public fountains would follow. In 1903, a wonderful fountain was built in Rattlesnake Valley, but quickly fell into disrepair.

attachment-Headline - Water Fountain for Greenough Park funded by sales from Bee Hive store
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Mr. Greenough funded the project, diverting stream water through a pipe to a receptacle by the nearby road. He even made nice drinking cups available. The public loved it.

But almost immediately, “young vandals (began) tossing (the cups) and everything of the kind into the creek (and) uncoupled the pipe, letting the water flood the road.”

The local newspapers demanded the vandalism stop! “Boys can be forgiven for robbing orchards and watermelon patches, but when it comes to destroying a drinking fountain, we can’t see where the fun comes in. Who can?”

Public drinking fountains remained a fixture of American life through the 1950s and 1960s, but are largely gone, now – and for good reason.

As far back as the 1870s, it was common to see horses both drinking and polluting the water at the same time.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper published an item called, “Evils of Public Drinking Fountains,” in 1889, pointing out the problem and calling for a halt (for public health reasons) in building any more fountains.

If that wasn’t enough, there was another reason (albeit a bit strange): suicide by public water fountain. That’s right: suicide.

The Benton Weekly Record March 01, 1884
The Benton Weekly Record March 01, 1884
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The Fort Benton Weekly Record reported the following in 1884: “People who meditate suicide by drowning should have some consideration for the comfort of their fellow beings and avoid cisterns, springs, wells and public fountains.”

“There is hardly a fountain in the country in whose basin some poor wretch has not floundered about in an effort to rid himself of a life that had become a burden.”

Today, we’ve discarded the public drinking fountain, choosing instead the office water cooler and single-use water served up in a convenient plastic bottle.

But all that convenience has resulted in a disposable-plastic nightmare, haunting we Earthlings. So we continue to look for a more environmentally friendly way to package our tall, cool drink.

Perhaps we could return to our youth and use an old-fashioned mid-century faucet and collapsible tin cup.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.

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