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History Under the Blue Ridge: The Lady of the Fountain

History Under the Blue Ridge: The Lady of the Fountain

JCPL Library Assistant and local history enthusiast Zachary Harris shares the century-long story of Johnson City's mysterious Lady of the Fountain.

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Hannah Kiger

Thanks to Library Assistant and Tennessee Room curator Zachary Harris for sharing the story of Johnson City’s mysterious and mobile Lady of the Fountain. In “History Under the Blue Ridge,” Zachary highlights intriguing local history found during his work in the Tennessee Room, your Library’s genealogy and history collection.

Lady of the Fountain 2024 blog
Photo taken in April 2024

If you’re ever meandering around downtown Johnson City, specifically at the intersection of Buffalo Street and East Main Street, a quiet and mysterious figure will reveal itself to you if you’re paying attention.

With a vase resting on her shoulder, the Lady of the Fountain statue appears to weary travelers in the form of an ancient Greek water carrier. She sits atop the fountain in the aptly named Historic Fountain Square.

Perhaps forgotten in her aged and weathered state, the Lady has become an overlooked part of Johnson City’s scenery. But the statue, easily written off as a nondescript piece of old-school beautification, is in fact a mysterious and mobile resident of our City.

Mysterious Origin

Lady of the Fountain 1905 blog
Ad from early 1900s, from Smithsonian Institute Conservator Carol Grissom

The Lady’s origin is largely a mystery. Over the years, it was thought that a foundry in Lenoir City, Tennessee manufactured the statue. But according to Bob Cox, a local expert on the statue, a Smithsonian Institute conservator heard about Johnson City’s Lady and offered a different viewpoint about her origin.

The conservator stated that perhaps the statue’s iron base was manufactured in Lenoir City, but the statue herself is the spitting image of a New York-produced “Greek Water Carrier.” The conservator provided Cox with an ad from the early 1900s, which credits the J.L. Mott Iron Works in New York as the producer of the Lady of the Fountain. But the exact artist, at least to my knowledge, remains unknown.

A Century of Moving

The statue was initially placed at Fountain Square around 1904, but throughout the next century found herself moved to the now demolished Roosevelt Stadium, a private garden, the Johnson City Public Library, and even Johnson City’s dump.

So, how did our Lady begin this century-long journey?

Lady of the Fountain 1910 blog
Photo found in Library records, probably taken around 1910

According to accounts from The Comet newspaper, the Lady of the Fountain was installed as a tribute to Tennessee Congressman Walter P. Brownlow around 1904, for his assistance in opening the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The Lady of the Fountain stood for around 33 years atop the original pedestal erected for Congressman Brownlow. However, in 1937 the City discarded the statue’s base and relocated her to the now demolished Roosevelt Stadium. The statue stood outside the stadium for about six years before being replaced by a statue of a World War I Doughboy.

Our Lady was then reportedly left in a city dump, only to be picked up by a concerned citizen and briefly stored in a private barn somewhere near Watauga Avenue. How the statue traveled next is uncertain, but by 1951 she was living in a private garden in Henderson, North Carolina.

Some accounts attribute the Lady’s move to North Carolina to Alice Summers, the wife of Mayor James Summers, who may have sent it to family there. However she got there, she fell into disrepair over the next three decades.

Lady of the Fountain 1983 blog
Photo from Johnson City Press-Chronicle on Sept. 21, 1983

It’s uncertain how Johnson City eventually re-acquired the statue, but we do know that when she got back to town, a Carter County high school teacher and sculptor repaired the Lady with the help of his students. They carefully stripped paint, removed concrete, and filled cracks, restoring her to her former glory.

We know from a Johnson City Press-Chronicle article from Sept. 21, 1983 that the City installed the Lady as an art piece in Johnson City Public Library’s Reading Room in 1983, where she lived for many years.

The Lady eventually came to rest once more in her original location in Fountain Square, coming full circle over 100 years later. According to Johnson City Press, the 2014 Blue Plum Festival kicked off with the statue’s unveiling.

She can still be found in Fountain Square today, quietly watching life go by in Johnson City’s bustling downtown. My hope is that next time you’re in downtown, you’ll stop by the square and contemplate our Lady’s long and mysterious life.

I found these stories of the Lady in the Library’s archive of Johnson City Press and in the Library’s own historical records. Local history books in the Tennessee Room also include accounts and pictures of the Lady of the Fountain. The Comet newspaper articles from the early 1900s can be found through the Library’s free digital Tennessee Electronic Library. Supplemental information came from Bob Cox’s Yesteryear blog.