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Those who've studied Confederate fountain's history weigh in on removal plans

From the On Aug. 18 Helena's Confederate fountain was removed. Here's our coverage series
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Some who have researched the history of the century-old Confederate monument prominently displayed in a Helena city park say local leaders are making a mistake by removing it. 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to remove the monument,” Bruce Whittenberg, director of the Montana Historical Society, said the day after the Helena City Commission directed the city manager to remove the granite fountain from Hill Park as soon as possible. “I’m sad to see it happen, and it makes me wonder what’s next.”

Whittenberg is a former publisher of the Independent Record and the Billings Gazette. 

City commissioners decided to remove the monument during an administrative meeting Wednesday, after a woman was killed at a white nationalist rally over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As tempers flare over the presence of Confederate monuments nationwide, several commissioners said they now see the fountain as a safety concern.

However, Helena/Lewis and Clark County Historic Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said she believes Helena’s monument is different than those being removed from other cities.

“Some of these monuments are clearly offensive. I could not defend a battle flag, even if it is historic. It’s just such an incendiary and hate-mongering symbol,” she said. “In my opinion, the fountain isn’t. I don’t see it as a symbol of hatred itself.”

Whittenberg agreed that the fountain should remain as a teaching tool.

“Rather than just destroy it and pretend like it never existed, we should use it as a teachable moment,” he said. “Kids should understand those things that we find so objectionable now, and the sins of the Civil War. … I don’t know how you do that without something to point to.”

The fountain was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated in 1916.

Attardo acknowledged that the fountain may have been donated as part of the UDC’s attempt to rewrite the history of the South, but she believes it should be explained instead of removed. That is why she has been working with the city for the last two years to explain the fountain’s origins through a sign that would have been placed near the monument, an idea she proposed and the city commission approved in 2015.

“I wanted people to know: Why the heck did we have a Confederate monument in our park? Who put it there? And the national significance of it was, it was actually part of a larger campaign,” she said.

While that process has been bogged down by space limitations and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for those with impaired vision, Attardo said, she has been checking in with city officials every few months for the last two years. 

"The Heritage Tourism Council had it drafted and ready to roll," she said. " ... We couldn't unilaterally order a sign and install it."

MHS interpretive historian Ellen Baumler said it may be too late for that now. 

“People have jumped on it because of what’s happening elsewhere and I can certainly understand it,” Baumler said. “Now really the city probably has no choice other than to remove it because it would probably become a target for vandalism. The time for interpreting it has probably passed."

Meanwhile, Montana Preservation Alliance Executive Director Chere Jiusto said the fountain issue is a "hard topic, because there's so much history of suffering and injustice."

"We do support re-examining the monuments and those icons that somehow memorialize the unfairness of our history," she said. "We also feel that it's important not to just make them go away, but to place them in a setting where people can learn from our history and what happened and ensure that as we go forward that we all try hard never to carry those kinds of attitudes and that kind of reality into the future for our kids or our future generations."

Annie Hanshew, a historian born and raised in Helena who has studied objects as historical documents, spoke Wednesday night and said she believes the fountain should be removed and placed in a museum.

Hanshew, in a letter to the IR on Thursday, said a sign could have provided context, but "it’s been two years since the commission asked for a sign, and we now live in a different era."

While the fountain may not hold "dark associations" for those who defend it, Hanshew wrote, "it is worth considering (and listening to) how our non-white neighbors feel. There is significant evidence that victims of slavery and genocide passed their trauma down to their descendants. This transgenerational trauma can even become encoded in descendants’ DNA. So to some, 1916 might feel like the distant past, but to others, it is not so distant. I’d rather remove a fountain than have any of my neighbors experience anxiety or fear."

Helena Mayor Jim Smith said Wednesday evening that city officials have not yet decided what to do with the monument after it has been removed, and Whittenberg said he hopes the Montana Historical Society will be included in that discussion.

“I hope it’s preserved. I hope it’s not just jack-hammered and sledge-hammered to the ground,” Whittenberg said. “It’s part of Helena’s past, and like what it represents or not, it has been part of our community for 100 years.”

History of the fountain

An article in the Sept. 6, 1916, Helena Daily Independent described in a grandiose tone the day the fountain was unveiled, at 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

“With fitting ceremony the beautiful fountain recently placed in Hill park was presented to the city of Helena last evening by the Daughters of the Confederacy in Montana,” the article read.

The city attorney filled in for the mayor, who was “unavoidably absent,” to accept the gift from Gertrude, also called Georgia, C. Young, with the Daughters of the Confederacy.

“The emblem is a splendid contribution to the beautification of the park,” the article reads.

A local judge presided over the program.

Young, the article reads, in explaining “the motives of the order in planning such a gift,” said the Confederate Daughters were “desirous of making some presentation to their new residence after leaving the south.”

Young, in her speech, “lauded the present-day American spirit, a spirit of union with no feeling between the old north and south, which caused such bitterness and sorrow years ago,” according to the newspaper.

“On behalf of the Daughters of the Confederacy, I present this fountain to the city of Helena as a token of our esteem toward our new home,” Young said.

Young’s speech, which was printed in full in the Sept. 11, 1916 local paper, said in part:

“The fountain is a tribute to the Confederate soldiers who offered their lives in the warring conflict of ideas between the people of our own country. ...

“It is out of the depths of abiding and fondest memory that the women of the south, who have made this wonderful western country their home, are putting their lives into it, plant this tribute of old home love, to make beautiful their new home. ...

“In that spirit, the Daughters of the Confederacy in Montana have built this fountain.”

Young was also a founder of St. Peter’s Hospital and a pillar of the community, said Baumler. 

Helena's city attorney in 1916, Edward Horsky, “lauded the spirit of the Confederate Daughters,” saying “The efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy in planning such a gift are worthy of the highest praise. … It’s is a beautiful memorial that will long keep bright the memory of the organization that donated it.”

The fountain was carved from Montana granite and cost $2,000. It was designed by architect George H. Carsley.

The Winnie Davis Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy was recorded in Helena city directories from 1905-1927. There is no city directory for 1928, and the group is not in later versions. It’s unclear if the chapter disbanded or if the format of new directories did not list it. That’s according to an application for a preservation award. The chapter had 39 members in 1916.

The Daughters of the Confederacy solicited donations for the fountain, with one publication in The River Press of Fort Benton saying “There are buried in Montana many soldiers who served in the Confederate army, but they are so scattered that it is not practicable to erect a monument over each. … The Winnie Davis Chapter of U.D.C. is very anxious to erect a fountain in a park in the city of Helena and dedicate it to ‘The Southern Soldier.’”

The advertisement continued: “History has never yet told the true story of the devotion to the south and the courage on the battlefield displayed by the Confederate solider, and we esteem it a high privilege to be able to work for memorial to such men.”

According to a Sept. 3, 1916, story in the Helena Daily Independent, the group did not struggle in their fundraising efforts, which included “moneys received from an entertainment given by a large number of Helena’s prominent talent.”

An application to get funding for repairs in the late 1990s said over the years the fountain had fallen into disrepair. A 1971 article in the Independent Record indicates the fountain had not operated but was restored that year.

In the summer of 1997 the Helena Parks Department renovated the fountain, installing new water lines, reshaping and polishing the brass cupola and adding new plants, according to the application.

Baumler said many people from the North and South came to Montana to escape the conflict of the Civil War.

“They came here because they had lost fathers and brothers and fortunes and they wanted to put all that behind them,” she said. “They didn’t come here to pick fights with their neighbors. Most of those folks came to make a new start.”

Baumler said that she believes the intentions the Daughters of the Confederacy stated at the time the fountain went up are valid. Many historians around the country say the Daughters of the Confederacy erected monuments to support white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, and in many places in the country monuments went up during the Jim Crow era in an attempt to further suppress civil rights. 

Language approved by the Helena City Commission two years ago to include on a sign, which was never installed, at the fountain also notes the group "openly supported the early Ku Klux Klan in its mission of white supremacy."

Helena's mayor, Smith, said late Thursday said the signs were not put up because of delays due to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Smith said the language the council approved, when made large enough to comply with regulations, would have made for a sign 4 feet by 6 feet and the city got caught up in trying to either find a way to accommodate a sign so large or shorten the language.

"The whole thing required a lot more compliance than we realized." He said subsequent missteps let the situation linger longer than it should have.

"I thought the sign might be a reasonable compromise on the whole subject, but given what happened in Charlottesville, I don't know. It's an embarrassing tale."

The language also includes the group's mission to place pro-Southern history in text books and their support of the Lost Cause doctrine. 

“Some people believe that their ulterior motive was support of the early Ku Klux Klan and to promote white supremacy,” Baumler said. “That may be true in other places, but I simply do not believe that was true in Helena.”

Baumler cited the wide variety of people who worked together to raise money for the fountain.

“It was simply an architectural feature of the park that was a memorial to brothers and fathers who died during a terrible time in our nation’s history."

The architect who designed the statute, Carsley, was the son of a Civil War veteran who fought on the Union side, Baumler said.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t have designed something that had a motive to promote the KKK. I just don’t see it.”

The Daughters of the Confederacy did have one dust-up over wanting to hang a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee in full military uniform in the high school. The group asked to hang the photo in Helena’s high school in 1910, but it was protested by the Grand Army of the Republic.

A formal presentation was made to the school board, according to a June 8, 1910, report in the Livingston Post. School trustees took no action.

Grand Army of the Republic members said they had no objection to a picture of Lee as a citizen hanging in the school, but that it was not proper to show him in a portrait with his uniform.


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