Helena Sounds-Off On Fate Of Confederate Fountain

Aug 17, 2017

A Confederate memorial fountain in Helena, Montana.
Credit Nate Hegyi

It’s around lunch time in Helena as city employee Patrick Marron stands at the controversial Confederate memorial fountain in Hill Park.

It is the only Confederate memorial in the northwestern United States, and Helena Mayor Jim Smith said it poses a safety concern following last weekend’s violence at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

On Wednesday night the Helena City Commission said they wanted the fountain gone.

“Most days it’s running, but today, until we figure out what to do, we’ll shut it off,” Marron says.

Marron opens a manhole and slips underneath the fountain. Using a wrench, he leans over a pipe and twists, twists, twists until ... [sound of water running and draining]

Today handful of people are walking up to the fountain and taking pictures of it. There’s a young guy with a wispy beard, an older man on a motorcycle, and then a dude with a cowboy hat and braces, chewing on a toothpick.

He says his name is Thad, but he won’t give me his last name.

“To read all these articles saying this fountain represents, like, segregation and slavery and lynching I think it’s ridiculous.”

Thad says he was born and raised in Helena, and had no idea the fountain was actually a confederate memorial. And, from far away, it doesn’t look like one - there aren’t any soldiers or generals riding horses.

But then you get closer and you see the inscription on the fountain’s head. It says, “by the daughters of the confederacy in Montana, A.D. 1916.”

“I mean, I don’t know what they’re all about," Thad says. "Daughters of the Confederacy, it’s like, everyone in the South, right?”

Nate Hegyi: Uh, right, I mean, technically yes, but they were a group that was connected with the KKK …

“Yeah, I had read that they did that, and I’m not a fan of that,” Thad says.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of the neo-confederate movement, and, as late as the 1930s they supported the KKK.

I ask Thad if people are right to feel offended by the fountain.

“They can feel offended if they want to. It doesn’t offend me. But I’m also not a group that would be targeted by the KKK or anyone like that, so I don’t really have any ground to stand on.”

Here's Richard Palmer of Wickenburg, Arizona.

“I think it’s part of history, and I don’t think it’s right to tear it down,” he says.

“I can understand what’s written on there, most people are upset. But why not just take it to somebody that knows how to remove the text and leave the fountain here? It’s a beautiful fountain. I’d like to see that in my backyard down in Arizona. Of course, I’d probably take all the text off or have a new top made on. Because it comes in pieces, so why not just put a new piece on top?”   

City engineer Ryan Leland says the commission doesn’t know what it’s going to do with the statue yet. They could put it into a museum, preserve parts of it, or take the whole thing to a landfill.

Heather Lissell, from Edmonton, Alberta, says she hopes the city preserves it.

“Because I don’t think we should erase history, but hopefully they will take it and put it in a museum and perhaps give more of an explanation.

NH: Do you see how people could be offended by it?

"Absolutely, absolutely. And I think it’s very significant that something is done, either an additional plaque is put up with more of an explanation or to have it moved to a museum and have more of the background of why it was put here."

Native American lawmakers called for the memorial's removal Tuesday, saying such monuments have stood for segregation, secession and slavery.