You see me, almost every day.
In fact, I am the first thing you see when you come to Vinton, just travelers to most other cities see my counterparts. Most of them, like me, proclaim the name of their communities in large letters at the top of tanks that are visible from miles away, hundreds of feet above ground.
I have been standing on my particular hill for nearly a half-century now. A few of you may remember watching me rise, overlooking Kiwanis Park.
Most of you call me a “water tower,” and that’s OK. The people who know me best, however, refer to me as an “elevated storage tank.”
My full legal name, according to the now-painted-over metal plaque, is Horton Waterspheroid 9-9136. They named me named after Horace Horton, one of the founders of Chicago Bridge and Iron, which still builds and sells Waterspheroids, but no longer names them after Horton.
Baseball and poetry lovers may remember the word “spheroid” in that that famous line from the beloved poem, “Casey at the Bat,” in which Ernest Thayer wrote about how the mythical batter watched the first two strikes whiz over home plate.
“He signaled to the pitcher,
And once more the spheroid flew
But Casey still ignored it
And the umpire said “Strike Two!”
With respect for Mr. Thayer, I have to explain that a baseball is not, in strict geometrical terms, a spheroid; it’s a sphere. A spheroid like me is rounded, but flatter on the top (like Planet Earth). A sphere is equally round and its shape appears the same no matter how you look at it. My makers at CB&I do make Waterspheres, which are elevated storage tanks that are round in shape and generally smaller than me.
City leaders started talking about me in Vinton in 1965, as your city was growing and water needs were increasing quickly. At a September, 1965 City Council meeting, the experts predicted I would cost around $143,750. Back then, I shared the front-page headlines with wire reports from Vietnam, with stories about battles, peace talks and U.S. Casualties.
It took about two and a half-years for city leaders to find a spot for me, and come up with the money to pay for the new tower and all of the water mains that would connect me to the rest of the community. Eventually, the city came to an agreement with the Iowa Board of Regents, which still owns the property you know as Kiwanis Park.
Some people in Vinton dreamed big, in those days; they said I could do much more than help provide a steady supply of safe water for drinking, cleaning cooking and putting out fires.
April 1967, in a newspaper column, Glenn “Red” Gordon called for adding a observation deck, or even a restaurant to the top of the new tower. Some city leaders took him seriously enough to ask what that would cost.
A month later, K.B. Spaulding of the Vinton Community Development Corp joined Gordon, who at that time was the President of the Southeast Iowa Tourism Council, in suggesting tourism attractions in relation to me.
Before you laugh too hard, you should know that in a few cities in the world, people have built restaurants around water towers. And in nearby Cedar Rapids, a brand new restaurant on Blairs Ferry with an outdoor seating area faces a large water tower.
Later, however, the city leaders of the sixties would learn that an elevator and observation deck would add $50,000 to the already $300,000 tower and water main project. A restaurant estimate was about $200,000.
So, they then decided I would stand alone. A half-century later, alone, still, I stand.
Times have changed since then – and so has the image of the local water tower.
We water towers were so admired in that era that my makers at CB&I even created an advertisement comparing me to a “shapely” woman.
As sexist as that may sound to a 2016 society, they really did that, calling me a “campus beauty.”
Politicians were proud of us. They imagined travelers smiling as they approached our home towns, seeing us glisten in the sunlight, our large letters boldly proclaiming the names of the cities we serve.
And many travelers did just that. In many places, people even dressed us up, giving us the appearance of artistic designs like ears of corn or coffee cups, or painting us in bright colors that represented something important about the cities we called home.
They used to put us on post cards. They even celebrated our status in history. Hey, did you know that the very first CB&I water tower went up in Iowa, in Fort Dodge?
Here’s an old post card:
Such is life. Things change.
But in other ways, things stay the same, too.
A half-century ago, when I was still on the drawing board, local leaders were looking for ways to bring people to Vinton. Fifty years ago, Vinton officials were in negotiations with the Iowa Board of Regents regarding property connected to the Iowa Braille and Sight-Saving School. Also, at that time, leaders were discussing ways to create opportunities for more housing and restaurants.
Beyond Vinton, my history represents changes in our country, and even the world. CB&I, despite its Chicago-based name, has been located in several places beyond Illinois. It was headquartered in Texas before moving to Hague. Why move to the Netherlands? Partly, because CB&I was expanding to Europe and beyond, helping Europe with water and other infrastructure needs. It was also partly because the State of Texas enacted a Franchise Tax that hit big corporations hard. The issues of world-wide development and how to fairly tax companies continue to matter to so many people, including those connected to my history.
But back home, many of those same issues of the 60s — tourism, housing and new business opportunities — are very much on the minds of local leaders. And a half-century after negotiating with the Board of Regents over a very tiny piece of green space, Vinton leaders have been discussing the unique opportunities, and risks, of taking over the entire IBSSS campus.
I hope our modern leaders find a way to make all of these things work for Vinton. It know that each great idea or opportunity comes with a variety of unique challenges or risks – which is why I stand alone, still, unaccompanied by a restaurant or observation deck.
And yes, my condition now, makes me another one of those challenges. It will cost about $450,000 to keep me going, to keep me from leaking. While that seems like a lot – three times my original price tag – it’s roughly $2,000,000 less than it would be to replace me with a new elevated storage tank. And if you take good care of me, I will easily be able to safely store your water supply for another half-century or more.
And, as prosaically unromantic as some people say I am, I stand ready to provide a reliable source of water to whatever becomes part of Vinton in the future. And the vision of those inventors who created me – and of the city leaders who found a way to put me here half a century ago – is the kind of vision that will help the mortals below find a way to succeed. And while it has not come up yet in any government meeting, I do sincerely hope that my new paint job will be colorful and creative – an expression of one or more of the many unique things that make Vinton so special.
I have stood by you through the past 50 years, and you can count on me to be around for my 100th birthday, standing silently, confidently, over your choices, your challenges, your changes and your celebrations.
And, as always, I will be watching.