VIRGINIA — After six dry years, 51 monthly meetings, 1,400 donors and more than $1 million in fundraising, the restored fountain in Olcott Park is flowing once more.

With countdown of “3-2-1,” a crowd of residents, visitors and organizers watched Thursday evening as the park’s centerpiece sprung to life — it’s “first splash,” as project planners called it.

Thursday’s event was the culmination of a major campaign from the Olcott Park Fountain Restoration Committee, whose members spent the past four years raising money to restore the 82-year-old fountain, which hadn’t operated since 2013 and fell into disrepair well before then.

The celebration was a long time coming for committee and for Virginia residents, said Greg Gilness, who spearheaded the effort. The committee spent its first two years simply raising money for the project.

The group broke ground after raising its first $100,000, but that was only the beginning.

“The whole site had fallen into disrepair,” Gilness said Thursday.

Work began in earnest in 2017, he said. Loose stones had to be removed, cleaned and cemented back in place. The fountain’s mortar had deteriorated badly, and it needed to be shipped away for analysis so the new mortar could be matched to historic standards.

The 1937-vintage spray system no longer worked, and a new system made specially for the Olcott Park fountain had to be installed. The new system puts 60 percent more water into the air than the original system, Gilness said.

The fountain’s light system had to be replaced. Eight decades ago, the fountain wowed park visitors with more than 300 water formations and color combinations every hour. On Thursday, a new set of lights was set to dazzle spectators after dark.

“The new lights are LED lights, and they’re a lot more intense, a lot more vibrant than the 1937 lights,” Gilness said.

As part of the renovations, a wheelchair-accessible ramp to the fountain was added.

Girls react as the fountain changes patterns and sends spray their way at the reopening of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Girls react as the fountain changes patterns and sends spray their way at the reopening of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

Landscaping work remains to be done, and protective netting covered freshly laid grass seed during Thursday’s event. Gilness said the committee is hoping to add juniper bushes around the fountain, matching the site’s original landscaping.

Katie and Andy Peterson both grew up in Virginia and were at the park with their son and daughter for Thursday’s event.

“I lived across the street growing up, and I’ve been here so much,” Katie Peterson said. “It’s neat to see it back to just a beautiful place for people to come. … I love our park. How many places have this much open green space?”

For the couple’s daughter, Emmi, 10, the restored fountain was a novel sight.

“I’ve never really seen it working,” she said. “It’s really pretty.”

Speakers at Thursday’s event included Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which contributed $320,000 to the effort; Eric Wedge of DSGW Architects, who reminded the crowd of the park’s role in physical, social and economic wellness; and Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr

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Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. gestures as shares a memory of the fountain at the reopening of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday evening. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. gestures as shares a memory of the fountain at the reopening of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday evening. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

“What a jewel for Olcott Park and for our community,” Cuffe told the crowd, before sharing his own story about the park.

“When I was 7 years old, my father, every payday, would load the family into his car,” he said. They stopped at Steve’s Hamburgers on Sixth Avenue — “all you remember is the wax paper, and it’s greasy, and it’s the best hamburger you could have” — and then the Tastee-Freez on Ninth Street.

“And then we would drive right here to Olcott Park, where we would sit and watch the fountain go, eating our ice cream. Every single payday; we never missed it.”

With just over $1 million raised, virtually all of it from the local community, Gilness thanked the project’s many donors.

In particular, he singled out teacher Chris Holmes’ 2014 and 2015 fifth-grade classes from Roosevelt Elementary School in Virginia. Holmes taught his students about being good citizens and volunteerism, Gilness said

People gather around for the first spray of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday for its reopening. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
People gather around for the first spray of the Olcott Park fountain in Virginia Thursday for its reopening. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

The students volunteered to shovel snow for elderly residents, and when the residents insisted on paying the students for their hard work, the students decided to donate the money to the fountain restoration.

Gilness said their generosity helped him decide to take on the project. He turned to Holmes and some of his former students, now in high school, standing nearby.

“I want to thank Mr. Holmes and his fifth-grade students for their donation, and I want to tell them that (they) had an impact on my decision,” Gilness said. “And that you never know when a small gesture may have a significant result.”