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By Perry, Michael | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

You Are Here

Perry, Michael, The World and I

Water Towers and Community Identity

Any pilot who has gone off course while "flying on visuals" knows what it is to dip from the clouds to reconnoiter the earth. To search for an orienting feature in the landscape below, a landmark that says, "You Are Here." Imagine then, how welcome the sight of a water tower, standing out like a giant pushpin stuck in a topographical map, tagged with the name of the community arranged about its base.

Seen from ground level, water towers are no less a source of orientation to motorists passing through than they are to the pilot. From the perspective of the road, a water tower becomes a giant signpost representing a community. Here we are, say the residents of Richmond, Indiana, all day and night, thanks to their illuminated roadside tower. Here we are, say the residents of Beebe, Arkansas, adding in painted epigraph, "Your Dream Hometown." Here we are, in spite of everything, declared Florida City, Florida, in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew peeled the "F" and "C" from the silver skin of the water tower but failed to topple it. Here we are, if you look closely, says the water storage tank in Bedminster, New Jersey, its walls camouflaged with trees in silhouette.

Even when the road you travel is cybernetic, some of the towns you approach choose to introduce themselves via their water towers. Journey to the Hartington, Nebraska, web page and you'll see a simple, captionless photo of its colorful tower, looking overdressed and lonely on a plain. Denison, Iowa, presents a thumbnail photo of its million-gallon tower and explains that the painted caption, "It's a Wonderful Life," is in honor of Denison native Donna Reed's most famous film appearance. Go north of the border to Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and select the water tower page. While no picture pops up, you will be able to learn from the text that the tower is "big" and "green." "Moreover, you may be interested to know that the water tower has never leaked." Knoxville, Illinois, shares a photo and the information that the water in its tower is "naturally fluoridated and slightly radioactive."

"Here we are," say water towers on behalf of a community, "and this says something about us."

Definitively iconic

My hometown water tower stands just off Main Street, along the soft descent leading from the freeway overpass to the old highway at the center of town. Built in a style the experts refer to as "double ellipsoidal multicolumn," it exhibits a solid stance, the four slim legs angling outward a bit as they drop from their attachment at the convex belly of the silver gray tank. Simple block letters, spare and black, follow the curvature of the sidewalls, peeking from behind the wraparound catwalk: NEW AUBURN. The cap, a meniscus of steel, is crowned with a small American flag. During the holiday season, a star of lights joins the flag. A black-and-white picture of the tower, taken shortly after its construction in 1950, hangs in the village hall. It might have been taken yesterday. When I roll up the exit ramp from the freeway, I enjoy the thought of people approaching town back when the old highway was in its heyday, seeing the same water tower, albeit from the opposite direction. More than the houses, more than the streets, more than the small green sign at the outskirts, it has always been the sight of the water tower that has told us, "here you are."

No less an authority on American culture than Garrison Keillor has reinforced the image of water tower as icon. Winners of A Prairie Home Companion's "Talent from Towns Under 2,000" contest tote home a trophy modeled after the witch-hatted steel towers that dot Minnesota's plains. Keillor himself chose the image and sees it as symbolic of small-town America.

Keillor's frame of reference is mid-western, and that frame of reference is telling. For someone born and raised in the heartland, it's easy to think of the old silver water tower as definitively iconic. …

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