THROW BACK THURSDAY City water comes to Culver

Members of Culver’s fire company pose in front of the then-new Culver Water Works building at Plymouth and Cass Streets (today the Grace United Church of Christ parking lot), a concrete block building constructed in 1906.
Jeff Kenney
Staff Writer
  • CULVER HISTORY CORNER is a semi-reg­ular feature sponsored by the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver. whose quarterly newsletter is also sponsored in The Culver Citizen.

As work wrapped up recently (minus the painting) on the town's new water tower (at College Ave. and Lake Shore Drive) and the replacement and rehab of the existing water plant on Ohio Street is forthcoming in short order, it seems as good a time as any to take a look back at just how municipal water came to Culver in the first place, a journey which began all the way back in 1906.

Of course most residents of a (self-described, in the pages of The Culver Citizen) "village" the size of Culver back in `06 derived their water from individual wells, which likely worked well enough (no pun intended). But it might be easy to miss an important facet of what was, in those days, termed a municipal "water works," which as much as anything was in the area of fire protection. This is reflected in the lead story in the July 12, 1906 edition of the paper, which described a town meeting held in the school building and including a presentation by Fred Cole of the National Construction Company.

"My company will furnish Culver with a system that will give fire prevention to nearly every piece of property in town for $7,000," Cole told the audience, which was apparently quite receptive to his message.

The system would include one mile of four-inch mains, ten hydrants, a 20-horsepower gasoline engine, a triple expansion pump with a capacity of 250 gallons per minute, an air compressor, and an 8 by 36 foot tank. The town would have to furnish a 25 by 40-foot building, 10 feet high, and a well or wells (one ten-inch well would be ideal, but three or four four-inch ones would suffice). Interestingly, it was noted the pump could be located on the lake shore, though more pipe would be required to reach the mains and "the water (pumped directly out of the lake) would not be as good for drinking purposes" as well water!

About 25 cents per day would be the cost to run the gas-powered motor, which would be started each day by the marshal. Cole noted $4,000 could be raised with a six percent, 10-year bond based on Culver's assessed valuation at the time of $20,000. The remaining $3,000 could be obtained by organizing a stock company and selling stocks, he said. Cole also emphasized that any hesitancy on the part of a few residents -- and it appears it was only a few who expressed concern -- wouldn't go away by delaying the process. He also pointed out it was wise to take action on any such project before the ground froze that year, making installation of pipes challenging if not impossible.

"The plunge must be made sometime," summarized the Citizen, "and now is as good a time as any." It was duly noted by the paper, however, that the $7,000 price tag for the project did not actually represent the total cost to be incurred, since costs such as well digging, building construction, and fire equipment would need to be considered as well.

An "investigating team" consisting of A.A. Keen, C.S. Shilling, and S.E. Medbourn, was designated by the town and visited North Judson as the first of a handful of trips to examine other communities’ water works.

By the August 16 edition of the Citizen that same year, it was reported (again on page 1, this time under the headline, "The coast is now clear" and the sub-head "This should settle matter," lest any readers were unclear as to the editor's feelings!) that "Attorney Parker" had examined the financial scheme laid out to facilitate water works in Culver and came back with a "wholly favorable report." It was also noted that "not one percent" of those about town discussing the project were opposed to it, and in fact most were completely supportive of it.

The paper went on to suggest that those favorable to the idea might consider loaning the necessary funds to see it move forward. The committee, along the way, found that operation of the plant, in its estimation, would cost Culverites around $100 per year in taxes, $110 in gasoline, $120 in extra salary for the marshal, perhaps $50 in repairs, and interest on bonds totaling -- to be split among all taxpayers -- around $1,000 a year.

By Oct. 4, the Citizen reported the contract had been let to drill three four-inch wells, 50 feet deep apiece, to Robert McFarland. John Osborn had the contract for the concrete block pumping station. The specs for these and other implements described in the original proposal, were laid out in the Oct. 25 paper, with notation that 1,000 feet of cast iron water mains would be six inches thick, and 4,000 feet of the same at four inches, all laid in five foot deep trenches. Fifteen fire hydrants of the double nozzle type were being ordered. Interestingly, unlike the delineation made today between water systems and firefighting equipment, water works of the day included all levels of firefighting provisions, Culver's being no different (after all, the town had established its fire department officially just three years earlier, in 1903). Included was 500 feet of rubber-lined hose, multiple play pipes, a hose cart with 50 feet of drag rope, fire ax, and other firefighting implements common to the day.

The whole operation was planned to go "online" (using a more modern colloquialism) by Jan. 1 of 1907, and the total price tag landed at $7,900.

Work on the system must have been quite a sight, with all those feet of trenches being dug, and one can only imagine the eventual elation of hooking a residence up to the municipal system (though municipal sewer is another matter entirely; work towards a town sewer treatment plant began in 1940, though it was a slow process from there).

There was a bit of trouble in paradise, however. In September of 1908, a Citizen headline screamed that Culver was "endangered by (a) lack of sufficient fire-fighting facilities," with the related article noting relations were "somewhat strained" between the Culver City Water Co. and the South Bend-based National Construction Co., the latter being the contractor on the water works operation two years earlier.

"It is commonly known that the greater portion of the 500 feet of hose furnished by the construc­tion company is ruined," wrote the city, referring to the many feet of snazzy new hose just supplied the town for firefighting purposes two years earlier, "and that only 150 feet of serviceable hose is available. The Water company has been in correspondence with the contracting company for some weeks relative to replacing the worn-out hose. The contractors have at last refused to do anything in the matter, claiming that the hose was destroyed by being dragged about the streets by pri­vate parties."

It's hard to imagine what "private parties" the contractor has in mind here, dragging hoses giddily about town for the fun of it, unless the implication is one of guilt against individual firemen somehow. In reply to this allegation, the Culver water works company claimed that in a recent test the hose now in service bursts under a pressure of 100 pounds, whereas it was guaranteed to stand a pressure of 300 pounds. It was further explained that the existing 150 feet of hose wasn't enough to reach a number of the houses in relation to the existing water main.

The water company, in fact, was sending out notices to residences during that dry period forbidding them from sprinkling or otherwise using hoses on lawns except during designated hours, given the limited capacity of the storage tank installed in 1906. Presumably the town was able, one way or another, to secure enough additional hose to ensure residents' and properties' safety. How water launched Culver's town hall The firefighting side of the entire venture continued to be the matter of understandable precedence.

In the Oct. 6, 1911 Citizen, it was reported that a one-story, 20 by 40 foot block building would soon be added to the pumping station, primarily to house firefighting equipment, but also to provide a meeting space for the town board and fire department, and a polling place at elections.

It's remarkable that this building, essentially a sort of afterthought to the water works operation, would form the basis for what eventually became Culver's town hall, then located at the corner of Plymouth and Cass Streets, where it remained into the late 1960s (moving then to today's fire station and finally to its present home a block south of its first home), even if a somewhat larger version of the structure would be built some decades later at the original site.

Later Citizen writing would lament the small, cramped space used for town board meetings, ironic given that the building's use as a meeting space was only a hasty add-on to its primary function as a storage building. In other words, it made a better storage building that town board meeting hall, and with good reason.

Growing pains

By January of 1914, the Citizen reported that 120 persons -- no small number given the less than 1,000 residents of Culver at the time -- were now on town water, and it was added that Saine and Sons, located at today's 102 S. Main Street, site of the Culver Academies Museum, had just added city water to their store (the Academies museum, for the record, has maintained that tradition to today).

The initial endeavor of creating a municipal water system, not surprisingly, was no more a tidy, finished package 100 years ago than it is today. In May of 1914, it was noted that property owners on the north end of town or any residents intending to add water service should hurry to get the work done before paving of Culver's streets commenced (which makes an interesting side note to the important milestone of Culver paving many of its streets by around 1915).

Some residents were clearly "in arrears on their water rental," said the Citizen, and were notified of payment due by June 15 pending water shutoff, with a whopping $1 fine for resuming service if shutoff took place.

Lest it be thought that present day rate increases are a new thing, the April 5, 1922 Culver Citizen noted they were likely on the way for taxpayers in light of several significant financial burdens looming during that 15th year after Culver gained municipal water. These included the digging of a new, three-inch well (at 74 feet in depth), and the need to upgrade to a three-pump engine at the painful cost of $1,000. After continuous use of a decade and a half, the plant would need upgrades to the tune -- alongside the $1,000 for the engine -- of $3,000 total.

Further, the initial stock setup which established the "private" waterworks company was coming to an end, and the town itself was preparing to take on the water operation entirely, and all costs associated. At the time, the paper noted, residents were only paying 25 cents per 1,000 gallons, so no reasonable complaint could be justified at increased rates (which doesn't mean complaints didn't take place, which it's safe to assume they did). Indeed on Aug. 1 Culver's water works "went public" and William Grubb was hired as Culver's first water superintendent, at $350 per year.

Town Marshal Murphy would read the meters, it was noted, and town clerk Williams would make out the monthly water bills. Around 60 of the 350 water meters in service in town needed repairing at that point, the Citizen intimated.

In February of 1923, the State Board of Health gave a report fairly similar to a modern one, concerning Culver's municipal water: little turbidity (roiliness -- which is to say cloudiness), odor, or sediment, though a small percentage of iron and a considerable amount of "hardness" (presence of minerals), much as is the case today.

In February, 1926, a Citizen editorial urged the town to consider installing a plant-level water softener system, citing the impact on "body tissues" of the heavily mineralized water mentioned above, as well as the long term cost savings to housewives in Borax, even if a nominal increase in the water bill were needed. Whether any serious consideration of the proposal resulted, the paper does not seem to indicate.

In April of 1926 the Citizen proudly proclaimed that the town's wells, recently cleaned of the sand which had gathered at the bottom and which was slowing up the works, could now pump up to 700 gallons a minute, the capacity of the pumps.

Another monumental change in the way Culver received its water began in December of 1928 when work commenced on the town's first water tower, which would replace the old tank system of water storage. Located near the site of the water plant at Cass and Plymouth, the tower (which was in use into the 1970s and removed in the early 1980s), said the Citizen, would provide a cost savings in plant operations and also enhance fire protection for the town.

Whether directly related to municipal water or not, an article in the Citizen in Sept., 1929, emphasized the value of bringing water from home to any outing rather than trusting even a moving water source (such as a creek or stream) while picnicking, due to the danger of typhoid fever. A campaign had been undertaken in years past to discourage cities and towns from creating shared drinking arrangements for the public (such as the old tin cup which hung from a chain for public sips from the water flowing from a spring at Culver's town park near the old lighthouse -- today the spring flows into the lake near the re-created lighthouse, though safely without the cup).

Three thousand feet of water main were being laid as of July 23, 1930, said the Citizen, to serve areas of town not already served by municipal water. Dead ends on Main and Madison Streets would be resolved, and parts of School, Washington, Lake Streets, and College Avenue would receive water for the first time. Those feet of main would add to the 10,128 feet already added to town between 1922 and 1930, according to an article in the Citizen in January of the latter year.

Starting the shift to Ohio Street Present-day Culverites for whom "water plant" and "Ohio Street" are synonymous terms, and who can't imagine the operation taking place where it did, in the center of town, for so long, may be interested to learn that the shift to the Ohio Street locale began in the summer of 1932, when "a large force of men" was busy digging ditches and laying water mains to connect new wells at "the south end of town." The large main, it was reported, was on Ohio Street, and lines were being run to connect it to the old main (at Cass and Plymouth).

Significantly, the line added to the end of the article says that, "A pump house and installation of new pumps must also be completed before the new wells will be used." In February of 1937, Culver switched for the first time to the more desirable electric water pump, which would increase capacity, and away from the diesel style in use since the beginning in 1906, due to the failure of the diesel pump recently. George Stabenow, water superintendent, ordered a 30 hp, 350 gallon per minute electric pump and the town board signed a contract with NIPSCO to bring the move to fruition.

Fluoridation, Round One

A matter recently debated vigorously in Culver first surfaced in 1952, when the Culver Citizen noted that fluoridation of Culver's water supply would soon be underway, having been approved by the town board. The $700 equipment had been purchased and Culver water superintendent Verl McFeely was supervising installation. Jack Shillinger of the Indiana State Board of Health said that nine tenths of one part of fluoride is used to a million parts of water, which reduces tooth decay in children.

Culver would be joining more than 200 cities and towns nationwide in adding the "colorless and odorless" substance to its water supply (though in recent discussions of the matter, advocates of fluoridation from Indianapolis pointed out Culver was one of the first towns in Indiana to add it to its municipal water). A 'terribly obsolete' system If all the hoopla over Culver's "water works" of 1906 is still resting warmly in the reader's mind, it's worth remembering how many years have passed since then, and how many had passed even by September of 1956, even if the water plant of that era was a much newer one than the first one in town.

Journalist Bob Kyle, whose "It Must be the Lake Water" columns would become a staple of the Citizen's weekly offerings, was never one to shy away from honest commentary, and his scathing, page one coverage of the failure of Culver's municipal water system during that period called the story the biggest "since the ice house burned" and called it a "tragedy" that 1,600 persons "were left without life-sustaining water."

Verl McFeely, still water superintendent after all those years, left the water system in the capable hands of Don Overmyer and town marshal Don Mikesell while McFeely went on vacation. The two electric pumps at the water station failed and in short order a vehicle-mounted loudspeaker was making its way through town, urging residents to use no more water than needed and to boil what they used for five minutes (this at the direction of the State Board of Health).

Retired Culver Academy chief engineer Lester LaBounty managed to start the plant's auxiliary gas pump and Culver oil man Herman Gardner kept a supply of oil flowing to maintain the operation once it got going. Water pump salesmen "descended on the town like a flock of turkey buzzards," Kyle quipped, though they only managed to "stare and get in the way."

The town trustees employed a firm to take over and install a new turbine engine pump, though in the meantime schools were dismissed early and public drinking fountains shut off. All of this, said Kyle emphatically, was the result of a "terribly obsolete" water system in Culver, which Kyle himself had pointed out in the same newspaper two weeks earlier (and which, he declared, was now proven not to be mere "rabble rousing," as some wags -- or as Kyle none too gently referred to them, "nitwits" -- had suggested).


If the name of Verl McFeely is starting to sound familiar as the story of Culver's water works progresses, it's no coincidence. In September of 1963, it was reported that McFeely was being honored with the John N. Hurty Service Award in South Bend for his 25 years of service at the station, making his beginnings there date back to 1938! Indiana's section of the American Water Works Association also awarded Culver's water plant for its safety record at the same awards event.

The 'new' plant

Whatever the impact of Kyle's 1956 "rabble rousing" about the state of Culver's water facilities, it took until 1969 before a completely new water plant would come together for the town.

The Citizen announced that Feb. 21 of that year would mark the first steps in operation of the new water treatment plant on South Ohio Street, though it was noted that getting the entire system to full functionality would take several months.

Of special interest relating to the 1969 plant is the first-ever addition to Culver water of chlorine, long before a common additive to municipal water supplies. In fact, the move to chlorinate city water across the globe was well underway in the early 1900s, and a report in The Culver Citizen in 1936 noted that its addition reduced deaths by the aforementioned typhoid epidemic from 24 to four per 100,000 persons. Chlorine had been injected into Culver's water tower, according to the Citizen, for sanitary purposes in 1939 after the first-ever internal cleaning of the tower (during which time the old water tank at the town plant was used as a town water supply). However the chlorine addition in that instance, likely not the last time such a method was used, was simply a one-time precaution.

Why it took Culver until 1969 to add the chemical to its water isn't apparently discussed in The Culver Citizen, though careful mention is made of the need for those owning aquariums to allow the newly chlorinated water to sit a while before returning aquatic pets to it.

All of this more or less brings us to the present, when we can appreciate the journey Culver has undertaken in order to bring a cold glass of water to our tap and table, though it's no exaggeration on the part of the town council or any entity or individual working with the town to replace what has been deemed a duly obsolete water facility, to suggest it's been close to 50 years for the present Ohio Street plant.

The old facility has served its purpose well, on the whole, something with which even Bob Kyle couldn't argue; he'd likely give the current replacement project a hearty thumbs up.