For more than a century, the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena, Montana was one of the country’s northernmost Confederate monuments. But when racial violence in the former Confederacy rippled across the nation, the effects reached Helana’s distant fountain as well.
On the late summer evening of September 6, 1916, Montana’s capital city of Helena formally unveiled and dedicated its newest landmark: a $2,000 fountain gracing the highest hill of a city park. George H. Carsley, known as “the architect of Helena,” designed the fountain and made it from native Montana granite.
Even though it was a monument in Montana, it did not memorialize anyone from the Big Sky State. Instead, carved into the side were the words, “A Loving Tribute to Our Confederate Soldiers.” Helena’s local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy—three members strong with Mrs. Aiken, Mrs. Read, and Gertrude “Georgia” C. Young—had fundraised for the fountain since 1903 and donated it to the city. In a dedicatory speech, Young said the fountain was the Daughters’ gift to their new home, and she praised the city’s American spirit of unity in which there were no bad feelings between the American North and South. “On behalf of the Daughters of the Confederacy,” she concluded, “I present this fountain to the city of Helena as a token of our esteem toward our new home.”
City attorney Edward Horsky declared, “Helena is pleased and honored to accept this substantial and beautiful donation.” Horsky added that the fountain would “long keep bright the memory” of its donor, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Although fifty years removed from the Civil War, the nation was in the middle of a decades-long movement to memorialize the Confederacy. Helena’s fountain was one of hundreds of memorials built and dedicated in the first half of the twentieth century (see tour introduction for “Confederate Imagery in the Intermountain West”). At the same time that more and more Confederate monuments dotted the nation, the Ku Klux Klan also resurged in activity and membership nationwide, including in Helena, terrorizing Black Americans.
Aiken, Read, and Young fundraised for and built the Confederate Memorial Fountain against this backdrop, reifying White reconciliation and undermining Black experiences under the chattel slavery the Confederacy promoted. And though they gave Helena a memorial for Confederate soldiers, the city built no Civil War monument for Union soldiers thereafter, whether Black or White, even though there were Union veterans who lived in Helena, including the architect Carlsey himself.
Nearly one hundred years later, on June 17, 2015, a white supremacist gunman murdered nine Black Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shock rippled across the United States, reaching Helena and prompting residents to scrutinize their fountain more critically. The Helena City Commission asked the county Heritage Tourism Council to design a sign with contextualizing history to place near the fountain.
By August, heritage preservation officer Pam Attardo proposed a text which explained how Confederate memorials were tools in “the South’s quest for vindication after the Civil War.” The proposed sign even mentioned the United Daughters’ influence on school textbooks and curriculum.
However, the city discovered that a sign large enough to accommodate Attardo’s text legibly would have to be massive, and the project stalled. For two years, Attardo checked in with city officials every few months to no avail while the Heritage Tourism Council waited for the city to approve the sign.
In the wake of violence and death at the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Confederate markers returned to the national conversation and to Helena. On August 15, the American Indian Caucus of Montana’s state legislature issued a call to remove the fountain entirely, and other advocates joined the call.
On August 16, the City Commission held a hearing to decide the fountain’s fate. About forty Helena residents spoke, both for and against removal. Some Helenites claimed removing the fountain would disgrace history, though Montana blogger Don Pogreba wryly observed that such “passionate regard for history… seemed to be lacking when… the Montana Historical Society’s funding was under debate” several months earlier. In the end, the Commission directed city workers to remove the fountain on August 18. For lack of better storage, the city moved it to an undisclosed field where it remains.
In February 2018, local civil rights advocate Ron Waterman began raising money to replace the now-gone fountain with a new monument: an Equity Fountain dedicated to equality and compassion. The grassroots campaign fundraised, called for designs, and met with the Public Arts Committee. In January 2019, the City Commission voted unanimously to accept the Equity Fountain as a donation, and in April 2020 the city installed it. Once again, Helena was “pleased and honored to accept” a “substantial and beautiful donation.”