Jack Brubaker

Jack Brubaker

Many schools are switching from the traditional push-button drinking fountains to no-touch water dispensers or water coolers that allow students to fill bottles and carry them to class.

This transition began before the novel coronavirus closed schools and required educators to rethink how everything works. Covid has accelerated the process. Remaining old-fashioned drinking fountains have been covered so they can’t be used. Eventually, they will be hauled to the dump.

Good riddance to what was a bad idea under the best of circumstances. Water flowing down to a receptacle makes more hygienic sense than water flowing up (too often under low pressure) into the mouth.

B. Frank Eshleman and Samuel F. Rathvon had the right idea when they installed Lancaster’s first public drinking fountain in front of their bank in March 1873. Eshleman & Rathvon’s Banking House stood on the site of the current Fulton Bank in Penn Square.

Eshleman and Rathvon’s fountain employed a faucet running into a basin. Users held a tin cup under the faucet. (That was the unsanitary part: everyone used the same cup.)

Eshleman and Rathvon’s fountain also supplied two large basins filled with running water for horses. Much lower on the fountain, almost on the pavement, was a small basin for dogs. Imagine people, horses and dogs all crowded around that fountain to get a drink. Those were the days!

Robert Wood & Co. of Philadelphia made the cast-iron, bronzed water distributor. A 4-foot-high, ornamental pedestal topped by a golden ball stood on a square base. This was a fountain made to impress the banking citizens of Lancaster.

But the March 19, 1873, semi-weekly edition of the Lancaster Examiner & Herald had a message for certain dogs that might attempt to use this new device:

“We do not intend this article to meet the eyes of those mangy dogs, who infest our streets hunting up a chance for fights, but for those nice dogs who go along, walk up to the fountain, take a drink and depart without making any demonstration for a fight.”

That playful story also derided a tongue-in-cheek proposal to pipe beer into the drinking fountain on election day the next week. A “Local Option” ballot question apparently involved the availability of alcohol to the people of Lancaster.

“We think this would not do,” said the Examiner & Herald of beer in place of water, “for the voters would be so thick around the fountain that they would forget that an election was being held.”

The same newspaper ran a story June 4, 1873, explaining that Eshleman and Rathvon had hired a man to count the number of people who drank from the fountain from 7 a.m to 6 p.m. on one day. The count: 1,481. That did not include “the many tired and thirsty beasts whose thirst had been allayed.”

Eshleman and Rathvon operated their bank and fountain in a three-story building for several years. But they had other business on their minds.

Eshleman, an attorney and a leader of the local Republican party, served as the county’s district attorney from 1878 to 1881. In 1888, he lost a congressional primary race.

Rathvon left Lancaster for Colorado in 1877. He operated oil fields and mines, and served in the Colorado legislature.

Cynthia Roth, who enjoys reading through old Lancaster newspapers, found the water fountain stories. The Scribbler tracked down Eshleman and Rathvon after they switched from banking to politics.

Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at scribblerlnp@gmail.com

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