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Drinking fountains were once the latest school craze

July 27, 2017 GMT

The Wednesday, July 12, 110 years ago (1907) “It Happened in Keokuk” told “Sanitary drinking fountains placed in Keokuk schools.” That prompted memory of a long ago letter written to my grandfather, Karl Megchelsen Sr., by his younger sister, Florence Megchelsen.

By this time, Karl had graduated from Keokuk Senior High and was attending Monmouth College, at Monmouth, Ill. His sister Florence was in high school, while his younger brother Paul was attending grade school. The family lived in the 1500 block of Timea Street, Keokuk,their parents being Gerard and Emma (Mollers) Megchelsen. Their Moller grandparents lived next door.

Karl graduated college, taught a year near Walla Walla, Washington, attended Seminary in Pennsylvania, and became a Presbyterian minister in Boyden, later in a rural church near Janesville, Wis. A few years later, he completely lost his hearing and had to quit the ministry, spending the rest of his life on the farm.

Both Florence and her brother Paul went on to teach in the Keokuk School District in their adult years. Florence taught a year in a Lee County rural school, then spent several years teaching in Indiana and attended Monmouth College before coming back to Keokuk and teaching in elementary school. Paul spent many years teaching at Keokuk High School, continuing to announce home football games several years after retiring.

Florence told her brother Karl about the “new drinking fountains” in a letter dated Sept. 19, 1908. She wrote:

“My seat in K.H.S. is 603 and is quite a difference from 318 as it is so much nearer the front than before. The new drinking fountains are lovely. I suppose you have heard of them, if not I will try and tell you. At each of the large square posts on the first landing there is a kind of a sink with two nickel plated cups which have a small pipe extending up through the center thru which a stream of water is sent up into the air. When you drink you must bend gracefully over and drink from this little spray thrown into the air. Of course, there are quite a few who like to play with them and bump your head down into them when you are drinking. They have them in all the public schools and so they just have a fine time don’t you know. Paul says they all have to get in line & take their turn and Mrs. Sheldon stands by and watches them.”

Considering that most drinks of water in those days came from a commonly shared tin cup hung next to a bucket of water, these “lovely” drinking fountains that you made sure to “bend gracefully over” to drink from the “little spray thrown into the air” were quite an improvement. One can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be to today’s individual refrigerated bottles of ice cold water — that we pay good money for! Yes, times sure have changed in the last 100 plus years!

Mary Sue Chatfield resides in Montrose and is a regular contributor to the weekly Montrose-Donnellson page that is published Thursdays in the Keokuk Daily Gate City and Fort Madison Daily Democrat.