REPRINTS


100 Years of Dancing Bears
Celebrating the Fountain in Center Park
by Susan Barlow

Manchester’s Dancing Bear fountain is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It was in 1909 that the Cheney family gave the bronze sculpture and stone fountain to the public in honor of Frank Cheney (1817-1904), a founding member of the Cheney silk dynasty.

Fountains were a popular means of memorializing people and events, as well as a welcome convenience for people and horses in the long-ago days before soda machines and plastic water bottles. In February 1908, The Hartford Courant mentions a proposal by “the several temperance societies to erect somewhere in town a public drinking fountain.” Temperance organizations were active in the 19th and early 20th centuries, combating rampant alcoholism. Many local churches had temperance groups that worked to improve family life by advocating an end to alcohol consumption.

The August 22, 1908 Hartford Courant reported, “The efforts of the local temperance societies to place a drinking fountain at the new park at the Center can now be turned in another direction, as already…the family of the late Frank Cheney, who donated the park, have been planning to have erected in the park a drinking fountain which will be several times better than any that would be erected by the temperance societies. The matter has long been under consideration and the material for the fountain was carefully gone over, but it is now probable that it will be of bronze….It is the purpose of the donor to erect a fountain which will be in keeping with the rest of the surroundings of the park and one that will last for ages.”

In October 1909, the fountain was installed in the park, which was owned by the Cheney family. The Cheneys had provided the land and layout of the park and paid for hauling in carloads of soil, building the stairs, pavilion, and curving sidewalks. The Cheneys employed two to ten men at a time to take care of the park’s plantings, sidewalks, and grounds, and they employed a special policeman to patrol the park at night. The park became public property in 1912, when Manchester voters accepted the gift, along with a cash bequest from Frank Cheney’s will for park maintenance.

Frank Cheney, memorialized by the fountain
Frank Cheney (1817-1904) was the youngest of the Cheney brothers who founded the silk mills in Manchester. His patented invention of “Improvement in machinery for doubling, twisting, and reeling thread,” was issued in 1847, when he was 30 years old. His great-granddaughter, the late Alice Farley Williams, called him a mechanical genius in her biography “Silk & Guns, The Life of a Connecticut Yankee.”

Mrs. Williams said, “He invented a labor-saving machine for making silk sewing thread that improved the quantity and quality of the product. It put the Cheney factory ahead of its competitors and started it on the road to success...He supervised the manufacture of the Spencer repeating rifle, and had made a happy-go-lucky trip to California during the Gold Rush.” Frank Cheney was “a man full of vitality, who strove hard at his work, always endeavoring to do his best ... He was at the heart of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century in his own town. Despite little formal education, he became one of Connecticut’s many inventors… He loved his family, and he gave generously and quietly to worthy causes and individuals as his parents had done before him.”

Frank and his wife, Susan Jarvis Cushing Cheney (1827-1914), had five children, including Frank Cheney, Jr. (1860-1957) who served first as President and then as Chairman of the Board of Cheney Brothers from 1907 to 1931. Another child was Mary Cheney (1855-1934), for whom the Downtown library was named. She was also known for her quiet philanthropy.

It was the widow Susan Cheney who pressed on with the establishment of the park after Frank’s death. She was instrumental in making sure the fountain was installed in honor of her late husband.

Charles Adams Platt, artist of the fountain and Cheney family member
Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933), an internationally known etcher, painter, architect, and landscape architect, designed the granite fountain itself. Platt was the grandson of one of Frank Cheney’s brothers, George Wells Cheney. Platt also designed the pavilion on the hill in Center Memorial Park and mansions still gracing the Great Lawn on Hartford Road. Platt lived and worked in New York City, but visited family members here in Manchester. Platt’s designs include the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, offices and apartments for the Astors in New York, the Maxwell Memorial Library in Rockville, CT, the Lyme Art Gallery in Old Lyme, CT, and a fountain in New York’s Bryant Park, honoring Josephine Shaw Lowell, a Progressive-era reformer.

Although the fountain in our park no longer provides water, it was designed with steps so youngsters could reach the water spout and admire the bears. The bowl itself is five feet in diameter, and the entire fountain with statue is over six feet tall.

Albert Humphreys, sculptor of the bears
Albert Humphreys (1863-1922) was born in Cincinnati and worked in New York and Pennsylvania. He sculpted the dancing bears on a commission from the Cheney family. Humphreys, like Platt, had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, where they had both studied painting.

When Humphreys turned from painting to sculpting, his work was praised by critics and fellow artists, and was popular with the public.

In a July 1907 article in “The Craftsman,” magazine, John Spargo (1876-1966), a critic, reformer, and author, praised “Mr. Humphreys’ unquestionable genius,” and his “indisputably great talent.” Spargo disparages calling Humphreys “An American Barye,” a reference other critics made to Antoine-Louis Barye (c.1795-1875), a master sculptor of animals, with bronzes in museums and along streets throughout the world. (Note that Barye himself was referred to by critic Théophile Gautier as “le Michel-Ange de la Menagerie,” or the Michelangelo of the Menagerie.) Spargo says, “…it grows very wearisome to have to endure…this measuring the work of every artist of genius by French standards – ‘American Millets,’ ‘American Corots,’ ‘American Baryes’ …I am free to say that some of the little animal studies Mr. Humphreys has given us equal, in my judgment, Barye’s best. Indeed, I like some of them better than any of the French sculptor’s with which I am familiar. There is more of the sneakiness, the sly slinking way of the big ‘cats’ in Mr. Humphreys’ work. Lions, tigers, cougars, leopards – all these our artist knows intimately and models with wonderful fidelity…and he maintains an affectionate attitude toward the animals, and loves best to show the more gentle and lovable features of their nature. There is something almost human in the great beasts as he thus portrays them, motherhood and childhood among them being just as delightful and inspiring as among the human family.”

Humphreys exhibited both paintings and sculptures internationally. His 1909 “Bear Scratching its Back” and various lionesses and cubs were exhibited in New York. In the 1916 American Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by the Art Institute of Chicago, he exhibited “Lion Cubs Wrestling,” and “Juggling Bear.” In addition to his animal bronzes, he created a bust of Samuel L. Clemens, i.e., Mark Twain, featured in the May 1924 issue of “Outlook” magazine.

Vandals
Vandals have long been part of the history of the Dancing Bear fountain. On November 2, 1909, The Hartford Courant reported, “Some person or persons made an attempt to wreck the new drinking fountain which has been placed in the new park at the Center in memory of the late Frank Cheney, Sr. The fountain was completed only last Saturday and the part which was damaged during Sunday night or Monday morning early was the last part placed. The fountain has a decoration of two bronze A merican bears… a very attractive ornament …especially cast for the top of the fountain.” The cement holding the sculpture to the granite was damaged, but the ornament was not removed “as it is probable that it was found too heavy, or the vandals may have been frightened away.”

Vandals attacked in July 1968, and police found the sculpture in nearby bushes. Three more attacks before 1990 prompted a recommendation not to display the bears in the park. Theunis Werkhoven, Mayor at that time, took a strong stand for keeping the bears in park, secured to the granite base with bonding and metal supports.

In 1995, after another attack, a vandal was arrested and agreed to pay thousands of dollars to repair the damage that he had done.

In 2000, more attacks resulted in a proposal to move the bronze bears inside the nearby library, and cast a replica bronze at a cost of $13,000. The idea was rejected.

With better lighting and police observation, we hope that the bears are safe.

Friend of the Park, Fred Spaulding
Conservationist and retired orthodontist Dr. Fred Spaulding lives at the southern boundary of the park on Myrtle Street. He spoke up for keeping the park green in 2003 when the park’s sweeping lawn was threatened with paving to install a parking lot. He established The Friends of Center Park, wrote letters, attended meetings, and talked to neighbors about preserving the park. He pointed out that the Cheney family gave the property for a public park of green open space, and not for parking. Indeed, the park was designed for strolling and resting, not for a playground or sports field, like Charter Oak Park and Northwest Park. However, The Hartford Courant editorialized on March 12, 2003 that it was time to pave the park – “Building more parking at Cheney [library] is cheaper than a new library. It may seem unnecessary to add parking when there are public spaces within a few blocks,” but still The Courant said, “Officials are just going to have to be brave enough to blacktop some of that green space and face the consequences.”

Dr. Spaulding did not give up, and eventually this particular threat to the park was defeated.

By the way, Town Directors in 1977 had also opposed a proposal to pave more of the lawn for parking, suggesting instead more police observation.

Recently Dr. Spaulding advocated adding the word “memorial” to Center Park, an “addition” that actually was part of the park’s name years ago. The town has now installed a new sign, saying “Center Memorial Park.”

The park continues to serve as a place for solemn Memorial Day services, art shows, and band concerts. Long may this seven-acre park continue to be an icon of Manchester with its charming bears, memorial fountains, monuments, and green lawns.

(Susan Barlow serves on the board of the Manchester Historical Society.)
Jun 15, 2009



History buffs and park fans stand near the Dancing Bear fountain during the 100th anniversary celebration led by the Manchester Historical Society May 9. Left to right, front row, Ron Conyers, chair of the Park and Rec Commission; Mayor Lou Spadaccini; Dr. Fred Spaulding, Chair of Friends of Center Memorial Park; right to left, back row, Carol Cheney, representing the Cheney family; John Fletcher, Manchester Historical Society; Theunis Werkhoven, former mayor.

     


(All images courtesy Susan Barlow)

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