OSHKOSH — What to do with a water tower that has been rendered obsolete? For the City of Oshkosh, the plan was to tear it down, but a community group came to the rescue and bought the 100-year-old beacon of the town.
When the city began a $4 million water system replacement project, the water tower was to be removed, however, Jo Lynn Blackwell, Susan Piva and other members of the Save the Oshkosh Water Tower movement petitioned the city council to save the 120-foot tall tower, eventually purchasing it and the ground it sits on. Now, the plan is to build an illuminated plaza underneath the tower for community events and to put lighting on the tower that will be able to change colors for different events, say purple lights for Garden County High School sports events or red and green for Christmas.
“They have different plans as far as hosting gatherings,” Mayor Jim Levick said. “It’s more like a meeting place, a social area. As well as trying to pull some people off the road to stop and take a look at it is one of the big things they discussed.”
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In 2019, the water tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places, one of only a few water towers on the historical listing.
For Susan Piva’s brother, Mike Piva, saving the water tower meant preserving a piece of history for a hometown that he loves.
“You think about (the water tower) and you think why does that mean so much? The reason, sometimes you can’t verbalize, but it is the history,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to honor our history. ... When communities don’t honor their history and take care of it, you lose your identity. You can grow your identity, but there’s a core.”
For community member Mark Ferrari, it was a bit of a case of “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
“A lot of times, you don’t notice things until it’s brought up to you, and I think for here that’s what happened,” he said. “I think that’s what Mike ran into with the group is that a lot of people at first, you become blind to things. You don’t notice this 100-foot tower standing there — you see it every day, you don’t notice it until the fact that maybe it’s going to disappear, and there’s all this energy getting put into it. Even many people that were like 'What’s the big deal?' have done a total 180 on it, and that’s why it was such a good deal that it was saved.”
For Mike Piva, seeing his sister and her friend, Blackwell, regain a passion for a community they haven’t lived in for many years was refreshing.
“We were blown away by the support, and we’re still getting support with people checking in, so it’s nice,” he said. “It’s funny, because of the water tower, there’s always these unexpected twists and turns to any project and some you’re kind of surprised like ‘I never saw that coming’ or (with a more serious tone) ‘I never saw that coming,’ based on the tone of how you say that.
Having grown up in Bayard, Jim Levick has made a life and found a home in Oshkosh.
"My sister and her friend, because they’ve been gone for almost 40 years and now you can see them getting back into the community and they’re getting to know people. So there’s people that have moved in after they graduated high school, and now they’re getting to know the people that have moved in, so those are unexpected joys to this project. They have more reason to come home. Instead of feeling like a guest, they’re more a part of the community.”
Ferrari said it’s the vision of the group to save the water tower that struck him.
“They thought of it as more than just a functional water tower,” Ferrari said. “It was like the beacon of the town that you see driving in with the big ‘OSHKOSH’ on there that we can’t let this happen.”