BABYLON, NY, MAY 23, 2011: Chris Proto, stands near a...

BABYLON, NY, MAY 23, 2011: Chris Proto, stands near a near-exact replica of a fountain in Babylon, NY, May 22, 2011. The fountain was originally dedicated in 1897 and removed 40 years later. This replica will be officially unveiled to the public on Memorial Day.Photo by Ed Betz Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

Memorial Day, 1897: "A large, interested and enthusiastic assemblage" attended the unveiling of Babylon's village fountain at the corner of Main Street and Fire Island Avenue, according to an article in the South Side Signal newspaper.

After speeches and patriotic songs, the American flag covering the fountain was removed, revealing a rectangular base topped by a zinc statue of a young woman feeding a dove. Water flowed from a spout in the base, and the assemblage heartily applauded. "It is a very handsome fountain, and will long stand as a monument to the donors and a beautifier of the village," the article concluded.

The fountain did not, in fact, stand long, and after the passing of several generations its fate was a village mystery.

That mystery was recently solved -- mostly -- and the unveiling of a near-exact replica is scheduled for Monday at the Village Historical Society.

Christopher Proto, a dentist whose village practice is in the same building his grandparents once used for their bakery, began investigating last year, combing through back issues of the Signal and meeting minutes of the Women's Exchange, a charity that donated its last $400 to purchase the fountain.

He'd grown up hearing stories about the fountain, supposed by many to have been destroyed by a trolley that jumped its tracks. "It was right at the crossroads of the village," Proto said. "It was part of our identity."

Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), a history buff and Babylon resident, agreed, and suggested to Proto that he find another -- not just any fountain, but one exactly like the one Babylon had lost.

Proto soon found a newspaper story that said the fountain was removed in the summer of 1917, a casualty of a statewide campaign against infectious diseases. So he had debunked the trolley myth, but after searching through years of newspaper articles, he still had no idea where the deposed monument had been taken.

He learned of a similar fountain, minus the statue, in Savannah, Ga., bought from a company in Manhattan; some Googling turned up an antiques catalog from a Wisconsin company that listed the fountain for sale at $395. These fountains seemed to be all over the place.

Proto emailed some pictures to Carol Grissom, a conservator at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute and author of "Zinc Statues in America 1850-1950." The late 19th century was a boom time for fountains and statues, she said, and many relatively cheap zinc pieces were mass-produced in Brooklyn by a German immigrant named Seelig. Not only did Grissom recognize the fountains in the pictures, but she knew where Proto could find surviving examples.

One sat in the basement of a courthouse in Harrisonburg, Va., but the dove-feeder on top lacked a head; one was in Ligonier, Pa. "We could just copy theirs," Proto thought. "It was a home run."

Soon he was on the phone with Paul Fry, Ligonier's chief of public works, asking to borrow a fountain -- he said yes. Then Proto got on the phone again, with a foundry in Kentucky that would dismantle the 10-foot-tall, half-ton fountain, clean it and copy it, then deliver the original and its replica to their respective destinations -- for a price.

Horsley came through with a $50,000 grant from Suffolk County. Proto and Judy Skillen, a retired teacher, formed a committee of village residents and elected officials, including Babylon Mayor Ralph Scordino, that raised $90,000.

Babylon's new fountain arrived on a cold, rainy day in November, placed by a crane in front of the Historical Society.

Nearly a dozen local tradesmen donated their time to do plumbing, masonry and electrical work in the spring. Monday's unveiling will replicate the 1897 ceremony as closely as possible, down to the cookies, pound cake and lemonade to be served afterward.

But Proto's work is not done. He believes the fountain may have been at least damaged in a trolley collision, and that pieces may be in Sumpwam's Creek. "Do I have hard evidence? "No, not yet, but I'm not finished," he said. "When things calm down, I'm going to spend more time in the library."

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