Springing Back to Life

If you love spending time outdoors you may have visited the Great Bear Springs Recreation Area, just a few miles south of Fulton on old Route 57. I’ve walked Great Bear’s trails many times and always enjoy the company of towering trees, the meandering Oswego River and a variety of birds in song. On my walks I’ve often noticed a small abandoned building alongside one of the trails and wondered about its origins. Recently I learned some of the building’s history from Dick Drosse, one of the Friends of Great Bear.

Dick explained that the weather-worn structure was Great Bear’s Spring House, which played an important role in the water bottling company once located at the site. At the height of its popularity the company drew 100,000 gallons a day from the area’s natural springs and shipped it across the United States. That all started in 1894, but the Spring House didn’t become part of the company’s bottling methods until 1912, when its pipeline across the Oswego River had to be discontinued so the New York State Barge Canal could include the river in its waterways system.

To maintain Great Bear’s successful business, the company’s founder and owner, Frederick Emerick, had to devise another method of collecting water from the springs. Part of Frederick’s plan included the construction of a spring house, which would be designed to act as a pumping station. Frederick’s son, Stanley Emerick, a graduate of Yale’s engineering school, sketched out his father’s plan, creating a small “house” with a water reservoir capable of holding 2,000 gallons. Tankers transported water to local railcars and then shipped it to bottling sites throughout the northeast.

While Great Bear’s Spring House worked as intended, Frederick Emerick and his son weren’t looking for just an ordinary pump house. Stanley modeled theirs using Italian architecture he’d admired, elevating their water collection system to a work of art. Included in its construction were a Mediterranean-style clay tile roof, decorative corbel ends to the rafters and an interior finished with mosaic tile. In the center of the building, a tiled well circulated spring water.

For decades, water collected at the Spring House and bottled as Great Bear Spring Pure Water was a popular product. Then, in 1976, the city of Fulton was looking for a reliable supply of water for its 14,000 residents. A deal was struck between the city and Great Bear and the water bottling company discontinued its business, selling its name and polar bear logo. (Today it’s owned by the Nestlé Company.) Methods to collect and distribute water to the city of Fulton modernized and the Spring House was discontinued. Forty years later, the once beautiful structure was in disrepair.

Enter the Friends of Great Bear, a not-for-profit volunteer group who currently maintains the site. Since 2006, the Friends have been working to make a hiker’s experience safe and pleasurable. Their projects have focused on keeping trails clear of fallen trees, posting trail signs and building walkways over water and marshy areas. Last year, however, the group turned its attention to its first restoration project, The Great Bear Spring House.

In January of 2018, Fernando Araya, Great Bear Friend and arborist, began cutting and clearing encroaching trees around the House. By April, Friends volunteers, including Exelon employees, cut and cleared brush in the Spring House area. Funding necessary to begin the costly renovations was secured from Frederick Emerick’s granddaughter, Helen Emerick Stacy, and great-granddaughter, Pat Stacy Healey, as well as the Sunoco Ethanol Facility and several Friends of Great Bear. With materials and labor provided by Arrow Fence, Universal Metals and Friends of Great Bear, the Spring House’s restoration could begin.

Jake Mulcahey, co-owner of Pinnacle Builder, and his children enjoy hiking Great Bear, and he offered to repair the Spring House, beginning with its deteriorated roof. The original roof tiles proved too expensive to replace, but green metal roofing nicely complimented the white building. New rafters and sub-roof sheathing were installed where needed, and exposed rafter ends and soffits were painted.

With the roof now weather tight, Jake and his crew removed the Spring House’s inner broken ceiling and replaced it with moisture resistant sheetrock. By reviewing old photographs Jake was able to reconstruct the collapsed portico entranceway, corbel ends to the rafters and the compound curvature of the gable. Window openings were framed and fitted with clear Plexiglas. As autumn approached, the Friends of Great Bear gave the Spring House’s exterior a fresh coat of paint. An entranceway gate and metal sculpture were provided by Arrow Fence and Universal Metals.

One more step in the revitalization of the Spring House remains. This May, the Leadership Oswego County class of 2019 will add finishing touches to the house’s site. Leadership Oswego County is administered by SUNY Oswego’s Office of Business and Community Relations and its goal is to help county residents become community stewards. During the yearlong program class members study county businesses, educational institutions and government agencies, and a culminating project helps the class put their knowledge to work. This year’s class chose Great Bear’s Spring House.

Leadership Oswego County’s project includes the planting of native flowers and a tree donated by PlantCNY in the Spring House area, which, as Rebecca Trevett, of the 2019 class, explained, will fulfill the following: “Our class plans to breathe new life to a small portion of this community’s wonderful backyard oasis, Great Bear, [which will] forever bring a wellspring of joy to everyone who visits this local, invaluable recreation area.”

The next time I take a walk on Great Bear trails and come to the Spring House, I’ll pause to remember the history of the grounds I’m standing on. I’ll thank the forward-thinking individuals like Frederick and Stanley Emerick, the kindness of their descendants Helen Emerick Stacy and Pat Stacy Healey, and the many Friends of Great Bear, who have devoted their time and effort to making our walks there memorable.

The Great Bear Recreation Area’s Spring House has recently been restored.

The Great Bear Recreation Area’s Spring House has recently been restored.