How much is a smile worth? The city of Freeport, Minn., is about to find out.
For half a century now, travelers on busy Interstate 94 have been greeted by the smiley-faced Freeport water tower. Built nearly 100 years ago, the tower first got its face in the early 1970s, when an unidentified local resident climbed up one night and painted it.
Townspeople liked it so much that they put it on the city's official seal.
"It took on a life of its own," said Mike Eveslage, mayor of the Stearns County town of 670 residents about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. "That's our landmark. Honestly, that's probably our claim to fame."
The aging tower no longer holds water — the city dedicated a new tower in 2012. And now the future of the old tower is in doubt.
Rust is evident on the structure, which may have affected its stability. The city also has learned that a 2003 repainting, which was supposed to get rid of old lead and chromium-based paint, may not have done the job.
The City Council recently agreed to spend $2,500 to inspect the tower and check for hazardous chemicals in the paint. Depending on the results, the city will face a decision on whether to spend anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 to repair the tower or tear down the nearly century-old landmark.
Eveslage, a former high school history teacher, doesn't want the latter.
"As somebody nostalgic for history and sitting in the mayor's seat, I don't want it to be a pockmark on my record that it came down on my watch," he said. Townspeople are already talking about mounting a fundraising campaign, he added, and Eveslage thinks residents will rally around their tower.
"Regardless of what it's going to end up costing, I've got to believe the people of our town are going to do a lot of things to keep it," he said.
"The city engineer back in 2012 recommended that the water tower come down," Eveslage added. "And he joked that he thought he was going to get dragged out in the street."