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."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402