In former times, one of the difficulties of traveling was finding water for one’s animals. In the mid- to late 1800s, animal welfare advocates and civic-minded individuals worked to make water easily available. Individuals or groups would donate a watering trough to their towns, preferably with a well and a pump. Acton had several watering troughs. Researching their history gave us insights into the practicalities of traveling in the pre-automobile era and the evolution of attitudes during the transition years as horse-drawn vehicles were replaced by autos.
In South Acton, a stone watering trough was erected in the square in the summer of 1896 using money left over from the defunct Reform Club. It was a great improvement over the former trough according to the Concord Enterprise. How it was supposed to be kept filled with water, however, was unclear. In October, 1897, the newspaper complained that the trough was dry most of the time. In June, 1898, it revealed that the selectmen had taken three months to fix the watering trough. A few weeks later, the South Acton correspondent reported “A little patience is needed. The selectmen are considering plans for furnishing water to the trough here,” and “The town fathers are thinking of digging a well near the watering trough and supply it with a pump. Anything will do, but please give us something soon.” Hopefully, the people were very patient; the well was finally dug over a year later.
West Acton village’s provision of water for animals was also a long process. The village received a stone watering trough in 1905, probably partially funded by the donation that Acton received from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for that purpose. There must have been problems, because by 1908, the town needed to vote on securing “if possible, a supply of good water for the watering trough at West Acton.” In 1912, the town voted to extend the new public water service to the village troughs. The problems weren’t over; in 1914, the West Acton trough had to be enlarged because, as the Enterprise reported, “It could not hold enough water for the many horses on the milk teams, who gather here in the morning. The trough, which is in Central sq. is a great convenience to all concerned.”
Progress, unfortunately, did not guarantee good water for animals. In October 1908, the Enterprise’s South Acton news reported that “There was a filthy act by a beastly, or dirty fellow rather, noticed the other day when a big burly hulk stepped up to the pump for a drink. He took a mouthful of water and rinsing his dirty tobacco mouth spit the foul stuff into the horse trough. It was too bad that Wisewinkers, the Sunday Post horse, could not have happened along and ducked the fellow in the water he had polluted.”
Sometimes, the sight at the trough was more entertaining. The West Acton news on June 18, 1919 reported: “FOUR ELEPHANTS HERE -- It was a novel sight Sunday when four elephants with attendants appeared at Central sq. on their way to Maynard to join a circus company. The elephants were very dry and soon took all the water from the trough in the square.”
The advent of the automobile changed perceptions of the watering troughs from a public good to, in some cases, a public nuisance. Their locations were originally chosen for animals’ use, but in later years, people wanted them moved in order to widen streets. There was not much concern about historical significance or sentimentality. Over time, the town’s watering troughs came to rest in places where they were not in the way of drivers. An October 1917 article in the Concord Enterprise reported that in Acton center, a committee had “succeeded in getting rid of the old pump and trough which makes the street at that point look much wider and is certainly a great improvement.” That trough, donated to the town by Harriet (Cowdrey) Little, was assigned a place so out-of-the-way that its location was a mystery for decades. It now resides in the Acton Arboretum. The West Acton watering trough was moved to Central Street in 1927 to make more room on Massachusetts Avenue and to improve sight-lines. The old South Acton stone watering trough, seemingly made superfluous by a more decorative iron replacement in 1913, was given another chance at relevance when the town connected water to it in 1930, creating a bubbler “for thirsty humans.” At the same time, the iron fountain was removed from Quimby Square. The Enterprise in February of that year reported that the fountain had “long been considered a menace to the school children as they gather to use it while autos are passing from all directions.” During the iron fountain’s removal, it was discovered that its base had been broken by collisions with the poles of horse-drawn vehicles. (The old stone troughs apparently had some advantages.) The iron fountain was moved to private property on High Street at some point and for the past several years has resided in front of the former Senior Center on Audubon Drive.
Today, most of the town’s watering troughs would be passed by without a glance if it weren’t for the efforts of members of the Acton Garden Club. They have converted the troughs to planters and faithfully fill them with seasonal flowers and greens. For more information on the individual troughs, see their pages in the Markers and Monuments section of our website.
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