Two Forgotten Fountains and a Pond
The Roeder Home’s Lost Water Features May Have Left Us A Few Clues
The stately, historic Roeder Home in Bellingham, WA, wasn’t only surrounded by green lawns, an orchard, and charming gardens in its early years. Built by local banker Victor A. Roeder in 1910, the house was once also graced with a charming goldfish pond and perhaps even one or two water fountains, proving once again that even the grand can lose something poignant along the way.
After only a couple of owners since its completion, the beautiful, eclectic Arts and Crafts home, with its garden grounds, was deeded to Whatcom County in 1969, becoming a county park in 1971. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the home has long been open to the public for events and tours, and art classes were held in its basement for years. As interests and instructors changed over time, this included photography, drawing, painting, jewelry-making, cooking, and even pottery — the students’ pieces fired in the basement kiln. Eventually, the home became the birthplace of Allied Arts.
During a visit to the home in the 1990s, I noticed a framed photo on the wall of the same intriguing, black-and-white image shown above, that of the house in its heyday with a mysterious pond out front. As the reader can see, the pool was amoeba-shaped, with a concrete-basin, and it was nestled in the front lawn between the curved driveway and the half-moon walkway where the current park bench is today. There were no water features on the grounds when I saw the framed photo, and when I went outside to look for evidence at that spot, there was nothing to see but grass. Its former existence and ultimate erasure sparked my curiosity immensely.
It was like I had found an irresistible map showing where someone may have buried treasure. The unknown backstory of the missing pond lingered in the recesses of my mind for years while I changed careers, bought a house, got married, and entered fatherhood. Twenty years later, thanks to my tree-climbing children, I noticed an artistic pile of large rocks sitting peacefully in the bushes. Poking out of the top was a rusty pipe. Had this mound had been a fountain? As I inspected this pile, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that, right behind the curtain, there may be a small but interesting story to discover and share with the world.
One day, I chatted it up with a young man on the county grounds crew who was tending to the Roeder Home’s lawns. I was excited to learn from him that the hidden, ornamental pile of boulders behind the park bench was once a part of the vanished pond’s landscaping. After hearing this, I wanted to study the old photo again, but the house was closed. Still, luck was in my court. I discovered the image had also been uploaded to the City of Bellingham’s site (cob.org), where I eagerly zoomed in to scrutinize it further. Sure enough, there it was, the pile of rustic stones situated purposefully at the rear of the pool. The pieces of what I thought were two separate puzzles began to fit together as one.
To glean more on this matter, I reached out to Michael McFarlane at Whatcom County Parks and Recreation. While he admitted the county knew very little about the pond itself, he sifted a bit of helpful information from the county’s archives. According to McFarlane, in 1991, Jim Bolster, a grandson of Victor Roeder, gave Whatcom County Parks and Recreation a general diagram of the house and grounds back in its early years, including changes that occurred later as ownership switched hands. Unfortunately, the dates of such alterations to the house and landscaping were not provided. Mr. Bolster had also said that the Roeders had a dairy cow, raised chickens and ducks, and tended the orchards and gardens shown in the layout. On the diagram, the pool is drawn and noted as a “duck pond with goldfish.” Finally, Mr. Bolster recalled that there might have been a Native American canoe as part of the pond’s landscaping. I was not able to confirm if this was true, or for that matter, just when the canoe was installed and when it was removed. Once I had digested the last tidbit of information that Parks and Recreation possessed regarding the pond, McFarlane was eager to learn whatever else I could find in my research. So was I.
Not long after this exchange, I learned that one of my friendly neighbors, Shelly Brown, was a Roeder family descendant. I emailed her some questions regarding the pond, and she graciously took those questions to her mother, Sharon Townley, who lived there as a child. Blessed with those answers, I was able to gather, if not much of the pond’s history, a clearer picture of its fate.
Mrs. Townley had a funny story to tell. Born in 1936, she lived in the Roeder Home as a child and remembered the pond. When she was 3 or 4 years old, her father, Les Townley, and her mother, Pheobe Bolster, were picking apples in the orchard near the pond. Her mother, who had been catching all the apples below, noticed later on that her ring's diamond was missing. They scoured the ground of the orchard but failed to find it. Their attention then turned to the team of white ducks nearby, or more specifically, what came out of those ducks. When this search came up empty, it occurred to them that the diamond may have ended up in one of the ducks’ gizzards. Right after this event, Mrs. Townley recalled that the family ate a lot of duck for dinner until all the ducks were gone. Her parents never found the diamond. Now that there were no more ducks and the children were still young enough to fall into the pond, Mrs. Townley’s parents deemed the pond too hazardous for the neighborhood and had it “drained” in the late 1930s. Never would the pond provide murky habitat for goldfish or reflect the house upon its mirrored face again.
After Mrs. Townley’s parents had the pond siphoned off, I wondered if the empty concrete depression was buried as it was or completely removed and filled in, giving it a proper burial. Covering it over would have been a quick and quiet method of getting rid of it versus the more expensive task of breaking it up to have it disposed of elsewhere. I do notice that upon closer inspection of aerial views dated 1950 and 1963, the images both show that the outer concrete ring of the pond site appears to be still visible. By 1975, the outer ring has disappeared and is just grass as it is today. Considering this, it may have been filled in long before the county took possession and treated as a large flower bed ringed with the old concrete shoreline. Sometime between 1963 and 1975, either the former owners or Parks and Recreation decided to bury the ringed flower bed with a layer of sod and be done with it. To answer if the old pond’s concrete was still underneath the grass, I needed to revisit the grounds.
After I researched the location of water and sewer pipes of the Roeder Home property and was granted permission by Whatcom County Parks and Recreation to conduct a shallow probing of the ground, I headed to the late pond’s site on a damp, cobalt evening in December. Prepared for the five-minute task ahead, I brought my “history probe,” a simple, 30" long, T-shaped tool a friend of mine was so kind to weld for me for just these types of historical forays. Following the contour of the pond’s former perimeter, I slowly, gently pushed the rod into the soft, wet soil at an angle to see if I might meet the old pond’s buried concrete shore. “Clink!” — my probe stopped at something solid. My excitement welling, I again tried a few more feet away and was met with another definitive “clink!.” Rounding the bend of the pond’s old footprint, once again, a solid “clink!.” Each “clink” was music to my ears, having the unmistakable tone of my probe against concrete. The invisible dotted line of my 12" deep soil-piercings told me I had found buried treasure. “YES!” I exclaimed. Hearing my joy with this discovery, the Roeder Home opened its eyes for a moment, squinted at me flatly, and drifted back to sleep. No matter, I was exuberant — it just might be at that shallow depth at least some, or perhaps, most of the pond is still entombed beneath the grass.
While other spots I probed failed to bump up against anything at all, that might have been because I had lost where the old perimeter was at that dimming winter hour or that some of the concrete had been removed before being covered over. In some ways, this was like playing the game of Battleship with the past. I wanted to probe the grass where the deeper parts of the old pond were likely to have been, but I did not want to press my luck with the possibility of an irrigation system hiding deep beneath my feet. I can’t help but wonder if the pond's concrete bottom might still be down there, hiding at a greater depth than I had imagined. As dry as this section gets in the summer, this is likely, but we may never know for sure.
Whatever remains beneath the blanket of turf, It is strange when I consider the pond would have only been about 25 to 30 years old at the time of its removal— relatively young in contrast to the 110 years old the house and grounds are in 2020.
Once the pond was no more, the rock mound at the rear was left in place as an attractive landscaping detail, though it appears much shorter and smaller today than it was in the old photo. To ascertain if the pile had been reduced in size or modified somehow, I measured the rockpile height we see today and inspected the stones for old-looking cement, which exists in many places on top and between the rocks. The current pile measures 4 feet to its pinnacle, while the mound in the old photo, I guess to be around 5 or 6 feet tall, with a much bigger circumference at its base. This discrepancy had me perplexed. I began counting the boulders from the ground up and comparing each unique stone with the old image ones. While it is apparent that some smaller rocks have gone missing over the years — wiggled loose by gravity, weather, vandals, tree roots, the children of history writers — most of them seem to be in their original place. With this triangulation method, I discovered that the entire base of boulders in the 1910 image is not visible today. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe the old pile was not shorter, but the soil encircling the mound was perhaps a foot or so higher. To test this theory, I poked the soft soil beneath the base with a 12" drill bit. Pushing the bit down at an angle nine inches deep, I bumped against something hard all around the front of the mound. I am not sure if I was touching the mound’s original base of rocks that once knew the light of day or the old concrete shore. But it just may be that after years of newer landscaping, tree roots getting thicker, and decades of mulch, the base of boulders could have eventually been buried under the soil. Though it sure would be fun to dig down to find out, I will let this one lay.
Entertaining whether the mound originally served the pond as a static, rocky backdrop or as an animated fountain or trickling waterfall, Mrs. Townley did not say. When I look closely at the old photo above, the mound of rocks does not appear to have any water movement, down or up, and the pool beneath the mound is quite calm aside from a gentle, even breeze blurring the house’s reflection. Still, that severely rusty, stubby little pipe near its crest certainly does suggest water use in some form, though it is unclear if that is original or a later modification. Whatever the rockpile’s role was, once fully exposed to the sun in its early years, several small Rhododendron trees eventually grew large enough to try to shade it from the memories of Bellingham forever. It almost worked.
That is all I have gleaned about the old pond thus far. Perhaps, over time, more clues will sprinkle down like sugar from the ether to fill us in on the rest of this story. I would love to be there when it does.
But that was just one water feature.
On the northwestern edge of the south lawn, there is a second mounded-rock creation. Just as with the first, it has a rusty pipe sticking out of the top. Partially shaded by a mature shrub during the leafy months of the year, it sits nestled in a half-moon, concrete reservoir stagnant with a dark, leaf-strewn puddle from sprinklers and rain. With a clogged, rusty drain at one end of the semi-circular reservoir, the entire creation looks like it was once designed for a gentle excitement of water.
I asked Michael Mcfarlane about this rock pile as well. While he did say that there was indeed once a water feature at that spot, the rockpile’s age was unclear to him. He speculated that a caretaker could have built it shortly after the county was given possession back in the 1970s, as such a person could have had the hours to tackle such a project. This is plausible, but Parks and Recreation did not have any other information. Nor could I gather any new insights from Shelly Brown or her mother, Mrs. Townley, regarding the old fountain. Since materials like rock, mortar, and concrete exposed to the elements can admittedly develop an aged patina in a surprisingly short time, it still looks like it could be, if not as old as the house, at least as old as the pond’s rockpile discussed above. But with little else to go on than gut-instinct and my observations, this is purely speculation.
When I asked when the feature was last active with water, McFarlane said that during the 1980s or 1990s, after years of dealing with frozen pipes and other leaks, the fountain was permanently deactivated by the county. This was no surprise to hear. Predictably, like the bodies of football players playing relatively short careers due to their sport’s physical punishment, outdoor fountains in our physically demanding climate indeed experience troubled, limited occupations. Invariably, they live out the rest of their days as dry, empty garden sculptures.
Following that tradition, the old fountain presently sleeps, too steeped in old age to care to be anything more than the attractive pile of rocks that it is. I think it has earned it.
Whenever these rock features were built and last graced the garden grounds with the sights and sounds of water bathing their rocks may never be precisely known. But, thankfully, they remain today to delight us with not only their mystery but also the imagery of the beautifully landscaped gardens of an earlier time. Mr. Roeder, the green-thumb banker who was often seen gardening his estate, must have enjoyed the water among the flowers very much.
How lucky we are to have such a historic public asset as the Roeder Home in the center of it all. The grounds are open seven days a week, all year long, and lovely to visit in any season. With a picnic table, a bench, and vast patches of sunny lawn far from the crowds of other parks, it is a splendid garden oasis to plant for a moment one’s soul in the palm of that neighborhood’s tranquility.