Sometimes, in a busy, crowded downtown, I walk past something many times before I actually stop to appreciate it. The Shemanski Fountain is one of these things. It sits at the north end of the South Park Blocks, and I pass it every time I walk from the Oregon Historical Society to the bus stop. Yesterday, I finally gave it some time.
Joseph Shemanski was a Jewish immigrant who arrived from Poland in 1888. Like many others, he came to town with little cash and lots of determination. He sold lace collars and wringer washers door to door in order to save up money to start his own business.
His first clothing shop was at Third and Taylor. He did two things that were unusual for the time; he hired new immigrants to work in the shop, and he let his customers use the installment plan, what we call ‘lay away’, to make their purchases. This allowed his working class customers to buy things over time. These two practices endeared him to his clients and made him incredibly successful.
By the 1930s he had 53 stores along the west coast, including an eight story building on Tenth Street. He had been President Of Temple Beth El Synagogue and was a philanthropist who donated money to causes and businesses that helped the Jewish community and the city grow.
When he got older, he asked Portland to allow him to make a gift to the city as a way of showing his gratitude for his successful, happy life. He had Carl Linde design the fountain, which has three levels. The top level drops water onto a statue called Rebecca at the Well. The second level creates drinking fountains for people, and the bottom level has drinking bowls for dogs.
The fountains are not currently working, maybe because they are broken, or maybe because it is winter and the city is trying to save the pipes. I will keep an eye on it in the Spring.
I am glad I took the time to learn more about this interesting man who made a difference in my new city.