Sunday, November 17, 2019

S. K. Fountain—Renaissance Man

     The term "Renaissance Man" refers to a person with genius in many areas or a person who does many different things very well. Spencer K. (S. K.) Fountain surely qualified as a "Renaissance Man."
     S. K. earned his bread and butter working for the railroad. He began, at the age of 17, as a telegraph operator for the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, later the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. In 1871, he became the passenger and freight agent in charge of the freight, ticket office and shops. He continued that service for the rest of his 54 years with the railroad. He was also credited with being the prime force behind getting the Emerson Railroad Shops brought to Rocky Mount. The railroad yard was a major source of jobs and revenue for the area for many years.
This is a picture of an engine being repaired at Emerson Shops about 1928.
The picture is from Worthpoint:
     S. K. learned telegraphy in 1867. Fountain was involved in the construction of the telegraph line from Tarboro [Edgecombe Co.] to Washington, [Beaufort Co.] NC that was completed in 1881. The first message over the line was reprinted in the Tarborough Southerner: "To Dossey Battle [Editor]: We send greetings. Washington is successfully connected by telegraph." The message was dated April 27, 1881, and signed by S. K. Fountain. He and his brother, Joe Fountain, an ACL Superintendent at Wilmington [New Hanover Co.], NC, supervised the installation of the first telegraph line from Rocky Mount to Wilmington.
     In 1880, Fountain, while continuing his work with the railroad, opened Rocky Mount Iron Works, Rocky Mount's first foundry and machine works. This business was located on East Main Street between Marigold and Hill Streets in Rocky Mount [Edgecombe Co.]. It was probably the knowledge gained at this business that enabled him to be so successful in some of his other ventures.
     S.K. is credited with bringing the telephone to Rocky Mount. Between 1885 and 1890, Fountain and his sons, Will and Wyatt, strung a single span of wire from the freight depot to the Rocky Mount Mills. They hung the line on trees or poles along the railroad right-of-way of the spur track to the mill. For insulators, S.K. cut off tops of soft drink bottles, hung them on nails and strung the wire across them. Fountain devised flaked carbon and cotton against a thin metal diaphragm for transmitter and earphone. 
     A turn of the crank signaled the other end of the line. He did this to establish voice communication between the railroad station and its most important client, the Rocky Mount Mills. He installed bells to alert the other end of an incoming call, and the signal was cut off by placing the receiver in a cradle. He was able to alert mill operators of arriving freight and get their requirements for freight cars for loading.
     This initial effort caused S.K. to use his Rocky Mount Iron Works, which was originally intended for farm machinery, castings, and steam engine repairs, to produce telephone equipment. He found few sources of supply for the necessary magnetos and coils, so he designed and made the castings himself and went into their manufacture. 
     Telephone Exchange
     The Rocky Mount telephone exchange had its beginnings in the S.K. Fountain home on S. Church St. It was operated by members of the Fountain household. By the late 1880s his telephone system had grown until he had a total of 20 subscribers in a thriving town of 500 souls. The exchange was later located upstairs in the Vaughan Building, later Epstein's Ladies Shop on NE Main St.
     The local telephone exchange kept pace with the growth of the city. There was a telephone in the Bank of Rocky Mount, between the Municipal Building and No. 1 Fire Station on NE Main Street. In 1895, S.K. enlisted the aid of Dr. W. P. Mercer and established telephone service between Rocky Mount and Tarboro. From the exchange at Dr. Mercer's home at Temperance Hall in Edgecombe Co., he also connected with a phone circuit to Wilson, NC.
     As the demand for service continued to grow, S.K. began manufacturing his own telephones. He organized a telephone manufacturing business located on Main and Washington Streets in the block south of Hill St. In 1890 Rocky Mount's first Chamber of Commerce boasted "telephone manufacturing" among its businesses. He also continued manufacturing and testing materials at Rocky Mount Iron Works, which occupied most of the block bounded by S. Main, Hill and Marigold Streets and extended across what is now Washington Street.
     Fountain continued to manage the telephone exchange business for years. He eventually sold the exchange to the Henderson Telephone Exchange when 1,200 phones drew too heavily upon his time from the railroad. Later this company merged with the Carolina Telephone and Telegraph Co.
A Horseless Carriage
     Typical of a Renaissance Man, Fountain was also interested in transportation. He built a "horseless carriage" by mounting a gasoline engine on a wooden frame with McCormick mowing machine wheels. However, he had problems with control. When he cranked up on S. Franklin St. and got it to full power, it became unmanageable and tore down his son-in-law's garden fence before he could get the engine stopped. He was undaunted however, and soon had his gasoline engine driving a railroad handcar. He toured much of the neighboring railroad sections on it. Three or four could be seated across the front and were protected by a big shade umbrella.
     Around the turn of the century, S.K. brought the first motorcar to Rocky Mount. It was a Reo runabout. The engine was located under the single seat and it was cranked from the side to start it.

This is a 1905 Reo Runabout, later than the one owned by Fountain. This is an ad card rather than a postcard.
The image is from from ebay:
     A second car, a touring car, was purchased in 1904 from Dr. Stuart McGuire of Richmond, VA. This machine was painted red and was commonly called the "Red Devil." It had gaslights and much shining brass, with the direction controlled by a steering wheel. It created a stir in town and frightened the horses. Unfortunately, it ran over the dog owned by F.S. Spruill, Sr., the division counsel of the railroad.
     There are other "firsts" attributed to S.K. His home was the first in Rocky Mount to be lighted by electricity. He also had the first gas in his home. He had the first talking machine and made his own records from wax discs. He also experimented with radios and built one of his own. He owned the first bicycle here— a model with a tall forward wheel and small rear wheel. On an old business card, dated July 4, 1892, was printed: S.K. Fountain, Dealer in Ice. In 1904, he was chairman of the first meeting to discuss the establishment of a YMCA in Rocky Mount. The plan matured in 1911.
And Musical, Too
     As if his talents in all these other areas were not sufficient, S.K. was also the leader of an early Rocky Mount band—the "Silver Coronet Band." He played the violin for amusement.
     When he saw crowds gather each year for a riding tournament at Old Sparta in Edgecombe Co, Fountain reasoned that here was the making of an agricultural fair for Rocky Mount. Through his initiative and effort, the fair was held and brought the single biggest crowd of the year to the city.
     When Fountain reached the age of 70 in 1921, he retired from the railroad. He applied to Harry Walters, Chairman of the ACL Board of Directors, and who had been a contemporary friend of his, to permit him to continue to work. He was physically able to work, he wrote, and he further advised Walters that his pension was not sufficient to sustain him. It was not until Mr. Walters had assured him that he, too, would step down in a brief time, that S.K. became satisfied. Walters told him he could do nothing to increase the pension, but he enclosed a check for $10,000 as a gift of appreciation for his long service and faithful and fruitful work.
Who Was S.K. Fountain?
     Spencer K. Fountain was born at Buckhorn, in Wilson Co., NC on 26 Dec 1848 to Carolina Virginia Adams and Spencer Fountain. His mother was the daughter of Mary James Hobbs and George Washington Adams. S.K. Fountain married Sarah (Sallie) Louise Vaughan, b. 18 Dec 1852, on 22 Dec 1879. She was from Halifax County, NC. They had nine children.
[This article first appeared in The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society. Sources for that article were: Article by Hazel Rawls Carr, S.K. Fountains great grand daughter; "S.K. Fountain Was a Man of Many Firsts," by Pattie Lambert; "Fountain Switchboard on Display … " by Jim Nichols, Evening Telegram, 17 Nov 1974; "When the Railroad Came to Town," Evening Telegram, 29 Aug 1995.]

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