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Saving the 'Tin Man': Preservationists hope to give Millstadt water tower a new coat of paint

The old water tower in Millstadt, Ill., wears an unflattering coat of rust these days, but preservationists say the nearly 85-year-old landmark is as solid as the American steel used to build it during the Great Depression. They call the tower the “Tin Man,” and they’ve been working  to save “him” from the wrecking ball. 

The Tin Man is an endangered species of water towers — nicknamed for their shape — that used to dot Small Town America. In recent decades, they've been replaced by modern structures with larger capacities. Millstadt hasn’t used its Tin Man since 2011, and it was slated for demolition until residents formed a nonprofit group to rescue it.

Betty Keller Timmer, a lifelong resident of the community, chairs The Friends of the Old Millstadt Water Tower. She says the Tin Man is part of the identity of the village of 4,000 and a familiar beacon that’s visible for miles.

“I actually had a lady tell me one time, ‘Why, that’s our Eiffel Tower. We need to save that,’ ” Timmer said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The 100,000-gallon water tower was built in 1931.

Meet the Tin Man

Location: Since 1931, the Tin Man has stood his ground at Madison and Breese streets in the heart of Millstadt in St. Clair County, about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Size: The water tower is 164 feet tall and can hold 100,000 gallons of water.

Shape: The “Tin Man” towers were nicknamed for their shape: a conical roof with a ball finial, reminiscent of the “Wizard of Oz” character. The tank sits atop a four-post trestle tower of steel that was made by Bethlehem Steel.  (The Pennsylvania steel plant was a powerhouse of American industry that went bankrupt in 2001.)

History: The Tin Man was born of controversy. In the 1920s, factions in town clashed over building  a municipal water and sewer system. It took two trips to the Illinois Supreme Court for the project to get the go-ahead. Timmer says that construction was then marred by a labor dispute. An armed mob of more than 100 protested after most of the construction crew agreed to work for less than scale, which was 75 cents an hour. That dispute was also settled by the Illinois Supreme Court. (You can read more about that on the group’s website.) 

Endangered status: After construction of a new water tower in 2011, the Tin Man was drained and now stands empty. In 2014, Landmarks Illinois added the tower to its listof the state’s most endangered historic places. There are fewer than 10 “Tin Man” water towers left in Illinois.

Credit Friends of the Old Millstadt Water Tower
1945: View of the old water tower, which can be seen for miles.

The Tin Man’s friends

The Friends of the Old Millstadt Water Tower now has a 10-year lease agreement with the village that requires the tower to be repainted within five years.

Betty Keller Timmer and Joan Bevirt of the preservationist group stand at the base of the Tin Man.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Betty Keller Timmer and Joan Bevirt of the preservationist group stand at the base of the Tin Man.

“He needs paint, but he’s 84 years old now, and the main issue is there’s seven layers of lead paint. And that’s going to be the expensive item,’’ Timmer said. “We have a retired gentleman who owns a painting company. He has offered to donate the paint.’’  

An engineer inspected the tower, and found it to be in good structural condition, she said. Her group is now trying to raise $200,000, the estimated cost of sandblasting the tower and repainting it.

Timmer helped organize the nonprofit preservation group in 2013 when it appeared that the village would demolish the landmark.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
It's 164 feet from the ground to the top of the old water tower.

“It’s just everyday people,’’ she said. “Mostly women — because if you want something done, you talk to a woman.’’

Joan Bevirt, 81, says that everyone has a favorite memory of the Tin Man.

“This water tower in this park is where I played as a child,’’ Bevirt said. “It’s an icon. It’s a landmark for all of us.’’

The group has scheduled a number of fundraisers, including a bowlthon on Saturday and a trivia night in April.

“We have a bake sale, and I know people laugh about bake sales, but in this town we have some good bakers,'' Timmer said. "You name it, we can bake it.'’ 

She noted that the last bake sale raised $1,000.

“Just 199 more bake sales to go,’’ she said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The new kid in town: The new village water tower overlooks a cemetery at the edge of town.


Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.