The missing maiden of Public Square

June 9th, 2015 6:46 pm

First Posted: 3/17/2014

WILKES-BARRE — A different sort of sound once blended in with the noises of everyday life downtown.

The sound of running water, which could surely be heard over the early 20th century hustle and bustle of the city’s daily activities, came from an ornate fountain that once stood in the center of Public Square.

At the top of the fountain, the American Indian maiden Kankakee kept a watchful eye.

“It was a first-rate, first-class, classical statue of an Indian maiden,” said Tony Brooks, chairman of the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society.

Kankakee began her watch in Public Square in 1910. Orestes Formigli, of Luzerne, crafted the statue for $2,200. The funds for the work were collected during the observance of the city’s centennial in 1906.

The statue featured eight muskrats on the seashell-shaped base of dark granite, which was propped up by four ornate fish. Four cupids held symbols of coal, agriculture, industry and the city.

Atop it all stood Kankakee, holding a vase over her head in a majestic pose that was a stark contrast to the busy, modern surrounding city.

Brooks said the decision to commission a statue came as part of an effort to redo and beautify the Public Square. The third Luzerne County Courthouse, which stood on Public Square, was demolished in 1909, which left some open space for the city to utilize.

“The city was claiming a public space,” Brooks said. He added that finding ways to utilize and beautify public space was a common theme for cities back then.

The missing maiden

The electric fountain used about 30,000 gallons of water a day and was undoubtedly a spectacle for those who were based around Public Square. But the beauty of the Kankakee fountain came at a steep price, and as a result, a city councilman at the time recommended that Kankakee be replaced by a more cost-efficient fountain and flower bed.

Councilman John Nobel, who recommended that Kankakee’s statue be removed from the square, wanted it to be moved to one of the city’s parks. Brooks said the decision was made because of the cost of the water that the statue used.

But Kankakee would not make it to one of those parks.

It has been reported over the years that the statue was taken down and stored at a warehouse in Kirby Park, but it is not there.

To this day, the whereabouts of the Indian maiden are unknown. A number of rumors have circulated over time, but Brooks said none of them has been substantiated. It is widely speculated that the statue was swept away by the flood in 1936.

Who was Kankakee?

So who was woman behind the statue that once graced Public Square?

A Google search of “Kankakee” results in a city in Illinois with the same name. Otherwise, it appears that the American Indian maiden who once stood in Public Square was no more than a fictional woman.

The Times Leader contacted officials from Kankakee, Ill., in 2001. Rumors had circulated over the years that Wilkes-Barre gave its guardian of Public Square to the Illinois town as a gift, but Kankakee officials at the time said the rumors were not true.

It was reported that Kankakee, Ill., was home to the Potawatomie Indian tribe that migrated south from Canada. They arrived in the area in the the early 1600s and made it their home. So could Kankakee (the statue) have been an Indian maiden of that tribe?

“We’re the only Kankakee that exists that we are aware of,” said Judy Furia, researcher for the Kankakee County Historical Society and Museum, in a 2001 interview with The Times Leader. “We’ve done extensive research on the name as part of our historical background, and we know she isn’t real.”

Brooks believed the decision to create a statue of a fictional American Indian woman was probably out of tribute. He said that representations of American Indians were very popular at the time.

“You could probably ask the same thing about the woman that’s at the top of the United States Capitol Dome,” Brooks said.

Fictional or not, Kankakee’s presence on Public Square was real. She was surely a fixture of the downtown area at one time as she kept watch of the city’s activities. She was the silent bystander who probably saw and heard almost all of Public Square’s happenings during her 34 years on the square.

Where she is now, however, may never be known.