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A tower tradition: Inside the bowl of the historic water tower

Each spring for the past 29 years, Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey has climbed the spiral stairwell and up a ladder into the bowl of the city's most iconic architectural accomplishment.

Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey completes raising a new American flag from the bowl of the Brainerd historic water tower Friday morning. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Video and Gallery
Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey completes raising a new American flag from the bowl of the Brainerd historic water tower Friday morning. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Video and Gallery

Each spring for the past 29 years, Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey has climbed the spiral stairwell and up a ladder into the bowl of the city's most iconic architectural accomplishment.

His task is to raise the American and state flags on the three poles extending upward from the top of the historic water tower on Washington and Sixth streets. He knows the nearly 100-year-old tower well, ascending and descending its stairs often to replace flags as they become tattered and to do routine maintenance to the cement structure.

"It's one of those jobs that falls under the building/engineering department that doesn't fall under the job description," Caughey said.

He added with a laugh, "I've been here 29 years and usually we hand it off to the new person, but for some reason I'm still doing it."

Tradition dictates the newest city employee accompany Caughey along for what is really a two-person job, and this year, it's Josh Stewart, the building inspector of less than a month.

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Within the bowl that once held Brainerd's water supply, Caughey and Stewart attach each flag to clips and hoist them up to the tops of the poles, ensuring they are not entangled within the ropes. With all the strength they can muster, they yank the ropes tight and tie them down, just as the flags begin to sway in the wind for the first time.

Caughey's visits with the tower have not been as routine as of late. The aging structure is slowly beginning to crumble after the 97 winters of freezing and thawing it's endured. Many Brainerd residents have likely noticed the scars dotting the exterior of the 141-foot tower, representing the loss of concrete and a little bit of history.

Brainerd's tower, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the first of its kind, constructed with poured-in-place concrete.

"What's happening now is we're starting to experience damage to the inside and it's starting to affect the outside," Caughey said. "We're in the process of working towards correcting that."

Contracted engineers told city officials last fall they likely have two to three years to decide the fate of the tower before its concrete deteriorates further. Its steel bones are still in good condition, the engineers found, and possible solutions are in the works.

In February, the city was awarded a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Small Grant, funded through the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The grant dollars will go toward hiring a consultant to develop a historic structure report to assist in preserving the icon. The city council agreed last year to spend $46,000 to investigate the deterioration.

For now, Caughey will continue his pilgrimages and maintain his routines. After raising the flags, he climbed the ladder leading to the top edge of the bowl.

"This view," he said, "it can make any bad day better."

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CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey (left) and Josh Stewart, city housing inspector, climb the stairs inside the historic Brainerd water tower to replace the flags Friday morning. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Video and Gallery
Brainerd city building official Tim Caughey (left) and Josh Stewart, city housing inspector, climb the stairs inside the historic Brainerd water tower to replace the flags Friday morning. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls Video and Gallery

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