Geneseo Genealogy: Bronze statue bears meaning, memories for residents, students

Presiding over the intersection of Main and Center Streets for the past 124 years, the image of the Geneseo Bear Fountain is commonly associated by students and community members with the place that all of them, in some respect, called home.

Myths about the Bear abound; the Geneseo Wikipedia page indicates that it was purchased by the Wadsworth sisters and cites circumstances under which it will jump off the fountain and run away. Few people, however, know the true story of "the bear in the square."

"The Geneseo Memorial Foundation: Its History and Restoration," a pamphlet written by sociology professor Kurt Cylke and published by the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo (APOG), illuminates the subject.

The Geneseo Bear is made of bronze and sits on a pedestal fashioned out of hand-quarried Nova Scotian granite. The bear was installed in 1888 as a commission of brothers Herbert and William Austin Wadsworth. Members of the Wadsworth family have been longtime landowners in the Geneseo area.  

The statue is a memorial to the brothers' beloved mother and – for lack of a better word – bears her name as The Emmeline Austin Wadsworth Fountain. It was originally used as a source of water for passers-by and their horses. According to psychology professor and APOG President Joan Ballard, the fountain also had working spigots on which a tin cup was hung for people to drink from.

The fountain was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed mansions for the Vanderbilts and the base for the Statue of Liberty. The sculptor is disputed, but it may have been either Antoine-Louis Barye or Christophe Fratin, both of whom were renowned sculptors of bronze animals in their time.

The sheer age of the bear fountain, in addition to the damage and vandalism it has survived, has led to a restoration project by the Geneseo community to return the fountain to its 19th century glory. Phase one of the project was completed in 2008. It involved replacing the electric light held by the bear for a number of years with a historically accurate Gothic lantern similar to the one it originally held in 1888. The project continues on today with plans for more restoration. A Geneseo Bear Fund has been established to accept donations.

"The Geneseo Bear was not just a memorial to [the Wadsworths'] mother, it was a gift central to the village," Ballard said. "It is a symbol for a lot of students of their time in college – a symbol that helps people remember where they came from."

To learn more about the history of the Geneseo Bear and efforts to restore it, visit