Historic, ornate fountains flowing again in Monroe

After nearly a half-century out of service, an ornate, refurbished cast-iron fountain that was the first source of sanitary drinking fountain water in Union County is again dispensing water.

The county recently paid nearly $26,000 to restore and display two fountains that were originally installed in Monroe in 1900 at the courthouse square.

At the time of their installation, the fountains represented real progress for the growing community.

They had replaced hand-dug artesian wells where people would get their water from a bucket, despite the wells’ susceptibility to runoff from the unpaved streets used by humans and livestock alike. The water for the fountains was piped in from a protected well that had been fenced off from livestock.

One of the fountains was recently placed in the county Government Center lobby, and the other is headed to the Old County Courthouse across the street in downtown Monroe.

Mark Watson, the county’s personnel director and courthouse historian, helped lead the drive to restore the fountains. He said the restoration was an important step in helping preserve the county’s history.

“As generations pass, future generations need to understand where our modern conveniences come from,” Watson said. “This is where the sanitary drinking fountains started ... and that’s one of the reasons it needs to be preserved.”

Monroe’s city leaders approved purchasing the fountains. They cost an estimated $80 each, or about $4,300 when adjusted for inflation.

During their initial use, the fountains also had a “common cup” chained to them for people to drink from. That feature was soon removed because of public health concerns. Spigots were added, plumbing was upgraded and an on-off switch was added, too, so the water was not running continuously.

No historical record exists to indicate whether the fountains were for segregated use, Watson said, adding, “Let’s put it this way: The world was a different place back then.”

By 1965, the fountains had fallen into disuse and were removed. They sat in the courthouse basement until they were sent to a local landfill around the early 1980s. That’s where a county employee, Michael Smith, saw them being tossed out and saved them, Watson said. Smith died a few weeks ago.

The restoration cost $19,500, and an additional $6,473 was spent for the bases that hold the fountains, county spokesman Brett Vines said.

Restoration work was handled by Robinson Iron of Alabama. The company highlighted the work on its website and noted it needed to replace a few missing pieces while also fixing some holes in the structures.

Among the missing items were the ornate tops, a bowl and lion heads where the water comes out. Robinson “put everything back like it was supposed to be,” Watson said.

The fountains stand a little over 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh about 300 pounds each. The company estimated the combined value of the fountains at $80,000.

Robinson also gave the fountain an antiquated finish that helped highlight the detailed flourishes. That includes garlands of fruit, pineapple on top of a sunflower and magnolia blossoms. At the bottom of the fountains are open heads of lettuce.

“The opportunity to preserve stuff like this does not come around every day,” Watson said. “When they do, we need to take advantage of them.”

Just don’t drink the water.

While the water recirculates as it did in the 1930s, Watson said it is not meant for consumption now.