Monmouth city fountain was source of community pride, controversy
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Everyone loves a beautiful fountain. Unless perhaps you’ve installed one in your garden and had to maintain it.
That was the frustration of Monmouth mayor John Hamilton Hanley, who upon his election in 1917 was confronted with a cantankerous old fountain in the center of the Public Square that was emblematic of an outdated infrastructure pervading many of the city’s public works.
Central Park in those days was a throwback to the 19th century, with iron rails surrounding the circle, to which horses were once tied. Instead of modern curbing, it was bordered with crumbling flagstone, and the nearly 30-year-old fountain, covered in peeling paint, was becoming an eyesore.
Just prior to Election Day 1917, an early frost caught the water department by surprise and turned the fountain into a giant icicle.
During his initial term in office, which mirrored U.S. involvement in World War I, Hanley’s attention was drawn to wartime exigencies, as well as the Spanish Influenza outbreak. Reelected in 1919, however, he was finally able to focus on his interest in modernizing and beautifying the city of Monmouth. The Public Square was high on his agenda. A dilapidated billboard on the Square, containing the names of World War I veterans, needed to be removed. The fountain needed extra attention, as the figure of Cupid at the top had been toppled over during the Armistice Day celebration and was hanging precariously over the top basin.
The city council passed an appropriation bill of $900 for improvements to the park.
In February 1920, Hanley announced that improvements to Central Park would begin as soon as weather permitted. The iron railing would be removed and concrete curbing would be installed. Flower beds would be planted. In addition, he said, the fountain would be painted and plumbing fixed to allow water to again gush from the four griffin heads on the base.
The fountain had been installed in 1890 during the administration of Mayor Henry Burlingim, at the beginning of the Progressive Era, when municipal improvements were increasingly seen as a manifestation of civic pride. The Warren County Democrat reported on June 19 of that year that “A movement is being agitated to put a $500 fountain in the center of the square.”
In August 1890, the city council voted to appropriate $350 for the erection of a fountain and issued a contract to the country’s leading manufacturer of fountains, the J. L. Mott Iron Works of New York City, a company that had been founded in 1828 as a manufacturer of cooking stoves.
The Renaissance-style fountain would stand 18 feet tall and include two elevated basins. The base would be decorated with four griffins having lion’s heads, from which water would shoot into a 20-foot-diameter pool. At the top of the fountain, a figure of Cupid would hold a jet to cascade water over the basins.
Work on the pool commenced in September and the fountain arrived in early October. Immediately, there was controversy. The editor of the Warren County Democrat wrote:
“The long looked for fountain has been placed in the center of the public square, and a poor imitation of Cupid makes obeisance to all who may be thirsty. The basin is too small by one-half, and this fact will only be too evident on a windy day. The diameter of the basin should be doubled before it is cemented, to save trouble and expense.”
Whether or not the basin was redesigned is uncertain, but the fountain did become the focal point of a revitalized Public Square. From May to November, its waters provided a visual spectacle, while in the winter a protective shield covered the basin.
Even when the fountain began showing age during the Hanley administration, the citizens of Monmouth were protective of the landmark. In May 1920, after Hanley said he was considering the option of either refurbishing the fountain or removing it, the Monmouth Women’s Club met and declared the fountain and trees in the Square should remain untouched.
A week later, the mayor announced that the city engineer would survey situation and will decide on one of two plans. One called for removing the fountain and running two sets of walks through the center of the park that would follow in line with the walks on Main and Broadway.
“The park has been an eyesore and a disgrace to the city long enough,” the mayor said, “and as soon as possible we are going to make it a place of beauty. The survey to be made tomorrow will determine a number of things which are doubtful at this time. If it is decided that the park will present a better appearance with the fountain removed it will be taken out. If it is believed that the retention of the fountain will add beauty to the park then it will be preserved. It is the plan of the city to make the park a place of beauty instead of one to be shunned and there is no one more eager than myself to get the work started and completed.”
On June 11, the Women’s Club’s hopes were dashed, as workmen started to set stakes in the park and the existing sidewalks were broken up in preparation for new walks. The mayor confirmed that the fountain would be removed. On June 15, the fountain was hauled away. The Daily Atlas reported it would be stored so if a place for it was found in the future, it could be reused. The fountain, of course, was never reused, but parts of it were appropriated over the years to private gardens in Monmouth.
On July 10, 1920, the Atlas reported that at the mayor’s orders shrubs and flowers would be planted in place of the fountain.
In 2002, the Downtown Business Council conceived a project to erect a new Victorian-style fountain in the center of the park, and largely through a donation by Security Savings Bank, a fountain with a brick basin was installed.
In 2016, the Monmouth Rotary Club, which earlier funded the sidewalks in the park, approached the city with a proposal to celebrate its 2018 centennial by donating a new fountain to the city. That plan is currently under consideration.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.