MONROE, N.C. -- At the dawn of the 20th century, Monroe was bustling with activity.
The first electric lights appeared. A vibrant railroad line ran through town. For fun, people flocked to the new opera house.
And in 1900, city leaders installed a pair of ornate, cast-iron water fountains at the courthouse square. The fountains, which replaced four hand-dug artesian wells, represented the first source of sanitary drinking fountain water anywhere in Union County.
Decades passed, and the fountains eventually disappeared. Until now.
Union County is spending $19,500 to restore the fountains and rescue a piece of its history.
“This is easy to get excited about,” said Mark Watson, the county personnel director and courthouse historian who helped lead the restoration drive.
Assistant County Manager Matthew Delk agreed, noting how officials installed the fountains when sanitary drinking water was scarce. He didn’t want a part of county history go to waste.
Monroe’s turn-of-the century population was booming. With 2,427 residents, census records showed a 30 percent growth rate from the prior count.
Yet amid all the progress, Watson said, there remained worries about public health. A smallpox outbreak was the scourge of the Eastern Seaboard.
“Pest houses” in the county held people who were quarantined because of communicable diseases.
Monroe’s artesian wells sat along unpaved streets used by residents and livestock alike. But the fountain water would be piped in from a protected well, fenced off from livestock and away from stormwater drains.
The fountain plans were approved Nov. 9, 1899, “for the purpose of the people getting drinking water,” City Council records show. The city also ordered two troughs for “watering the stock.”
J.L. Mott Iron Works of New York, one of the leading ironworks companies of the day, created the fountains.
Although records do not reflect the cost, similar pieces in Mott’s trade catalogs around that time were $80 apiece. Adjusted for inflation, the fountains cost a combined $4,414 in today’s dollars.
The fountains were quite a sight.
Standing just over 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 300 pounds, the fountains had water continuously flowing out of a decorative lion’s mouth into basins on either side of the fountain. Ribbons and medallions, a cornucopia with fruit, nuts and flowers, pineapples, day lilies, magnolia blossoms, and dogwood all adorned the fountains.
“The detail,” Watson said, “is just tremendous.”
Two lower water basins were for animals. So despite all of the artistic flourishes, the fountains bore the far more prosaic name “man and dog drinking fountain.”
Early on, they also had a “common cup,” a tin cup attached by a chain that people used to drink the water. Those would disappear amid public health concerns as the plumbing was modified and spigots were added.
The fountains also may have been for whites only.
Segregation’s roots held firm in Monroe during the Jim Crow era, ensnaring everything from public bathrooms to movie theaters. A local paper ran ads for Ku Klux Klan meetings as late as the 1950s.
Although town historians and others could not recall any stories or photos of signs designating the fountains as segregated, they said it’s also possible none were needed.
“It would be naïve to ignore the societal mores of the time,” Delk said, “and also presumptuous of me to think (it was segregated.) I simply don’t know.”
Saved from the dump
The fountains slowly fell into disrepair, were removed and in the 1970s, and were sent to the local landfill.
A county employee named Michael Smith saw them being discarded and rescued them from the dump, Watson said.
The fountains sat neglected in the Old County Courthouse basement for years.
About a year ago, Watson led a tour of the old courthouse for several local officials, including Ed Goscicki, the county Public Works director. Goscicki believed the fountains were too significant to throw away, so he and Watson talked about restoring them.
Goscicki had enough money in his budget to handle the work this year.
With Mott long out of business, the county turned to Robinson Iron, an Alabama company well-versed in restoring Mott designs. Co-owner Scott Howell said his company can approximate missing components, such as the head pieces, as it recasts part of the fountains and then reassembles them.
They should be back by March, Watson said, and may go on display in the old courthouse and the county government center.
“I think it’s a shame when we don’t preserve these things for the future,” Watson said. “You just don’t see this anymore.”