The Well Runs Deep

By on 24 February, 2012 in Fun, Johnny Veres with 0 Comments

Author’s Note: For this blog post on MML, I asked Jeremy Adams to co-write by providing some background on the importance of the fountain at Court square to him and our city. Jeremy ran the Montgomery Street Coffee Shop, providing young people a safe place to hang out, exchange ideas, and dream about a brighter future for Montgomery. Thank you Jeremy.

The Well Runs Deep: How the Court Square Fountain Has Defined Montgomery

The Court Square Fountain has shaped the minds of the world. Over the years, it has transformed from a commercial hub between two cities, to the seat of law in a new frontier, to a community well that provided nourishment and entertainment to the new capital of Alabama, finally becoming the beautiful Victorian-style fountain still gushing forth with the dreams of our city.

This fountain has born witness to tragedy, growth, the division of a young nation, the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, and the hope for a new renaissance in our own time. The Helicity Group hopes to aid this new movement in a small way on April 21st, 2012 by a revival of the Montgomery Street Fair that occurred in 1899. Like the fountain, making something old, something new.

Court Square was once an natural artesian well, home to Ikanatchati, a village of the Alibamu tribe. After the Creek War, the site became open to settlement. In 1816, the new U.S. Territory of Alabama organized Montgomery County, and its lands were sold off at the federal land Office in Milledgeville, GA. Soon, two cities had been established. While the first, New Philadelphia, had been built in a horizontal and vertical grid, East Alabama built its streets diagonal to them. This design difference between the rival towns formed a triangular piece of land where the artesian well headed Market Street, the commercial hub of New Philadelphia.

In June of 1818, the Montgomery County Courthouse (then, temporarily located at Fort Jackson), was moved to a site between East Alabama Town and New Philadelphia. Because of great controversy as to which town would house the new county seat, the courthouse was built on the line separating the two towns. The line ran right through the center of the basin where our fountain stands today. It was at this site on Dec. 3, 1819, that the towns merged and were incorporated as the City of Montgomery.

The city grew quickly. In 1822, the small wooden courthouse was replaced by a more permanent structure. The well became an important stop for visitors to the new city, and saw its first parade when the Marquis de LaFayette came south on his tour of the new country he had helped form during the Revolutionary War. The little triangle of land with its spring became an important site to Montgomerians, serving as local water source.

In 1854, the basin was dug out to supply greater overflow, but never quite achieved the desired result. Iron railings were put around the basin, and a stout circular bench was added to its interior. The bench allowed citizens to rest, and provided an important meeting place while they collected water from the pipe of the city pump that extended from its side wall. The site became known as Court Square for the first time, and Market Street became Dexter Ave., in honor of the city founder Andrew Dexter.

Court Square became the hub of local commerce. It hosted public auctions, political speeches, and street markets. Soon the area’s first masonry buildings sprung up to house the many merchants that had become the foundation for the new city. On Jan. 28, 1846, Montgomery received word it would be the new state capitol. It became the center of state politics and a major player on the national stage.

All forms of trade took place at the artesian well. This included the slave trade, as well as dealings in agriculture, livestock, and public land. By 1859, the city had seven slave auctioneers and four depots to house people being offered as property. This horrendous practice took place between 1822 and 1865.

Our nation had become divided over the inhuman trade of slaves. The Confederacy was established on Feb. 4, 1861, with Montgomery as its first capital. On April 11, 1861, on the second floor of the Winter Building across from Court Square the Confederate Secretary of War, Leroy Pope Walker, sent a telegraph to General Beauregard authorizing him to fire upon Fort Sumter. This action began the Civil War.

Montgomery’s slave trade officially ended on New Year’s Day 1866 with an Emancipation Parade that formed on Commerce Street and passed the very market where the auctions had taken place. The parade culminated in front of the capitol building, where Holland Thompson, one of Alabama’s first African-American legislators, advised the large group of freed men and women “to buy land, build homes and educate their children.”

The Lady of the Fountain was also a silent witness to the first streetcars, known as the Lightning Route, which wound around the basin. It began operation on on April 15, 1886. Ironically, this was the first time a city ‘depopulated” its residential areas at the city center through transportation-facilitated suburban development. This led tocreation of neighborhoods such as Capitol Heights and Cloverdale, providing for the expansion of Montgomery for the next generation, but draining the city of the urban population that supported the commerce that had literally put us on the map. Over the next generation, this suburban development contributed to the neglect of our downtown. While the urban core had become a virtual ghost town, Montgomery transformed into a much larger city as it expanded to the south and east.

“The well ran deep,” as the old saying goes, and it sustained the city through Reconstruction. It was during this time of rebirth that Court Square developed as we know it today. The fountain was placed during the administration of Mayor Warren S. Reese Sr., who said in his report of April 30, 1886, “What to do with the artesian basin in Court Square has been a question which the City Council has considered for many years. Happily, you have solved it by the erection of a magnificent fountain which is admired by all, does away with a nuisance, and adds another attraction to our already beautiful city.”

The fountain was constructed by J.L Mott of New York, and was copied by Frederick Macmoinnes after an Antonio Canova sculpture. Though referred to as the Lady of the Fountain, or the Lady of Liberty, it actually depicts Hebe, the Greek Goddess of Youth and the Cup-bearer to the gods. She is adorned with cherubs, maids and herons around the base. The sculpture was originally made of a zinc/tin alloy, and its joints deteriorated over time. Although the fountain was repaired each time, on June 9, 1984, the Folmar administration allocated funds to completely recast the fountain in aluminum and then paint it, bringing it back to its original grandeur.

The artesian basin at Court Square, has born witness to some of the greatest events in world and local history. Just a block away on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested to begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sowing the seeds for the Civil Rights Movement. It was here Martin Luther King Jr. passed by during the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, in an effort to ensure equal voting rights for African-Americans. With this movement, our lady witnessed the abolition of Jim Crow, and the birth of equality.

After being cut off from Court Street, being bricked up and left to waste, Montgomery has now embraced her lady once again. Through more recent renovations, the fountain is now again a roundabout; through Court Square, our past still guides our future. Our turbulent and grand history continues to shape this great city — a city which still holds her at its heart. And now a whole new generation seeks a great revival at her basin.

On April 21, Helicity will seek to unite commerce once more at the very location that spurred it. Through the Montgomery Street Fair, the Revival, we seek to recreate one of the most successful events in the history of our Court Square. Our lady will once more watch her citizens come together to support local agriculture, commerce, and industry. A great house has been built upon the foundation of a well that runs deep.

For more information about the Montgomery Street Fair go to http://montgomerystreetfair.com, or email montgomerystreetfair@gmail.com.

Johnny Veres is the founder and current Executive Director of Helicity Montgomery, and works at 2WR as an intern architect and project manager.

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