“It Squirts” declared the headline over a short article on the front page of the Kankakee Gazette’s issue of May 29, 1890.
“The court yard fountain was ‘turned loose’ last Friday and made a satisfactory display,” Gazette readers were informed. “With a strong head from a full standpipe, the water is thrown twelve feet into the air, but with a medium pressure, the rise is about half that height. A six-foot gravel walk will be laid around the twenty-four foot reservoir, and the fountain is yet to be painted.”
Placing a fountain on the grounds of the Kankakee County Courthouse had been proposed almost four years earlier, by the newly-formed company that was developing the city’s water system. In late 1886, the company offered the county Board of Supervisors free water service for a decorative fountain. The supervisors appropriated $250 and appointed a committee to purchase a suitable fountain to be installed on the courthouse lawn. Unfortunately, the committee couldn’t find a $250 fountain —the cheapest model was $500. Opposition developed from supervisors representing rural townships (a “foolish waste” of taxpayer money, they said), and the plan was abandoned.
An October 1887 Gazette editorial took the county government to task for failing to beautify the courthouse grounds:
“The county has never done anything to improve its property in this city. ... For years, a tumble-down fence and a rotten sidewalk drew attention to it ... the yard itself is in a condition better fitting a cow pasture than the noble lawn nature intends it to be. The plain truth of the matter is, the county out to make a nice park out of the courthouse square....What cheek to fight against the expenditure of $500 for a public fountain.”
Two years passed before the supervisors (possibly goaded by another editorial nudge from the Gazette) decided to loosen the county purse-strings in late 1889, approving the sum of $1,000 for a fountain. Construction got underway the following spring, with a dozen workmen building an octagonal stone basin 24 feet in diameter to serve as a reservoir. The fountain was located midway between the courthouse and the intersection of Court Street and Harrison Avenue.
In the center of the basin rose the cast-metal fountain itself, which was on two levels. The lower level depicted four boy figures facing outward around a central column. Above the figures, a six-foot diameter basin in the shape of a lily was pierced with a series of water jets around its perimeter. Water from those jets cascaded into the octagonal basin to be recirculated. Another group of boy figures, this time facing inwards, rose out of the lily basin. They supported another, smaller basin that was the source of the water jet that rose “twelve feet into the air.”
The fountain, which actually cost $1,200 to build, remained a fixture on the courthouse lawn for fewer than 20 years. When construction of the current courthouse began in 1909, the fountain was shut down and dismantled. It was given to the Notre Dame Academy boarding school in Bourbonnais; it operated for a number of years, then was placed in storage. Today, the lower section of the fountain (the whereabouts of the upper section is an unsolved mystery) is the centerpiece of the Kankakee County Museum’s Column Garden in Small Memorial Park.
The courthouse was without a fountain for only a few years, however. In late 1912, shortly after the new courthouse was completed and occupied, a delegation from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union appeared before the Board of Supervisors to describe their plans for a fountain.
Rather than a merely decorative fountain, the WCTU was planning one with a practical purpose: slaking the thirst of “both man and beast.” The drinking fountain was designed to serve humans, horses, and dogs. It would be dedicated to the memory of the WCTU’s founder, Frances Willard, who had been a schoolteacher in Kankakee in the year 1859.
The local WCTU chapter had raised $600 toward the fountain’s $1,000 estimated cost. They hoped that the County Board would provide the additional $400 needed, and were not disappointed. (They also had sought a contribution from the city of Kankakee, but the aldermen declined to contribute cash; they did, however, promise $100 worth of labor by city workers to help install the statue.)
When the order for the statue was placed on Dec. 7, 1912, the Kankakee Daily Republican noted that it would be of cast iron and bronze construction “of an unusually pleasing design.” The 16-foot-tall structure would be topped by a statue of the Greek goddess Hebe, “a personification of the blooming freshness and youth of nature.”
The fountain “will contain two basins for watering horses, below which will be two smaller basins from which dogs can drink,” the newspaper reported. “There will also be sanitary bubbling cups from which human beings will be enabled to refresh themselves.”
Formal dedication of the fountain, which was located on the southeast corner of Indiana Avenue and Court Street, took place on Sept. 11, 1913.
The “Willard Fountain” would be a local landmark for 42 years; unfortunately, on Nov. 2, 1955, a truck jumped the curb on Indiana Avenue and struck the fountain, damaging it beyond repair.