Ask McGehee: What’s the history of the fountain in Bienville Square?

Bienville Square fountain
The cast-iron fountain in Bienville Square was created in honor of Dr. George Augustus Ketchum, founder of the Bienville Water Supply Company.

The Ketchum fountain, which has been sent for restoration, was installed in the center of Bienville Square in 1889-90 thanks to funds raised by a group of Mobilians who wanted to honor local physician George Augustus Ketchum.  

Three years earlier, Ketchum had founded the Bienville Water Supply Co. to provide a clean source of drinking water. The company’s founders included merchant D. R. Dunlap, cotton factor William J. Hearin and prominent attorney Daniel P. Bestor Sr. The physician was the driving force since he was convinced that having a reliable source of pure water would reduce sickness by at least 25 percent.

Water for Man and Beast

The firm approached the city of Mobile seeking a contract to provide water for its citizens. In addition to providing a safe alternative to well water, which was often contaminated by nearby privies, the group agreed to provide free water to all public institutions, including churches and hospitals. One free drinking fountain “for man and beast” would also be provided in each of the city’s eight wards.

Yet another bonus offered was water available at a sufficient pressure to fight fires, with Bienville Water installing 300 fireplugs. As a result, Ketchum estimated that local fire insurance rates would drop by as much as 25 percent.

- Sponsors -

All of these benefits led to the city agreeing to a 20-year contract with the newly formed company. The water pipes installed were 30-foot pine tree trunks hewed into an octagonal shape. A 4-inch diameter hole was drilled through the center of each. According to the 1891 city directory, the company’s reservoir and pumping station stood 11 miles from town at Clear Creek.

The fountain would replace a dirt mound at the square’s center, which in 1860 became home to a cast-iron deer. This so-called “monarch of the woods” had been placed by Wood and Perot, an iron manufacturing firm that had cast the original iron fence surrounding the square. It stood there as a sort of advertisement in an era when cast-iron animals were popular garden ornaments in America.

“Ruthless Vandalism”

To make way for the large basin needed for the fountain, a number of live oak trees would have to be removed. The Mobile Register received several letters from citizens upset at their removal. One writer described it as “ruthless vandalism to contemplate cutting down the circle of live oaks for a miserable fountain to bubble in the summer sun. We need shade to rest the weary body!”

The fountain won, and by 1891, an editorial described Bienville Square as “the handsomest public square in the South … with broad stone walks and handsome basin and fountain.” Ketchum served as president of the water works, and his office on St. Joseph Street offered a clear view of the splashing fountain placed in his honor.

In 1906, Ketchum died at the age of 81 and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery beneath a fitting epitaph: “Beloved Physician.” He was still president of Bienville Water Supply at his death. 

A Second Restoration

Although Bienville Square has had many changes over the decades, the Ketchum Fountain received little attention until it had just passed its centennial. Robinson Iron Works of Alexander City dismantled and restored it to its original appearance with funds raised by Main Street Mobile. Thirty years later, history is repeating itself. The fountain has been removed and sent to the same firm for a second restoration.

The $1.5 million restoration, expected to be completed in 2022, includes the construction of a new basin, and funding is being raised by the Downtown Parks Conservancy.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!