Princeton, Illinois Fountain

Centennial of Ensign Fountain Promise
By Esther Tracy


     The city of Princeton made a promise 100 years ago that is at times hard to keep.

In a May 1910 city council session a resolution was prematurely passed to accept a Hermon Lee Ensign fountain, and the promise which was necessary in order to receive a fountain was made, namely to perpetually maintain it and keep it in operating condition.  Due to electrical and mechanical challenges, that commitment was not met this season until late July.  However, Princeton has done a wonderful job over the years keeping this promise, especially in comparison to many other communities.

      Princeton’s fountain is located in the island area just northwest of the Bureau County Court House, only feet away from its original location which was in the street.  The early location was required in order to make the water easily available to the horses, the prevalent mode of transportation of the era, and a primary purpose of the fountain.  Ensign fountains located in Sheffield and Ottawa are several blocks away from their original sites and are currently used as planters, but remain in public park settings. Princeton’s fountain was for some considerable amount of time lying in pieces on a lot near the library after it had been removed following a car striking and toppling it on April 19, 1955, which was not the first collision that had occurred. Chips are still evident on its surface. After several years and through the generosity of the Princeton Rotary Club and private citizens, finally funds were raised to restore the fountain and place it in its current location.  For awhile consideration had been given to relocating the fountain to the grassy area between the alley and Main Street to the east of the Matson Library.

      An inscription on the Princeton fountain reads “1910 PRESENTED BY THE NATIONAL HUMANE ALLIANCE HERMON LEE ENSIGN FOUNDER.”  However, by September of 1910 the fountain had not been received and the city was still dealing with resolutions to the foundation to secure the gift.  So far no documentation has been found to confirm when the Princeton fountain was actually received. A letter on file at the Princeton Public Library, from the alliance to Charles J. Dunbar of Princeton in June of 1911 is thanking him for sending a photo of the fountain in its “little plot” which would indicate that it had been received and positioned by that time.  In one city, although the inscription reads 1910, it was not received until 1912.  Village board minutes for Sheffield of Dec. 7, 1906, contain a letter from the alliance stating that they would be receiving one of the smaller models.

      Many accounts, perhaps erroneous, report that these fountains were originally planned to be given to cities with populations of more than 15,000 and one to every state.   Again in researching records in the Princeton Public Library, it was discovered that Princeton came very close to not being given a fountain.  Through reading original letters exchanged between Lewis M. Seavers, the Secretary/Treasurer of The National Humane Alliance, and Dunbar of Princeton, it is apparent that due to what Seavers calls “a tissue of misstatements from start to finish” referring to a copy of a Bureau County newspaper article of May 5, 1910, that he had received from a friend, he was “disgusted and mad clear through.”  He also said, “I have a great notion to wipe the name of Princeton entirely off our application list.”  He refuted the accuracy of the article on the following points.  He said Ensign was not born in Sheffield, that he did not own a kennel, that his estate did not come near the $250,000 reported and that it was nobody’s business how much his estate was worth, that the fountains were not Ensign’s design and that Ensign never knew that his estate would be largely devoted to erecting fountains, and that the size of cities was not limited to those of populations of 15,000.  Also, in that letter he stated, as he had stated in an earlier letter of April 1, 1910, that if Princeton were to get a fountain, it would be the smaller size one similar to the one given to Sheffield.  He ended by stating that he might come to Princeton during the summer to consider the matter further.  A Bureau County Record article of August 10, 1910, did relate that Seavers did come to Princeton that week and also visited in Ottawa where he was well acquainted.  A September 28, 1910 article from the same newspaper gave an account that the city council at its September 23 meeting once again passed a resolution and also an ordinance as was requested by the Alliance with the hopes that they would finally be given a fountain.  So it is believed that sometime between the September date and June of 1911 the fountain would have arrived by rail from Maine where these granite fountains were manufactured and would have been placed near its present location.  The earliest available photo of the Princeton fountain, which is undated, shows it with water flowing, but without a globe.

    Eventually throughout the United States it is estimated that around 125 of these fountains were received as gifts of the alliance.  So why was Bureau County so fortunate to be given two fountains?  Although it was sometimes reported that Ensign was born in Sheffield or was a native of Bureau County, Seavers’ remarks about Ensign’s nativity are supported by other sources.  Fortunately, a brief biographical sketch of Hermon Lee Ensign can be found in the preface to a book published in 1901 after his death called Lady Lee and Other Animal Stories, a collection of stories written by Ensign.  An introductory memoir to the book was written by Ensign’s good friend of many years who had partnered with him at the Alliance, a meritorious journal published in Chicago.  The two established a close friendship over a period of twenty years.  From this memoir by Francis Fisher Browne in 1900 the following details are given about Ensign.

     Hermon Lee Ensign was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, June 30, 1849.  As a young child he came with his parents to Sheffield, Bureau County, Illinois, where they made their new home.  By about the age of 15 the precocious young man had developed skills with the art of telegraphing and was sent to Davenport, Iowa, where he was the receiver of press reports for the Western Union Telegraph Company.  Soon he was transferred to Colorado where he gained new life experiences.  He had been reared in a religious household, being a member of the Congregational Church.  At about the age of 20 he left Denver and became a student at the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts to study for the ministry.  Soon after, perhaps because of failing health or a lack of finances, he left school and went to Chicago to work.  During his short lifetime he gained sizeable wealth through writing, advertising, and invention. One patented device involved stereotyped plates with interchangeable base for country newspapers.  He devised a form of newspaper advertising, known as “headline reading advertising.” Always a sensitive, refined gentleman, in his later years he became passionate about the cause for the humane treatment of animals.  Although he appreciated the laws that had been enacted for their safety, he believed that it was education to develop kindness within the hearts of mankind even more than the laws that would produce the most good.  Therefore, he incorporated the National Humane Alliance in 1896 under the laws of New York, whose purpose would be to foster that desired education, “to awaken such a feeling of humane kindness toward the brute creation that people of every class will be led to treat animals tenderly, simply because they feel a natural inclination to do so.”  He led this organization so quietly that even some of his acquaintances were not aware of his mission. At the time of his death on February 9, 1899, he had made provisions to leave most of his fortune to the society.

     Some sources also state that Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932), who was one of America’s leading actresses of her time and whose husband was the  president of the National Humane Alliance after Ensign’s death, was instrumental in furthering the campaign to improve the lot of workhorses and that she donated proceeds from her performances to help fund these watering troughs.

     Recent local research further confirms through 1850 census records that Ensign, as well as his parents, was truly born in Pennsylvania.  While living in that state his father was identified as a teacher.  By the 1860 census the family was living at Sheffield, and the father, also named Hermon, was a farmer but said to have been born in Connecticut, and Christina, his mother, was a milliner.  Christina died while Hermon was a teen, and she is buried in the Sheffield Cemetery.  Her broken but repaired tombstone reads, “Caroline Elizabeth, wife of H.C. Ensign, d. Dec 12, 1868, 47y”.  Hermon, himself, never married.

    So although some sources claim that only one fountain was given to each state and that fountains were only given to major cities, Bureau County can boast of having received two of them, defying both beliefs.  Evidence supports that because of Ensign’s childhood which was spent in this county and through influential supporters of the cause, his early roots were kindly remembered by the alliance.

    More research led to the discovery that Lewis M. Seavers, the treasurer of the alliance, had also lived in Bureau County and had remained friends with Dunbar since that time.  Fortunately, he got over his “mad” feelings about the newspaper article’s inaccuracies.  When he visited Princeton that August of 1910 before making the final decision, it was said that he “was taken over the city in a rig and saw many of the places where he recalled incidents of years ago.”  He, also in that visit, did not promise the city that they would be given a fountain or that they would not be given a fountain. He told them that there were already fountains in Rock Island, Davenport, Moline, Geneseo, and Sheffield.  He further said that they were built of granite from a quarry eight miles off the coast of Maine and that quarry was running out of material large enough for the larger size fountains, but there were two other quarries in Maine where they could get granite.  The article further states that it was “the intention of the Alliance to place a fountain in every state in the union, but they now have from one to eight in every state.”

   During the years there have been many instances in which the Princeton fountain did not operate for extended periods of time.  Through the services of Dan Whitlock of Dan Whitlock Plumbing and Brian Cardosi of C&C Electric and other interested citizens the effort continues to keep that long-ago promise.  Whitlock remarked that he and Cardosi have developed a real kinship with the fountain and really appreciate it.  He further mentioned that although it is presently operating, electrical changes should be made within a couple of years.

   An interesting website can be visited to learn more about the historic fountains in other places.  The site includes many pictures and historical remarks.  To view this listing of locations of fountains which is described as being incomplete and uncertified, one can visit

     Though horses seldom trot by today and dogs and cats may not roam freely to partake of a fresh drink of water, there is something to be admired about a town that strives to honor a one-hundred-year-old commitment and a man of long ago who believed in the value of teaching respect for God’s lesser creatures.

Update 2011:

For more fountain pictures, click here. For a listing of all that have been discovered to date, click here.

Posted October 24, 2010 - Updated December 19, 2019

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