Deciphering Shelbyville statue has no limitations

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By Beth Herrinton-Hodge

Many Shelbyville residents and workers drive past the old fountain every day. Its park-like setting provides a gathering spot for summer concerts, chalk-drawing contests, lunch-hour picnics, and the casual stroll. The sound of the fountain’s water offers a quiet respite next to the bustling city street.


But what do we make of the fountain’s statue? Who is it? What is it? Why was it selected for Shelbyville and Shelby County?

The story of the downtown fountain dates back more than 100 years. In October 1894, Shelby County Fiscal Court designated four corners of county property at the intersection of Main and 5th streets for the purpose of erecting an “ornamental public fountain.”

Landowner William Shannon, one of Shelbyville’s biggest early landowners, donated the land from his family’s holdings. The fountain would be placed in the center of Shannon’s tracts as a centerpiece in front of the Shelby County Courthouse.

In September 1895 County Judge W.H. Tipton, along with J.H. Maddox and E.R. Wilson, formed a committee for the construction of the public fountain and donated $500 to the City of Shelbyville. By the end of the year, three Shelbyville leaders had traveled to a New York foundry to select and purchase the fountain statue.

This flurry of work marked the completion of Shelbyville’s first public waterworks. The fountain was to commemorate free-flowing water available for all. The original design for the fountain required that it have a drinking fountain for pedestrian use and a separate watering trough for horses and livestock.

“The fountain showed that the city had water to spare with its new public water system in place,” noted Shelbyville historian Charles Long said.

“Originally, it was set in the middle of Main Street. It had a large radius with a watering trough and a sidewalk around it. The Interurban trolley circled around the fountain as it traveled down Main Street between Shelbyville and Louisville.”

Both the city and county contributed funds toward the purchase and building of the fountain. Its original foundation fronted the old fire station on Main Street. The fire department was in charge of maintaining the fountain during the early years.


About that statue

The J.L. Mott Ironworks of New York forged the iron and bronze statue, depicting a designer’s impression of characters from the mythical story of Atlantis. Records tell us that the men charged with traveling to New York to select the statue noted that the characters and the Atlantis story reminded them of Shelbyville and Shelby County.

It’s an image of a woman lying across a sea monster, which is part lion and part reptile. One arm of the woman is draped around the neck of the creature; the other holds a large palm to symbolize bounty. The statue stands fourteen feet high and measures forty feet in diameter at its sidewalk circle.

This description of the statue leaves room for the imagination to decide what the woman and the sea monster have to do with Shelbyville and Shelby County.

A casual walk down Main Street provides an opportunity to ask a few local residents what they think the statue might symbolize.

Dr. Paul Schmidt sees the statue as a “Rorschach inkblot image,” meaning an individual interprets the meaning of the fountain statue by projecting their inner psychological impressions onto it.

“Each of us can look at it and see different meanings. You see a voluptuous woman. You see a wild and savage animal. What do you think it means?” Schmidt asks, with a twinkle in his eye.

Dr. Jack Easley, a local equine veterinarian, describes the statue as a “chimera” from Greek mythology, initially referenced as a monstrous, fire-breathing female creature formed from the parts of three animals: a lion, a serpent and a goat – although the term has evolved to describe any mythical creature with parts taken from any number of animals.

Easley’s description puts the statue in a fearsome light, and Schmidt’s comments leave room for a sexualized interpretation.


Connecting Atlantis

The Atlantis label gives some insight into our interpretation. According to Plato’s Greek myth, Atlantis was “an island nation located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, populated by a noble and powerful race. The people of this land possessed great wealth thanks to the natural resources found throughout their island. The island was a center for trade and commerce.

“This island was the home of Poseidon, god of the sea. When Poseidon fell in love with a mortal woman, Cleito, he created a dwelling [for her] at the top of a hill near the middle of the island and surrounded the dwelling with rings of water and land to protect her.”

Because Shelbyville’s fountain, placed at the top of a hill in the center of downtown, is a statue of a woman – Cleito, perhaps? – maybe her pose, intertwined with the chimera, shows triumph over the beast.

From its high perch, you can imagine the figures surveying the surrounding land of Shelby County, with its bountiful natural resources, farmland, and commerce. The rings of water that serve as the fountain’s watering trough are likened to the rings of water surrounding the mythical isle of Atlantis.

If the people who selected the statue for Shelbyville intended to celebrate free-flowing water and the bounty of the land, an Atlantis image would be a fitting tribute.


Keeping it going

Fortunately, the fate of our community has not suffered the same fate as the mythical island. The prosperity of the people of Atlantis fell to greed and corruption, and Shelbyville has continued to thrive for the past century with the fountain misting in our midst.

Over the years, care and maintenance of the fountain changed hands from the fire department to a Shelbyville Fountain Corporation, under Shelby County Fiscal Court. In the early 1900s, the fountain was moved from the center of Main Street to a site just off Main to make room for the rebuilding of the county courthouse.

There were years when the fountain fell into disrepair. Thanks to the efforts of Rosella Cunningham Davis, George Ann Carpenter and their crew, it was lovingly refurbished. An historical marker was placed in the center of town and the fountain was added to the National Register as an historic landmark.

In 1992, a plaque was placed at the fountain to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of Kentucky.

But that’s history: The meaning and symbolism of the statue remains to be interpreted by each person who walks or drives past it.