"The Fish on the Courthouse"

20 Feb 1931Here at Last Is the Story...
1950sFish Story Grows

Even though Seward & Co. and its foundry are gone, they have left their mark on Bloomington. The fish which the foundry produced, and which adorns the Monroe County Courthouse, has been a Bloomington landmark for well over a century and a half. The fact that the fish was the handiwork of my 3g-grandfather, Austin Seward, and his foundry is still recognized and remembered. In a 1999 sermon, the pastor of Bloomington's First United Methodist Church alluded to the fish and its maker and guessed that the 3'9" fish had been in place since about 1830. In a research paper written by Kristin S. and Cassie G., of Mrs. Proctor's 4th Grade Class at Childs Elementary School, and available on the internet for awhile, these students came to the conclusion that:

In 1826 a fish weather vane was placed on top of the cupola of the courthouse. The fish weather vane was made by Austin Seward, a settler of Bloomington.

The famous fish has been the subject of a number of newspaper articles over the years, which we'll present in this page. The first, which I found in my grandmother's scrapbook, is from the 20 Feb 1931 Bloomington Star:

Here at Last Is the Story of the Fish on the Courthouse

(On top of the Monroe county courthouse is a large weather vane which has been there since "goodness knows when." The vane is in the shape of a large fish and is made of metal. So far as recent generations are concerned, little has been known of the "fish on the courthouse." But now a Star reporter runs the story to earth and here presents the pedigree of that famous ornament which for decades has told Bloomington and Monroe county folks which way the wind blows -- Editor's Note.)

By P. D. Burkhalter.

Volcanus Alheart1 made the golden fish on top of the county courthouse and presented it to the county as a gift from eighty to a hundred years ago.

Volcanus Alheart was the name given the master craftsman - Austin Seward - during the first ten years of Bloomington's history by Baynard R. Hall, first teacher in Indiana university - The Indiana Seminary, 1824.

Seward came to Bloomington (Woodville) when this city was only a Wigwam village before "The New Purchase" from the Indians (Weas, Kickapoos, Pottawattomies and Miamis) in 1818. Only the southern part of Indiana was settled in 1818 by about 150,000 frontier men and women and the northern part of the state (the new purchase) was a wilderness occupied by Indians. The Indian territory dipped into Monroe county. Gosport and Harrodsburg were the principal towns.

Sometime between this date (1818) and 1856 the fish was placed on the old courthouse. The date and the occasion are unknown, but the donor is recorded as the most prominent man of his times and distinguished as a craftsman for 200 miles around, "from old Kaintuck to mighty near Pittsburgh."

J. D. Showers2 knew Austin Seward, remembers the old foundry on the site of the Harris Grand theatre, knew Volcanus Alheart's son, William B. Seward,3 of local Civil war days fame, knew William H. Seward and knows the fourth generation of Sewards now - Fred A. Seward and W. Austin Seward, heads of the present Seward & company machine shop and foundry.

J. D. Showers came to Bloomington in 1856 with his parents as a young cabinet maker, age 15. The fish was on the courthouse at that time, with a large silver ball or globe below and a cup above the piscatorial weather vane.

Mr. Showers is approaching his ninetieth birthday and resides with his daughter, Mrs. B. D. Myers,4 and family, north Walnut street. The notable gentleman graciously related what he termed "the generally accepted story of that time" concerning the weather vane.

He said the material was sheet copper brought from Louisville and it was generally accepted that Austin Seward made the fish and gilded it in his foundry and presented it to the county. The silver ball, fish and cup could easily be seen from the Johnson corner - First National bank corner. Johnson was a hatter by trade and a fur trader. A story Johnson used to tell was about an Indian expert marksman with the bow and arrow. The Indian was reputed to have stood at the Johnson corner and struck the cup with an arrow.

Mr. Showers believed the courthouse was built by a Mr. Ketcham. The story of craftsmen of that period is exemplified by Mr. Showers' own experience. At the age of six he built wagons and sleds and traded them to other boys for builer knives,5 jews harps and marbles. At twelve years of age he was a cabinet maker and from 1862 on was part owner and operator of the furniture establishment which later became the great Showers Brothers company of today.

More is told of the personality of Volcanus Alheart in Hall's story of his early teaching. The story indicates Seward and his foundry were an indespensable part in the daily lives of the frontiersmen, supplying everything from plows to kettles and adzes to axes. In part the description is as follows:

[A lengthy quotation from The New Purchase was inserted here.]

The courthouse gilded fish is a symbol of the durability and permanence of the craftsmanship of our ancestors. They wrought lasting works of self taught art. The golden fish was last regilded when the present limestone courthouse was built in 1907. The silver ball was found to be corroded and other parts were replaced by the present vane.

The fish still stands a fitting symbol of copper art craft of the past.

"I marvel at their skill," said J. D. Showers. "So few tools, yet so well!"

The article was reprinted verbatim in 1944 in an Old Bloomington column with the following new headings:


Many people of the present generation do not know the story of the fish on top of the local temple of justice. This story was recently brought to The World-Telephone by Mrs. Florence Trisler of Clear Creek. It was published on February 20, 1931. It was written by P. D. (Pete) Buckhalter, former local reporter, who is now a dignified and successful educator connected with the Muncie schools.

In the early 1950s, the fish was blown off its perch during a storm and came crashing to the ground. The following article dates to that period:

Fish Story Grows

The lore surrounding the Courthouse's weathervane fish, which blew down from the dome during a heavy storm last week, continues to grow... On the editorial page of Thursday's paper, we'll have a letter to the editor concerning the monster and also an excerpt from a 1932 Courthouse history concerning the fish.

Now Fred Seward, brother of Austin Seward who is now in the process of restoring the wounded fish, sends us a feature article concerning the fish from a 1951 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Writer William Scott Allen states, "Judge J. B. Wilson, who has been a resident of Bloomington for 90 years, said he always understood that those responsible just decided the old Courthouse should have some type of ornamental weather vane. They took the idea to Seward. He took over from there." The Seward he speaks of is Austin Seward, great-grandfather of the present foundry-owners.

Fred Seward, according to the article, believes the fish was decided on because of its long, narrow shape. It doesn't need the extra flat arrow on it to swing with the wind.

Unless the fish has shrunk, there's a discrepancy in the article, though. The writer states, "The giant golden fish, almost 15 feet long, still turns with the wind..." According to our measurements, the fish is only a shade over five feet in length.

The Curious Gather

Incidentally, when the fish blew down, hundreds of curiosity-seekers flocked into Bloomington from surrounding communities to view the Courthouse dome stripped of the famous landmark. An equal number paused to view the fish stretched out in our bulletin window.

The next task will be that of replacing the refurbished fish on top of the Courthouse dome. Our guess is that the job will fall to the Fire Department with its extension ladder facilities.

We have several more articles about the fish which we've collected over the years which we'll add to this page as time permits.

1 The pseudonym for Austin Seward in Hall's The New Purchase was actually Vulcanus Allheart.
2 James David Showers (1841-1937).
3 Williamson Brewster Seward (1833-1909) was my great-great-grandfather.
4 Maud (Showers) Myers (~1878-?).
5 The author may have meant Barlow knife, which is defined by Encarta as a "twin-blade pocketknife: a pocketknife with one blade for cutting and another for poking or gouging. [Late 18th century. Named for the original makers, the Barlow family, cutlers in Sheffield, England.]"
This page was last updated 20 Nov 2004.