The story behind Savannah’s Greening of the Fountain

Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 12:53 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 14, 2022 at 5:25 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The fountains in downtown Savannah are flowing green in what has become one of the city’s big traditions during the Season of St. Patrick, but the spectacle also grew out of necessity.

Hundreds of Savannahians and visitors gather every March to watch the clear water of the Forsyth Park fountain turn emerald green. Two men who’ve been involved with the Greening of the Fountain for decades try to explain how it started and why it’s became so popular.

“I was there for the beginning, but I didn’t know it,” Fred Elmgren said.

Elmgren, a member of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee and past adjutant has been emceeing the Greening of the Fountain ceremony for more than 20 years. He got the job while serving on the Executive Board in 2001, because he thought the tradition needed something more.

“We always start everything we do with a prayer and a pledge and we didn’t do that for the greening of the fountains,” Elmgren said. “I said, I think we need to do that and they said, ‘Well, okay, you’re in charge.’”

But the tradition of dyeing the fountain green is something the City of Savannah actually started doing in the mid-1980s.

“The origination of it was hooligans, dying the fountains, or people with good intention, maybe not even just hooligans dying the fountains and making it cool for St. Patrick’s Day,” Elmgren said. “All of a sudden the realization, this stuff could ruin our fountain pumps. They knew they couldn’t stop it so they started dyeing it themselves.”

As green water begins to pour from the fountain each year, so does the Irish spirit in Savannah. Greg Pinckney, a supervisor with the City of Savannah’s Greenscapes department, may have as much claim to that Irish spirit as anyone.

“Some kind of way, because I got the pot of gold - the green dye,” Pinckney said.

Pinckney has been part of the tradition longer than just about anyone. He started working with the city in 1986 and says the Park and Tree Commission started dyeing the fountain a year earlier. He started mixing the green dye for city’s fountains a couple of years later.

“You don’t want to mix it by hand; trust me,” Pinckney said as he mixed up a small bottle using only a drop of the goldish-brown powder. “It does leave a little green stain on your hands. It comes off but it’s gonna be a little minute.”

In the early days, Pinckney and his crew mixed up buckets of green dye but only filled one large metal container.

“We had to keep filling containers up so it got better through the years, giving everybody their own container,” Pinckney said.

The parade committee teamed up with the city to gather at the fountain each year, but the event remained small. It would later become one of Savannah’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day traditions thanks to an assist from WTOC and the late Craig Harney.

“Craig Harney, God bless him, got involved and he came over and taped it,” Elmgren said. “The next thing we knew it started on the noon news.”

The tradition now spans generations. Adults who helped pour the dye as children are now bringing their own kids to take part.

“Now the focus is very much on the children being involved in, not just being there saying ‘ooh and ahh’ when the fountain turns green, but the children are very involved in actually turning it green,” Pinckney said.

Each child hopes their pour will create that magic moment when the water changes color and ushers in the Season of St. Patrick in Savannah.

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