Seldom are historians in agreement on all the details of any story from Fort Worth’s past. The “who?” and “when?” of Frenchman’s Well are no exception.
“Who?”: Who was the “Frenchman” who dug the well and built the ten-foot-tall beehive-shaped stone wellhouse over it on Taylor Street between Bluff and East Belknap streets? Some say Adolph Gounah; some say Alexander Barbier. And a dark horse possibility is Francis Knaar.
“When?”: When was the well dug? Some say early 1850s; some say late 1850s. And the dark horse date is 1849.
First, let’s dispense with the dark horse candidate because less is known about him.
This 1949 Star-Telegram story re-creating the establishment of the fort a century earlier says Frank Knaar, the fort blacksmith, dug the well. Knaar had “a slight French accent” and was known as “Monsieur.” The soldiers, the Star-Telegram wrote, referred to the well as “Frenchman’s Well.” After his military service, Knaar would stay on in the settlement that grew up around the military fort.
Rex Howard, a Fort Worth doctor who for forty years spent his annual vacation seeing the sights of Texas and wrote Howard’s Texas Guidebook in 1948, wrote that Frenchman no. 1—Gounah—dug the well as a source of water for the soldiers of the Army’s Fort Worth. Howard wrote that Gounah built the wellhouse to shield from Indian attack those drawing water from the well. Howard located the well at the western edge of the fort—there was no Taylor Street yet. The opening of the wellhouse faced north, toward the river, he said. Gounah, Howard pointed out, was Texas’s first state geologist and built other stone structures, including the tombs of Major Ripley Arnold and Arnold’s two children in Pioneers Rest Cemetery. Gounah came to Fort Worth about 1850 from the French colony of New Icarie in Denton County. New Icarie began in 1848, located on ten thousand acres of Peters Colony land and founded on the social theories of Etienne Cabet. But the New Icarians watched helplessly as the Texas summer sun baked their crops. Malaria and cholera broke out. The colony dissolved in 1849. Gounah migrated down to the Army’s new Fort Worth. But by 1852 Gounah was operating an art “saloon” in Dallas. So, his window for digging the well probably was 1850-1852. Photo from Howard’s Texas Guidebook shows the wellhouse on the courthouse lawn, which became the wellhouse’s new location in 1949.
Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett said the well was dug by Frenchman no. 2—Alexander Barbier. Garrett located the well near the corner of today’s Bluff and Taylor streets and said Barbier built a house for his family, dug the town’s second well, and built the stone wellhouse over the well to keep its water uncontaminated.
Garrett said Barbier came to Fort Worth from the French-Belgian-Swiss-German utopian colony of La Reunion in Dallas County, which began in 1855, founded on the social theories of Francois Fourier. Ah, but French social theories again were no match for Texas summers, Texas winters, and Texas grasshoppers. Sacre bleu, y’all! The colony disbanded in 1857. Images are from a history of the colony printed in the January 25, 1891 Dallas Morning News.
The Barbiers were living in Dallas when the Morning News printed the history of the colony in 1891. Barbier, the Morning News said, was a stone mason and had built the director’s house and the cooperative store at La Reunion. He used native fieldstone. The Morning News said the colony had a lime kiln, so Barbier probably heated limestone to produce quicklime for use in mortar.
If Barbier built the Fort Worth wellhouse, perhaps he used the same masonry techniques he had used in La Reunion.
This remarkable photo provided by historian Quentin McGown, taken from the new courthouse about 1894, looks west over the intersection of Houston and Belknap streets.
This detail of the preceding photo shows the wellhouse in the shade of a tree just north of the intersection of Taylor and Belknap streets.
But just to muddy the well waters, historically speaking, on June 16, 1915 an article about the well in the Star-Telegram does not mention Gounah and Barbier but rather suggests that the well dated back to 1849 or even before 1836.
In the 1920s the wellhouse was moved from the well. In 1932 the Six Flags chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution placed a marker on the wellhouse. The DAR said that Barbier built the wellhouse in 1857 and that Howard Peak (born here in 1856) remembered knowing Barbier and drinking from his well. This photo from Tarrant County Archives shows the wellhouse next to a wood-frame house. The DAR said that Barbier’s house was, as you might expect, made of stone.
Fast-forward to 1949. According to Dr. Rex Howard, in 1949, Fort Worth’s centennial year, the well was moved yet again. It was dismantled stone by stone and reassembled on the west lawn of the courthouse, where the Civil Courts Building stood from 1958 until 2013. This detail of a 1952 aerial photo may show the beehive on the west lawn.
In the early 1950s, historian Oliver Knight said, a city garbage truck hit the wellhouse. The rubble, historian Quentin McGown said, was removed from the courthouse lawn.
About 1957, McGown said, the rubble of the wellhouse, through a lapse in custodianship, was removed to a private home in Fort Worth. There it was reassembled, and there it remains as it was in 1894: standing in the shade of a tree.
McGown said there is “every possibility” that the wellhouse—the very stones of our bones, one of the oldest relics of Fort Worth regardless of the answers to “who?” and “when?”—could be restored to public display, perhaps even on the courthouse lawn where it stood sixty years ago. (Photo by Quentin McGown.)