A Tale of Two Frenchmen and One Wandering Wellhouse

Seldom is everyone in agreement on all the details of any story from Fort Worth history. 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.

“When?”: When was the well dug? Some say early 1850s; some say late 1850s.

well from howardRex 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. He 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. 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 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.

well barbier mug 1-25-91 dmnHistorian Julia Kathryn Garrett said the well was dug by Frenchman no. 2—Alexander Barbier. Garrett located the well near the corner of 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 were no match for Texas summers, Texas winters, and Texas grasshoppers. Sacre bleu, y’all! The colony dissolved in 1857. Images are from a history of the colony printed in the January 25, 1891 Dallas Morning News.

well 2 buildings 1-25-91 dmnThe 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.

c 1894 View from Courthouse to West FWST UTA 1500This remarkable photo provided by historian Quentin McGown, taken from the new courthouse about 1894, looks west over the intersection of Houston and Belknap streets.

1894 detail markedThis detail of the preceding photo shows the wellhouse in the shade of a tree just north of the intersection of Taylor and Belknap streets.

well 6-16-15 stBy 1915 the history of the wellhouse was already becoming obscured. Clip is from the June 16 Star-Telegram.

well no caption TCAIn 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.

well 52 aerialAccording to Dr. Rex Howard, in 1949, Fort Worth’s centennial year, the well was moved 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, Quentin McGown said, was removed from the courthouse lawn.

photo quentinAbout 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—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.

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5 Responses to A Tale of Two Frenchmen and One Wandering Wellhouse

  1. Steve A says:

    Given its history, “where” would fit in well with the who and when. Thanks!

  2. Really interesting article! If the well ever needs a home, we could certainly explore housing it out here at Log Cabin Village.

    Keep the good stuff coming!

    • hometown says:

      Rena:
      Thanks. Isn’t that interesting? I was all set to write a “whatever happened to?” post when I decided to run it past Quentin. I didn’t press him on details, but he gave me the impression that the wellhouse is in trustworthy hands and that a good outcome is likely.
      Log Cabin Village certainly would be a no-brainer new home for it.

  3. Speaking of “whatever happened to”…I don’t suppose you have any idea what happened to the old stagecoach marker that was placed out here in 1965? Someone asked me about it, and I had no idea it even existed until I found a Star-Telegram article from April 7, 1965, showing it being placed here. An online forum says that it was later stolen, but I have yet to find record of that. Thought I’d see if you’d ever come across anything!

    • hometown says:

      Rena:
      Did not know about the stagecoach marker.
      I guess it went the way of the concrete marker at All Church Home on Summit (originally the Burk Burnett estate), which marked the site of the alleged last major skirmish between Indians and whites in this area in 1849. Julia Kathryn Garrett wrote in her book that there was a marker there. When I asked All Church Home about it, they didn’t know what I was talking about.
      I suspect that most historical stuff disappears either because folks don’t know its worth or because folks know only TOO WELL its worth.
      Mike

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