The following essay won third place in the Oklahoma Heritage Week Essay Contest. Ben Rhett Copeland is the son of Dr. & Mrs. Mike Copeland and a student of Mrs. Joyce Wikoff's Ninth Grade History Class at Altus Junior High School. Essay is reprinted minus bibliography. This essay also appeared in the Altus Times Newspaper column courtesy of the Museum of the Western Prairie
CITY OF ALTUS WATER WELL
In such a dry and arid climate, it was essential to the early pioneers of the Altus community that a source of water be available for personal and drinking use. A historical site presently marks the spot on the north side of the Downtown Altus Square where one of the first wells was dug and used by citizens of the Altus community.
One of two hand dug wells in 1889-90 by Mr. Sam Neal, provided the lone soft water supply in the area for several years. It was 35 feet deep and was protected by a cement curb. Early-day citizens would carry water from this well to their homes and it was also from this hole that water was secured to fill the horse troughs which once centered the streets around the Square.
Before it provided water for the town that is today Altus, Oklahoma, the well was the only water supply for the Neal family, and surrounding homesteaders. Another water well, which was dug on the southwest corner of the Neal homestead was actually built first but it's water was very hard. As it was not adequate for consumption, the second well was dug. This soft-water well was dug on the southeast corner of the homestead. It was used for making food and drinking, while the hard-water well was used for watering the animals. According to Lloyd Neal, Samuel's 89 year-old son, the soft-water well was the only source of water for the whole county, until the town was established. It was without a doubt the gathering place "to wet your whistle and get the news."
During the later 1880's, the first non-Indian settlers trickled into the remote areas of Southwest Oklahoma. As a result of a crippling drought they had encountered in Texas, many of the disheartened individuals ventured north. An acceptable source of water was a supreme challenge to the settlers who came to settle in this area. They found the shallow streams often too salty to drink and well they dug were often contaminated with large amounts of gypsum.
Therefore, the water dilemma burdened these new inhabitants to a much greater degree than it had the Indians. First, these homesteaders were farmers, not buffalo hunters. Second, they were restricted to little more than a quarter section of land, or at most, 320 acres. Only a fortunate few would locate enough water on their new lands to even supply their household and animals.
The water well came into prominence when it became necessary to move the town of Frazer from its original site on Bitter Creek, three miles west to the present city of Altus because of a devastating flood in 1891. According to local politician and historian, Mr. Howard Cotner, "Altus is a Latin term which means "high" for high ground. Altus was first known as Buttermilk Station, then Frazer, then Leger, and finally back to Altus."
The Southeast corner of the Public Square in the town of Altus was established by planting two cast iron wagon spindles and ten pounds of coal at a dept of two feet, from which point a cross (X) on the curbing of the public well bears "N. 50 degrees W 26 feet 9 inches, and the Bogard corner to Sections 17-18-19& 20 bears S. 7 degrees W 81 feet 10 inches.
W.C. Jarboe, after being first duly sworn, says that he is of lawful age, and a resident of the town of Altus, in Jackson County, Oklahoma, and has been a resident thereof for 25 years, that said town was originally platted and dedicated and named as "Altus" in 18989, and continued to carry that name until about 1901, when it was changed by the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway Company to "Leger", and the name of the post office also changed to conform to that name, and the town was known by said name of "Leger" until 1905, when the post office and railway station was changed back to the original name of "Altus" and the town has been known and designated generally as "Altus" continuously since said change.
Rediscovered in 1989, restoration of the well became a major community project as part of the "89er" Centennial Celebration for the State of Oklahoma. After the well was rediscovered in near perfect condition in the early months of 1989, several interested citizens decided to restore the landmark as a local historic marker. A cement slab over the abandoned well had the inscription "WPA 1937" printed on it. It is believed that was the year the wells were originally sealed.
The well was shaped in a star design from top to bottom. It even had 15 feet of water still in it! Altus Mayor Boozie McMahan appointed a committee to oversee the restoration project. Mr. William Appleby, Altus architect, was asked to draw a sketch of the proposed restoration design. Heavy June rains soon hit the area causing the brick wall lining to crumble-making a restoration of the original well impossible. The plan was then changed to create an exact replica of the well directly over its original site. With the assistance of city employees and other dedicated individuals, the project was completed in early spring of 1990.
On March 9, 1990, the unveiling of the monument took place. Many of the descendants of Altus" pioneer families attended, including Lloyd Neal. During the memorial dedication ceremony of the historic water well site, the members of the Altus-Jackson County Well Preservation Committee recorded the following remarks:
"Dug deep in the rich fertile soil of Jackson County long before Oklahoma became a state, this well is a symbol of all the hopes and dreams that our pioneer forefathers brought with them, when they entered old Greer County to find new worlds to conquer, new lives to live and new towns and communities to build.
May each person who follows find the courage of a Sam Neal, who by his own hands dug deep into the soil until he found the life-giving stream of pure fresh water, that not only supplied the immediate needs of his family, but those of many others, as our fledgling town and county took shape and spread its wings to finally emerge as a progressive All-American community that continues to lead Southwest Oklahoma to new discoveries, progressive enterprises and depths of human compassion.
It is all together fitting that the marker that caps the well is made of granite from the mountains that grace our northern horizon, which have always stood as a beacon, pointing the way to our homes, our families and our hearts.
The brief history and the historic picture that is engraved upon this marker will outlast the centuries, bearing testimony that the people of Altus and Jackson County cared enough to save a portion of their God-given heritage, and to pass it on to those who are to follow in the years to come."
The City of Altus water well represents a significant contribution to the development of the Altus community. In such a dry and arid climate, it was essential to the early pioneers of the Altus community that a source of water be available for personal and drinking use. Without such a water source available, the town which became the Altus community as we know it today quite possibly might never have been developed. Even today, an adequate source of water is a must for the agricultural economy of the area. Now, we rely upon a much larger source of water - Lake Altus located approximately 17 miles to the north.
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