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1800s-era well found under floor of Versailles Chamber

1800s-era well found under floor of Versailles Chamber

January 9th, 2017 by Samantha Pogue in Local News
A view into a 19th century well uncovered in the Versailles Chamber of Commerce building.

A view into a 19th century well uncovered...

Photo by Samantha Pogue /News Tribune.

 

Mike Kilkenny of Expert Remodelers had quite the shock when pulling up soft floor in the Versailles Area Chamber of Commerce's office during renovations last week.

A routine process of replacing floor joists that had gathered moisture led to the discovery of an old, deep well, which Morgan County Historical Society President Barbara Barnard said could date back to the mid-19th century.

"The building that now houses the chamber office was built in 1903. That building was something else in the late 1800s," Barnard said.

After finding the well, Kilkenny stopped remodeling, and chamber staff and members were called in to take a look.

"I have been involved in construction most my life and (my daughter) said, 'Dad you need to come up and look at this,' said Earl Reuter, owner of Reuter Construction and father of Chamber of Commerce Board President Deanna Lucas. "(The well) is 4.5 feet in diameter and 34 feet deep, and there is 13 feet of water in the bottom of it."

Barnard and other historical society members began researching the property where the building now sits in downtown Versailles.

Barnard has one theory of what the well could have been used for years ago, with its close proximity to the Morgan County Museum on Monroe Street.

"The only thing I know is Samuel Martin, founder of the Martin Hotel where the museum now resides, had his stables somewhere across the street. The stagecoach line came by the hotel, and the Martins would often change horses out with them. The well could have been used there," she said. "However, that is just an assumption."

More research is underway to determine the well's age, its features and how best to preserve the historic piece.

Mignon Dureka, Chamber of Commerce office manager, said they have contacted resources through the Missouri Archeological Society and an environmental and historical research subsidiary, as well as a local project leader of the Goodwin Sinkhole and Cave Restoration project in Montreal, to seek advice.

Reuter, Kilkenny and other residents used a sewer camera Tuesday to examine the well to its deepest point below the water.

"We couldn't really see anything in it other than some scrap pieces of wood," Reuter said. "It is very unique and intriguing to see what is down there."

Reuter said the chamber staff is also considering using a submersible pump designed to pump 200-400 feet of water, allowing removal of the water to explore the depths of the well.

"It depends on how much of a hurry and how much we want to investigate what is done there," he said. 

"I have a couple of people that want to rappel down in there, especially if we pump the water out of it."

With local interest spreading, the chamber has decided not to fill the well and seal it off, instead opting to preserve and seal it for public viewing. 

Reuter said the chamber leaders are discussing using a metal frame, weather stripping, mortar and glass top at the floor level over the well.

"We would be pretty close to 100 percent sealed off by the time we would get it all closed and ready for the public to view When you walk in you, would be walking right across the floor and there would be the cistern. We would put some light down in it if we do that, too," Reuter said. "We have to make it look nice and can't leave it like this open to the public. It will be a piece of history that most people never see."

Dureka hopes having a preserved live artifact from the 1800s will draw people to the chamber office for local information.

"It will give people a reason to come by our office without feeling intimidated and see an amazing historic piece of our town's history," Dureka said. "We are for the city, visitors to the city, as well as our members who support us throughout the year. We hopefully will make a brochure that will talk about the history of our hole in the ground."

Even though some residents had never seen a well like this underneath a building before, Reuter has. He not only is familiar with such wells growing up on a farm, but he has also seen old wells beneath structures around Versailles.

"There was one underneath the porch of Dr. (David) Dear's office, and it's been closed in and covered. There was a house just south of the post office where they found a huge cistern underneath the back porch; they also filled that one in with gravel," he said. "The Versailles Barber Shop used to have one, and they covered it up, too."

Chris Gerlt, 15-year owner of the Versailles Barber Shop across the street from the chamber building, discovered the old well beneath his business' bathroom three to four years ago during renovations.

"It was about hip deep and full of rocks from where they had filled it in partially before," he said.

He said the building has been a barber shop since 1896 and figured the well was used for hot baths previously available to customers. The barber shop's previous owner of 53 years, Jimmy Daniels, had never told him he knew a well was beneath the barber shop, Gerlt said.

Gerlt was just as excited to look at the well discovered at the chamber office, hoping something cool might be discovered in its depth.

He also agrees preserving the well at the chamber office and making it open for public viewing is a "cool plan." So does the man who discovered it.

"They couldn't have found an old well in a better building," Kilkenny said. "I like the idea of preserving it and allowing everyone to see it. It really is a piece of history in our town."

During the winter months, the Versailles Area Chamber of Commerce office is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. For more information or anyone with archaeology expertise who could assist the chamber, call 573-378-4401 or email vchamber@sbcglobal.net.