The Three Rivers Historical Society grounds hold a re-creation of what is believed to be the first public saloon in Three Rivers.

By Laile Di Silvestro. This article is partially based on a 14 January 2021 article by John Elliott for 3RNews.

In January of 2021, the Three Rivers Historical Society unveiled a re-creation of the Bahwell Saloon, believed to be the first public saloon in Three Rivers. The structure  is 8’x16’ with a windows enabling visitors can look inside. The re-creation is based on a 1907 photo and data collected during an archaeological investigation. According to the investigators, the original saloon was located just 35 feet from the site of the re-creation, above the  Bahwell Ditch.

A pit  or small cellar found by the archaeologists suggests that water from a nearby spring may have been used to cool the beverages until 1896, when water from the new Bahwell ditch was used for the purpose.

Despite the archaeological evidence, the history of the Bahwell Saloon has been shrouded by time.

Local lore suggests that the structure in the 1907 photo was created in 1895 and lasted until Prohibition shut it down on July 1, 1919. Historic documentation, however, indicates that the Bahwell family had a hospitality business entailing alcohol sales by 1892, and may have established a wayside for travelers to Mineral King by 1888.

Adam Bahwell (1830-1901) was baptised Adamus Bahwel in the Duchy of Hesse in Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire (later in Prussia and now in Germany). He left Hesse in 1846 and arrived in California by 1847. He was just in time to join the earliest rush to northern California’s gold fields.

Reportedly penniless after his mining adventure, Adam moved to Visalia in 1859, where he married Nancy Atlantic Stephenson (1843-1892) in 1861. The two immediately commenced building a family and a large business empire.

Adam became a wheelwright, repairman, blacksmith, farmer, sheep rancher, citrus nurseryman, and mortgage lender with no qualms about collecting on debts. He and Nancy acquired a block of land in Visalia, where they built some of their businesses. Their blacksmith shop was famous for producing and selling the acclaimed Bahwell pruning shears. 

They didn’t limit their sights to Visalia, however. Over time, they acquired farming and ranching property throughout the San Joaquin valley,  primarily in Tulare County.

Detail of the Thompson 1992 atlas, p. 46.

One of these properties was a  tract in Three Rivers, where the Bahwells built a home on the south side of the Kaweah River, across from the confluence of the North Folk and the Middle Fork and below a footbridge across the river. Records suggest that Nancy, Adam, and their six surviving children move there in 1880, but returned to their Visalia home in 1881.

According to official records, the Bahwells didn’t move to Three Rivers permanently until late 1884 at the earliest. A that point, they had added two more children to their family, and their oldest son, Charles Franklin “Charley”, had suffered a serious harvesting accident.

By 1888, “Bahwell’s” was a landmark. Geologists surveying the area used it as a point of reference, and noted that there was a house on the site. They didn’t mention a hotel, store, or saloon, but it is possible that Bahwell’s served as a wayside at that time.

Daily Delta (Visalia), 13 November 1892, p. 1.

By 1892, however, the new county map indicated that there was a store and house on the land, and a newspaper account indicates that the Bahwells were serving alcohol to the 4th Cavalry soldiers assigned to protect the new Sequoia National Park.

Nancy died at the end of 1892, but Adam and the children continued running the hospitality business. Perhaps due to his history as a tough lender, Adam’s reputation began to suffer. In 1893, Adam was accused of assaulting the wife of one of the 4th Cavalry soldiers, and news media declared him “a bad man.”

Daily Morning Delta, 17 August 1894, p. 1.

A newspaper report  indicates that the Blossom family entered the roadside alcohol business in 1894, forcing the Bahwells to reduce the price of beer from 40 cents a bottle to 10 cents. The news media encouraged hungry and thirsty travelers to avoid Bahwell’s and buy from the Blossom family instead.

According to Forest Grunnigen (3RNews January 2021), the association of the saloon with the Bahwell family ended in the mid-1890s. According to  official records, however. Adam Bahwell continued to run the hospitality business, and by 1900 considered his primary occupation that of hotel keeper.

By this time, Adam had become a very wealthy man. He was so wealthy, a young woman whom he had been wooing sued him for $25,000.00 for refusing to marry her. This is equivalent to $782,779.76 in spending power today.

Adam died in 1901 of dropsy (edema), and his son Charley inherited the property. It appears that Charley sold the saloon property within a decade.* At some point, according to local accounts, David F. Carter took it over.

According to local lore, the Bahwell Saloon survived WWI and the pandemic despite the growing prohibition movement. In November 1918, however, supply became an issue when the Wartime Prohibition Act banned the sale of beverages having an alcohol content greater than 1.28%. The 18th Amendment made the saloon’s demise final.

The saloon didn’t die quietly. Forest Grunnigen remembered having a beer at the saloon in July 1919 at the “grand closing party” when Prohibition became the law of the land. 

*Confirmation of property transfers awaits the end of the 2019-2021 pandemic.

This thirsty cyclist, Philip Alles, stopped off in 1907 for some refreshment at the Bahwell Saloon (then purportedly Dave Carter’s place.). The more times change the more they remain the same. Three Rivers Historical Society photo

The Bequette House symbolizes a century and a half of hospitality and land stewardship. Even more so, it symbolizes community– a community that the house still helps sustain.

This article is a compilation of two articles written by John and Sarah Elliott for The Kaweah Commonwealth on July 14, 2014 and 3RNews on May 17, 2017, with historical background added by Laile Di Silvestro in April 2021.

The Bequette House rests on a hillside next to the Three Rivers Historical Museum, overlooking the community gatherings and festivities that take place below, as well as the thousands of Sequoia National Park visitors that stop by each year to rest and seek the story of the locale. 

Built in 1926, the house sits on land occupied by the Wukchumni Yokuts for at least 3000 years. Euro-American settlers arrived in the mid 1800s, and by the mid 1870s the land now holding the Bequette House overlooked the Mineral King Road, which  extended from Visalia to Mineral King during the mining rush of 1873-1883. At that time, an immigrant named Adam Bahwell and his wife Nancy acquired the land and constructed what is believed to have been the first public saloon in what was to become Three Rivers.

The land that holds the Bequette House also holds a story of tragedy and romance, and perhaps a share of uninhibited debauchery.

Part 1: The Bahwells

Adam Bahwell was a Hessian, born in 1830 in Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. He left the Grand Duchy of Hesse in 1846, and was in California in 1847– preceding the earliest members of the California Gold Rush.  Inevitably, he joined the rush and was living in the immigrant district of Calaveras in 1850 with two brothers from Mexico.

It is uncertain if he struck it rich; however, by 1859 he was in Tulare County. In 1860, he was penniless, living with a roommate in Visalia, and working as a wheelwright.

Two of his defining characteristics soon became clear, however. He was a shrewd businessman and women were not necessarily averse to his company. He married the 18-year-old Nancy Atlantic Stephenson in about 1861, and they commenced building a large family and business empire throughout Tulare County.

Nancy Atlantic Stephenson Bahwell (standing) with her mother Lydia Smith Stephenson Flagg, her niece Mary Blincoe, and her sister Armilda Josephine Stephenson Blincoe. Date unknown.

It is uncertain when the Bahwells acquired the land on which the Bequette House now stands. The official records indicate that the family lived in Visalia until 1880, when they moved to the property. We can assume that they had acquired the land at least a year or two earlier, and moved there only when there was a comfortable house for Adam, Nancy, and their six surviving children. Both the records and an obituary indicate that the family returned to their home in Visalia in 1881, however, and moved to Three Rivers permanently a few years later after they had added two more children their family.  

The Bahwells established an orange grove and plant nursery on the property, and used it as a stopover when herding their sheep into the mountains for summer pasture.

Daily Morning Delta, 17 August 1894 (front page)

At some point, the Bahwells set up a hospitality business on the property. The earliest known references to it date from 1892 when the store was noted on a map. That same year, four soldiers from the 4th Cavalry assigned to protect the new Sequoia National Park partook in a drunken brawl at Bahwell’s, and one received serious cuts on his backside.

At the end of 1892  Nancy died, but Adam and the children kept the hospitality business alive.

By 1894, the Adam and his children were hosting boarders and feeding people on their way to Mineral King for a summer respite. That year they entered into a price war with the neighboring Blossom family, which had just set up a liquor and food stand on the side of the Mineral King road. The price of beer dropped from 40 cents to 10 cents a bottle!

By 1900, Adam considered his enterprise a veritable hotel, and his primary occupation that of hotel keeper. He died in 1901, and the land went to his son Charles Franklin before being acquired by John Allen MacKinnon and his wife Bessie in 1909. It appears to have been a “friends and family” transaction. Bessie was a Three Rivers resident and the daughter of Water Fry. Fry was  a civilian ranger for Sequoia National Park and a close friend of the Bahwells. As testament to their friendship, when  Charley Bahwell had a diabetic emergency in 1915, the Frys cared for him in their home until he died.

Part 2: The Bequettes

In the late 1840s and 1850s, an extended family of Bequettes migrated west from Missouri to join the  gold rush in northern California. There the Bequette family settled and grew until several members migrated south to Tulare County in 1857. They put down roots in the Farmersville area where they amassed large quantities of land and eventually entered into the world of high finance as self-described capitalists.

When the Mineral King mining rush commenced in 1873, however, the Bequettes couldn’t resist.

Paschal Bequette Sr. (1806-1879), his son Paschal Jr. (1845-1925), and his nephews, the brothers Charles Clovis (1834-1916) and Cyprian Ladislas Bequette (1825-1875) made their way to Mineral King in June of 1874. Rather than prospect the slopes and canyons surrounding the Mineral King valley, however, they climbed over Farewell Gap. There they established Bullion City.

Although there is no record that the Bequette woman partook in the mining, women did live in Bullion City. One such woman was Harriett Hill (1834-1887), who became the first woman to sign her name on a mine claim in the Mineral King Mining District at a time when female ownership of mine claims was extremely rare. Perhaps as an indication of their progressive outlook, the Bequettes partnered with Harriet.

Although the Bequette family actively mined the area until the mid 1880s, the untimely death of Cyprian Ladislas in 1875 ended his branch’s involvement in mining. The family’s attachment to the area didn’t end, however. They established a ranch in the Lemon Cove area, and in 1924, Cyprian’s great grandson Bruce fell in love with a Three Rivers girl. She was Jessie Agatha MacKinnon, the granddaughter of Sequoia National Park superintendent Walter Fry, and the inheritor of the Bahwell land.

Photo of Bruce’s father Cyprien Lamlieslan Bequette (1875-1911), circa 1887. Cyprien was born the year his grandfather Cyprian, co-founder of Bullion City, died. The photographer was E.M. Davidson of Visalia. (Courtesy of Peter Neeley)

Part 3: Jessie’s Story

The following is excerpted from “A History of Woodlake Union High School – The Woodlake 11: Class of 1924,” by John Elliott (published in 1994, in cooperation with the Three Rivers Historical Society).

Jessie Agatha MacKinnon Bequette: I was born September 11, 1906, in the Pollasky Depot in Fresno. My parents, John and Bessie MacKinnon, lived in a small apartment upstairs. My father was employed by the San Joaquin Valley Railroad.

In 1907, we moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, where my father homesteaded a wheat farm. My mother later told me that the winters were so cold there that the milk would freeze when it was rushed from the barn to the house.

After two years of hard times, we moved home to Three Rivers [where her mother Bessie Fry MacKinnon was raised]. We lived for a time with my grandparents, Walter and Sarah Fry, while our house was being built a mile or so south of their place [on the old Bahwell property].

In 1910, we moved into our new house. It was the nicest home in Three Rivers and, I think, the only one with an inside bathroom. That was the same year my sister, Edith, was born in Fresno. 

That wonderful home burned in a tragic fire in August 1914. My father died in that fire trying to save the family piano [a wedding gift from John to Bessie].

My [pregnant] mother, too depressed to stay in Three Rivers, moved with Edith to Tulare. That was the time, when I was seven years old, that my grandfather, Walter Fry, took charge of my upbringing. [She was living there when Charley Bahwell died in the house under Walter’s care.]

Some of my fondest memories are the Sequoia National Park inspection tours made on horseback as a youngster with Grandpa Fry. Each summer, we would start up the South Fork, crossing Hockett Meadow northward via the Tar Gap trail to the Montgomery cabin in Mineral King.

My first trip up the Colony Mill Road, the main route to Giant Forest before the completion of Highway 198 and Generals Highway in the 1920s, was in Grandpa’s Model T. Grandpa bought his first auto through the mail and learned to drive in his 40-acre pasture [near present-day Hawk Hollow Drive]. 

It was wonderful living at Grandpa’s house. It was the heartbeat of Three Rivers. There were lots of bedrooms; one on the first floor was his office while he was superintendent of Sequoia National Park [Walter Fry was the first non-Cavalry superintendent of Sequoia, 1912-1920].

The second story was a large, open room. It was great for parties and dancing.

I went to Sulphur Springs School from 1912 until 1920. The school was located north of the main river on what was then the Ogilvie ranch. We walked to school, crossing the river on a footbridge.

In all my high school memories, Senior Sneak Day [1924] had the biggest impact on my life. That was the day we put the big “W” on the hill above Woodlake, then went to Terminus Beach [present-day Terminus Dam at Lake Kaweah] for a picnic. 

On that day, I noticed a handsome fellow named Bruce Bequette, who was playing golf nearby. Bruce had graduated from Woodlake High School in 1919, so he joined our class at the picnic.

Six months later, I married that man. We first lived at the Pogue Hotel in Lemon Cove [present-day Lemon Cove Women’s Clubhouse]. Bruce later got a job in Sequoia National Park. We had 43 wonderful years together.

* * *

In 1926, Bruce and Jessie built their Three Rivers home on the old Bahwell property where Jessie’s parents’ home had been.

Following, perhaps unknowingly, the course set by the Bahwells, they established hospitality services. They built an adjacent structure that became Bequette’s Gift Shop (1953-1967). There was also a gas station and a plant nursery where, during Bruce’s National Park Service career, he worked on a botanical project that shipped giant sequoia seedlings for experimental planting throughout the world.

In 1967, Bruce died suddenly from a heart attack. Jessie closed the gift shop and it remained vacant until 1975. That year  it  was purchased by Jeanette Barton, Jane Cheney, and Nancy Campe and became Mountain Arts, a gift shop and weaving store, for the next 20 years. In 1996, the business was sold and became Gallery 198 for one year. For the past 20 years, it has been, fittingly, the home of the Three Rivers Historical Museum.

Jessie resided in her little white house on the hill for 68 years, moving to Visalia in 1994 at the age of 87 to be near one of her nieces.

She and Bruce never had children.

Jessie died in Visalia on April 9, 2010.

Part 4: Preservation

The Three Rivers Historical Society purchased the 2.5-acre Bequette property in 2012. Since that time, the home has been under renovation.

Currently, it is in the process of being furnished with period pieces, including some of the Bequettes’ belongings, donated by nieces Joan Thomsen and Rachel Caggiano (Edith MacKinnon Perry’s daughters).

Three of Jessie’s dolls from childhood are in a glass case. A hutch in the dining area contains the couple’s Depression glass. A roll-top desk belonged to Jessie’s mother, Bessie; a barrister’s bookcase was Walter Fry’s. A treadle sewing machine belonged to Jessie’s sister, Edith Perry.

There is also a wood cookstove, a spinning wheel, and household furnishings. Still to come will be several themed gardens and a bathroom. The house will be available for group events and artist’s exhibits.

On the grounds, plans include the construction of a two-story barn, in addition to the new replica of the old Bahwell Saloon (the first public watering hole in Three Rivers) and a public-restroom facility.

This massive undertaking would not have been successful without the help of the community of Three Rivers. More than five dozen individuals donated time and/or money to the restoration, as well as public agencies and local businesses.

The house arose out of  a community and sheltered people that helped hold that community together and keep it firmly attached to its roots. The Bequette house continues to bring community together, both to gather within its walls and to preserve it and its story.

A large mining artifact on display at the Three Rivers Museum helps tell the story of a time when miners flocked to the area with dreams of silver.

By Sarah Elliott and Laile Di Silvestro, 15 June 2018, The Kaweah Commonwealth; editorial update 2 April 2021

CAPTION (FIRST PHOTO): Taking part in the transfer of an iron tank associated with the Mineral King mining days from a Three Rivers ranch to the Historical Museum were Sequoia-Kings Canyon staff (from left to right) Ward Eldredge, museum curator; Gioia Spatafora, museum technician; Jimson Vincent; Jim Barton (donor); Anthony Hilson; Mike Varela; and Pat Lasswell.

CAPTION (SECOND PHOTO): In May, a Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks crew of six delivered the historic water-jacket furnace from the Mineral King mining heyday to its new home at the Three Rivers Historical Museum. Those ensuring this phase of the project when smoothly were park staff Ned Aldrich, Mike Judd, Lynn Harrington, Todd Newton, Tim Riddle, and Phil Woods.

Mineral King’s silver rush took place from 1873 to 1881. Although traces of nearly every mineral found in the Sierra Nevada are present at Mineral King, prospective miners flocked to the area with dreams of silver.

In 1873, 65 claims were filed. Work began in White Chief Canyon, on Empire Mountain, and throughout the remote valley. By 1874, there were 166 mining claims. In 1875, 140 additional claims were filed.

Farmers left their farms,  businessmen their businesses, stockmen their herds, and preachers their pulpits, all bound for the land of silver (Times-Delta, April 1912).

Urgently needed for the success of the Mineral King Mining District was a wagon road because once the area had a good road, a smelter and the necessary mining machinery could be transported to the valley. A smelter was of critical importance for the processing of the Mineral King ore.

In 1875, buoyed by San Francisco investors and speculators, the New England Tunnel and Smelting Company, with all the equipment necessary to process ore, began operations in Mineral King. The NETSC turned out to be not as viable as they would have liked folks to believe.

And they couldn’t keep their financial difficulties, personnel problems, or greed and deceit hidden for long. The company soon became known as the New England Thieving and Swindling Company by miners in the know.

New exhibit

Now all of Three Rivers and its visitors  have the opportunity to learn all about the area’s mining boom and, specifically, the New England Tunnel and Smelting Company. The Mineral King Preservation Society, which operates the Mineral King Room at the Three Rivers Historical Museum, is has been working with several partners to develop a comprehensive exhibit of mining artifacts.

In May  2018, a portion of the  New England Tunnel and Smelting Company water jacket smelter was delivered to the Historical Museum by a Park Service crew.

On Tuesday, June 5, 2018 a history-filled vessel was reunited with an important artifact of the Mineral King’s silver rush in a new outdoor exhibit at the Three Rivers Historical Museum. The solid iron tank, which is estimated  to weigh more than 300 pounds, dates from the 1870s and was intended to hold molten silver produced by the smelter, a portion of which now stands in the center of the exhibit. 

Together, these immense iron artifacts help tell the story of Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, and Three Rivers. They tell the story of greed, deceit, hope, and a community spirit that persists today.  

The new exhibit is the result of a collaboration between the Mineral King Preservation Society, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Three Rivers Historical Society, and Jim Barton of Three Rivers, who donated the iron tank to Sequoia National Park. The installation of the artifacts is the first step in a process that will entail restoration, preservation, and development of descriptive materials. 

Upon completion, the Mineral King Preservation Society will host an interactive public event where the artifacts’ stories will be told and their mysteries unveiled.