Located on the ridge on the east side of Samuelton, Freshwater Knoll is a mansion built by Selwyn Freshwater in 1921 as a home for his new wife, Henrietta . It was the first house built on what would eventually be called College Ridge but was then known informally as the East Spur. During the 1920s, the house was both a center of Samuelton society and a place to drink, with Selwyn hosting parties multiple times each week.
After the fortunes of the Freshwaters were severely hit during the Great Depression, the house was sold. Over the years it would pass through many hands and ultimately left uninhabited for most of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Clark Freshwater, great-grandson of Selwyn, purchased the house after he graduated from college, bringing back into the Freshwater family. Though no longer wealthy, he tried to keep up the appearance of the old, landed gentry. He and his wife Dorothy began renovating the property, though progress was slow. At intervals, renovations were interrupted by the births of their children and due to lack of resources. By the time of the Freshwater Murders, much of the house remained in disrepair, including most of the upstairs, the basement, and the living dining rooms on the ground floor.
The original house was built on the then undeveloped College Ridge on Samuelton’s east side in 1921 (coincidentally the same year that the Hensley Asylum opened. The patriarch of the Freshwater clan at the time was something of a rival of Dalton Hensley, but only in terms of social standing. While Hensley’s business was in copper, timber, and goods (he was the original owner of the East Slope Mercantile in Crestview), Freshwater was in cattle and wheat.
Gruffyn Freshwater had come west in 1869 with Eugène de Bouton’s party, marrying Wanekia Everit en route. He had continued on to the Willamette Valley. However, a dispute over land claims resulted in his return to the East. On the journey back up the Columbia River, Wanekia took ill, causing the couple to delay in The Dalles. They had to sell their paltry goods to survive, with Gruffyn taking work where he could has a laborer. During their stay, they encountered Eugene, who was then living in The Dalles, and remembered him from the original party. Eugene suggested Gruffyn and his now recovered wife come south with him. Claims were still available in the Palmer River Valley and in the plain south of the valley. While the Freshwaters had little equipment or supplies, Eugene offered to help them get settled.
It was hard going, but in time the Freshwaters proved their farm at the foot of Certain Butte, which included a hot spring that would eventually be developed into a spa resort. Crop yields weren’t great until irrigation channels could be dug, but the Freshwaters were able to eke out a subsistence living for several years. By the time Samuelton was founded in the late 1970s, they had a going concern and several children. They also had added cattle and sheep to their holdings, which enabled them rise above mere subsistence. In time, they were able to turn the day-to-day management of their farm over to a foreman and move to Samuelton and into a house near what is now Town Common.
Whenever local farmers and ranchers suffered a setback, Gruffyn would buy their land and expand his holdings. In time, he was the owner of several thousand acres he worked directly, as well as several thousand more he rented to other farmers. His wealth grew quickly so that by the 1890s, he was the richest man in east Barlow County, and second only to the copper and timber baron, Dalton Hensley. He died in 1901, leaving his holdings divided between his two sons, Merwyn and Kynan.
Merwyn managed his inheritance poorly. Some of his holdings he sold to his younger brother Kynan, but other pieces were peeled off. Though Kynan held his own for some time, the failings of the older brother foreshadowed the eventual decline the Freshwater fortunes.
It was Merwyn’s son Selwyn who built Freshwater Knoll. By this time, Samuelton was starting to grow into a hub for the shipment of farm goods out of the county, and Selwyn wanted the town to develop into the center of Barlow County society. The county seat was in the newly renamed Crestview, but travel in and out of the high country mining town was a challenge. The roads would frequently wash out during winter rains, and the railroad in and out of the town was a spur line. Freshwater had convinced the Union Pacific to run a railroad line through Samuelton, which increased its importance. With Hensley building first his Victorian mansion in Crestview, then the Hensley Asylum (considered a big deal at the time), Built in 1921 ostensibly as a home for his new wife, Henrietta Marie Waldo, Freshwater Knoll was his answer.
Twice the size of the Hensley House and made of brick and stone instead of wood, Freshwater Knoll was the first house built on what would eventually be called College Ridge overlooking the growing town of Samuelton. (Selwyn petitioned for the entire ridge to be officially named Freshwater Knoll. But while it would informally be called that for many years, after the decline of the Freshwater fortunes, only the house would retain the name.) With Prohibition looming, Selwyn included a hidden room in the basement where he could hide liquor from the prying eyes of the Feds.
Calling the lower level a basement is something of a misnomer. The house was built into a slope, allowing the basement to have full exterior access on the east end of the house. There was a single-car garage, a sauna and plunge pool room in additional to utility spaces. The side door entrance would figure in the Freshwater Murders.
During Prohibition, Selwyn Freshwater not only entertained guests at lavish parties where the liquor flowed freely and lasciviousness reigned. He also invested generously in the town of Samuelton, paying for the construction of the Susannah Lee Memorial Park fountain and for electric streetlights throughout the Town Common. He spearheaded the effort to move the county seat from the declining Crestview, succeeding in 1928 despite the efforts of the aging Dalton Hensley to foil him. He also invested in the Bijou movie theatre, a hotel, and several restaurants downtown, and even into expanding a farm equipment sales company into automobiles. Money flowed freely from Freshwater coffers, making Selwyn a beloved benefactor of the town. Sure, the parties were wild up on the Knoll, and sometimes prone to violence. Young women from around Barlow County too often ended up pregnant, but even then Selwyn would arrange illegal abortions. Himself not interested in political office, he still controlled town and county government through his not always legal largesse.
But then came October 1929. Though Selwyn had income from a number of endeavors, including a ranch and several Samuelton area businesses, he was heavily leveraged in the stock market. With the crash, much of his paper value vanished and he soon found himself deep in debt.
He was forced to sell off many of his business holdings to meet satisfy his debts, but it was too little too late. Adding to his misfortune, his wife Henrietta died of blood cancer in January 1930. A month later, he shot himself in the living room of Freshwater Knoll, leaving a bankrupt estate to his children.
His children went into the care of Selwyn’s cousin Edith, who purchased Freshwater Knoll so as to keep the children in their own home. She also owned the Freshwater Hot Springs Hotel—part of the original Freshwater land claim and one of the holdings her father Kynan inherited from clan patriarch Gruffyn. Unfortunately, the hotel and hot springs had been a money sink for some time. Unable to maintain a mansion and hotel on her income, Edith sold Freshwater Knoll to a real estate development company in 1939. (She managed to hold on to the Hot Springs until her accidental drowning there in 1959, at which point the state took ownership to pay property tax arrears. In time, Freshwater Hot Springs would be made into a state park.)
The real estate developer intended to raze Freshwater Knoll to build a housing subdivision, a plan put on hold by World War II. After the war, community groups argued for the house’s historic significance. Though only 25 years old at the time, the place had been a center of society during Samuelton’s boom period and many folks did want to see it lost. People argued in favor of it become a museum, among other things. For a while, nothing happened with the house itself, though construction of nearby homes began on lots carved out of the original Freshwater property.
In 1951, the house was sold to a family who agreed to preserve it as a historic landmark. They lived on the property for several years before selling out in the late 1950s. The new owners used the place as a vacation home. However, by the late 60s the house was sold again, this time to a local ranching family. They lived in the house through the 70s, but moved out without selling in 1980. The house remained empty for several years, though occasionally a member of the owner’s family would take up residence for a few months at a time. Maintenance was increasingly deferred, causing the house to become run-down. In the late 80s, the house was offered to the Bear Lodge for use as a Halloween fundraising location and decked out as a haunted house. Though safety-specific repairs were done, this use damaged the house further, such that when Clark Freshwater returned to Samuelton in 1992, the place was in pretty bad shape. He and Dorothy were able to buy it for a song, and for the first time in more than fifty years Freshwater Knoll was back in the family.
Characters of Note
- Towhee Freshwater
- Clark Freshwater
- Dorothy Freshwater
- Jared Freshwater
- Emile Freshwater
- Tabitha Freshwater