Depending on who you talk to in this town, that’s what camp you end up in.
The actual name of the place, the literal meaning, to most of us, has been something we’ve likely given little thought to down the years. More likely than not a friend or relative casually told us at some point that the town’s name means ‘Beautiful Fountain’ in a foreign language. Heck, without even doing much research- or asking around at all- most of us could probably come up with the notion that the word Bellefonte sounds pretty French, you know? And even if we’ve never spent much time frolicking in the cafes of Paris, quite a few of us have still managed to more or less conjure up that the French word ‘belle’ probably means pretty or beautiful, right?
And then, look, since we’re halfway home and there’s no one to really argue our hypothesis with us, we only have the word ‘fonte’ standing in our way. And, well, that looks as much like French-for-fountain as anything, you know? So it all clicks and there we go. End of story. Short and sweet. Bellefonte, as we’ve been taught, brainwashed, or otherwise convinced ourselves to believe, means something like ‘Beautiful Fountain” in French. Or Italian. Or whatever.
Okay? That makes sense, right? I mean, c’mon, there are some big old springs down there by the creek. And they are more or less the reason people settled here once upon a time in the first place, no? So why wouldn’t- or shouldn’t- the town name mean precisely what most of us have been believing it means for a long time now?
Bellefonte = Beautiful Fountain. Or Beautiful Spring. Or Nice Water. Or whatever. Close enough.
Well, maybe for you. Then again, maybe not. For some, the longstanding back and forth has even led to a more enlightened take on what it all means. Joesph Griffin, Vice-President of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, makes a person think.
“Bellefonte is just the name of our town…it means what our town is,” he ruminates. “As the fortunes of the town wax or wane, ‘Bellefonte’ changes its meaning accordingly. It meant one thing in 1875 and a lot less in 1975. Lately, as far as I can tell, the definition of ‘Bellefonte’ has been getting more appealing every year.”
Fair enough. There’s much more to a town’s name than the literal meaning.
Well, my curiosity has been piqued and I can’t seem to back away from the question regardless. What does the word ‘Bellefonte’ really mean?! See, on a recent Bellefonte.comFacebook post about Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the subject of the exact meaning behind the name Bellefonte somehow made its way into the discussion. And to my utter surprise, a few folks were quick to go back and forth with one another about it all. That’s right: you heard me. Here and now, in the midst of this technological data storm known as the chaotic 21st Century, there still appear to be people among us who are still very much interested in what the heck the word Bellefonte means… literally.
Which is kind of refreshing if you ask me. After all, the name or naming of a place is rarely debated much any more. People are too busy. We take history for granted by simply ignoring it to its face.
Case in point. You know the town of Howard, that charming little place out on F.J. Sayer’s Lake? Well, after some quick research it turns out that Howard was named after…duh… the 18th Century English philanthropist John Howard. You knew that, right? Or at least that’s what the Centre County Planning Commission reported back in 1970. And yet I noticed that there’s absolutely no mention of the town bestowing the honor among the late gentleman on his very own Wikipedia page. Not that Wikipedia is the end all historical source, I know, but still. That seemed odd. Now, I’m not saying that this means that the good people who founded Howard didn’t, in fact, name their new town after the noted British prison reformer. There’s a good chance they probably did. However. There WERE a lot of Howards back then, same as there are today. Just sayin’.
From a historian’s perspective, I suppose the answer to Bellefonte’s lingering name question may never be solved, so to speak. Otherwise, we’d have to imagine that by this point in time it would have been. It’s been over 200 years since the town was incorporated. The Golden Goose of indisputable historical documentation would have probably showed up by now if she were actually coming, don’t you think? The debate rages on then.
And I did some research. I had to; I’m writing this article. But I’m also fascinated by it all; how can a town so firmly entrenched in the very history and fabric of such a popular part of our nation still be in the dark about what their town’s name really means 200 years after it was named in the first place? It’s wonderful in a way. It means that we’ve forgotten (or have never even known) something quite vital that the very people who first laid eyes on the very ground we now tread upon once knew for damn certain. I love that idea. I love the fact that humankind always thinks we’re so much more knowledgeable than those who came before us, even when history itself seems to contradict that theory more often than any of us would ever care to admit.
My point? Okay, okay. My point is that the word Bellefonte has meant quite a few things to a whole lot of people who have lived here down the centuries. In fact, quite a few of us have rubbed up against the tale of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the French statesman, at one point or another. According to multiple sources online, as well as my slightly tattered copy of Bellefonte: Fountain Of Governors, back in the late 1700’s when the town wasn’t even a town yet- back when it was still just a settlement rising from the Central Pennsylvanian frontier dust,- they say Tallyrand bestowed the name ‘Beautiful Fountain’ upon us when he first visited the area and noticed the cascading waters of the Big Spring.
Bellefonte native, Romayne Naylor, has spent a huge part of her life studying local history and she’s firmly convinced that the town’s name is indeed French for ‘beautiful fountain.’ But she admits that she can’t quite decide on Tallyrand’s role in all of this.
“After many years of research I am still uncertain about that,” she told me. “One appears to find documentation and then finds just as many dissenting opinions.”
Either way, later on the town honored the man regardless. Our most beautiful Tallyrand Park is named in his honor and this has been more than enough ‘proof’ for most of us. The Tallyrand tale is the origin of the name that has stuck hard and fast for so long now and it makes perfect sense.
Except for one thing.
Well, a couple things actually. First, I stumbled into the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s (BHCA) website today. It’s a magic resource, I think because they feature a virtual tour of the town that is a real font of rich historical information. But at the same time, they also point out that- ahem- font is not really a French word at all. And that Fonte is a French word, but that it doesn’t mean fountain, it means ‘a casting in metal’. Which, I don’t know about you, but that is way less romantic sounding than what I thought it meant. So suddenly I’m not so convinced that this town’s name means ‘Beautiful Metal Thing’.
Are you with me?
Enter local historian, Dick Knupp, Sr. According to a very unique perspective he shared on the BHCA site, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand had nothing to do with the naming of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. And the name itself doesn’t mean what we have all been thinking it means all this time. In fact, Knupp, Sr. gives all the credit of naming the town something that is NOT ‘Beautiful Fountain’ to another local legend, the early ironmaster, John Dunlop.
“John Dunlop called his forge Bell Font Forge…because the French word font has nothing to do with water, as believed locally, but does mean casting. The only time water is involved with a font is when water is placed in the casting used in religious ceremonies. In the eighteenth century, the finest iron went into the casting of bells. The words Bell Font have a symbolic meaning, that the finest iron is made here.”
Dick’s son, Dick Knupp, Jr, who is also known far and wide for his knowledge of Centre County history, shares his father’s feelings on the Tallyrand tale.
“It’s a nice story, but I have questions,” he says.
Still, perhaps historical research isn’t always meant to be answered in full. Maybe simply discussing history together, as a family or a community, is as (or even more) important to understanding our collective past as answering age-old questions?
“As long as there are knuckleheads like my father and I with a compulsion to deconstruct the conventional wisdom, there’s unlikely to be any resolution to the debate,” Knupp, Jr. reflects. I like that. A lot. Still, sometimes the questions get the best of our curious side. Which might explain why I found myself riveted as soon as I read the Dunlop theory on the BHCA’s site. It seemed to me that Mr. Knupp, Sr. was onto something indeed. Then I read on.
“Over the next fifty some years the Bell Font Forge, later called the Valentine Forge and eventually Cerro Copper and Brass, lived up to its name. In 1797 John Dunlop purchased a parcel of land called Innocence from William Lamb. He then gave the piece of land to his father James Dunlop and brother-in-law James Harris to build a town. That town was named after the Belle Font Forge.”
That town is this town.
Belle Font. The place where the best bells are cast.
For what it’s worth, I’m going with the Dunlop story.
Am I right?
Heck, I don’t know. None of us do. Robbin Degeratu, Administrative Director of the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, told me something that has stuck with me.” Even if evidence such as a deed or diary controverts the Talleyrand story, that story has been repeated so many times that it would be impossible to correct it. This is the nature of local lore.”
She’s right, too, I think. We’re lucky to be so surrounded by all these historical questions. They keep us on our proverbial toes, insist that our collective minds keep offering up fresh ideas and theories and discussions even when the questions themselves seem unanswerable. History- our history- stretches way beyond all this architecture, and these governors; moves miles beyond the stories and the community, beyond all of it.
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Harry Breon, a local historian who has written a slew of insightful books about Centre County and Bellefonte.
“Do you feel like the debate of the town’s name will ever be put to rest?” I asked him.
“No, I don’t. But in a way that is not such a bad thing, because it also keeps the history and the folklore that goes with it continuing from generation to generation,” he told me. “That is the secret to keeping history alive.”
And that, my friends, is kind of a beautiful thing when you really stop to think about it.
A gift from many moons ago that just keeps on giving. By Serge Bielanko