Gold Country… Part 2

When we last left off we were hanging out in Gold Country, on Tuesday morning of our trip we packed up our campsite at the Grinding Rock State Historic Park and headed out to find breakfast. We decided to check out a place called Kneading Dough Bakery in Volcano, about a five-minute drive from our campsite. My daughter was disappointed that this town did not actually have a volcano, but rather, was named by early miners because it was set in a bowl-shaped valley where early morning fog would settle. A post office was established in 1851, a year later there were over 300 homes and by 1853 there were eleven stores, six hotels, three bakeries, and of course, three saloons. Thousands seeking to strike it rich swarmed to the area.  According to the Tour Amador website over $100 million dollars were extracted from mines in this area!

Current day volcano, like so many mining towns, has been downsized considerably. There are approximately 130 full time residents these days compared to over 5,000 at its peak. There is now one hotel, the St. George, we tried to get inside and book a room but could not find anyone around and no answers to their listed phone number. There is also a small park, a theater company, a pub, and the bakery that we stopped in at for breakfast. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t cooking over a camp stove, but breakfast was delicious! Situated across from the park we planned our day over a delicious meal.

Volcano has a few interesting stories that I came across, it is a town of many firsts:

  • 1854 First theater group in California
  • 1854 First debating society in California
  • 1854 First circulating library in California
  • 1855 First private school in California
  • 1855 First private law school in California
  • 1856 First legal hanging in Amador County
  • 1860 First astronomical observatory in California
  • 1978 First solar still in California

We enjoyed discussing these over breakfast and then meandered up and down the small town inspecting the Gold Rush area buildings and reading all of the historic plaques describing their history.

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Delicious breakfast in Volcano at the Kneaded Dough Bakery.

A lot of the gold discovered during the Civil War was funding the Union army. Some feared that there were plans to seize gold for the Confederacy and so a cannon, aptly named “Old Abe” was acquired by the Volcano Blues, it was brought into town, and was ready to protect the town. I found a great website, Cali 49, that describes the cannon’s purpose, but with a lucky twist, “The Blues feared that southern sympathizers were plotting to seize the gold for the Confederacy, to aid them in the war. The mere sight of the cannon supposedly broke the ranks of the marching secessionists, saving the day and the gold. It was later discovered that the cannoneer had over-loaded the cannon with black powder. Had it been fired it would have blown them all to smithereens.”.

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Photo courtesy http://www.Cali49.com.

Old Abe

Photo courtesy http://www.Cali49.com.

Leaving Volcano, on Pine Grove Volcano Road is a must visit attraction tucked away, the Black Chasm Cave Tours. To say our daughter was excited was an understatement. A lot of these “tourist traps” as I see them, aren’t high on my to do list when visiting historic locations, but I must say this one was worth the ticket. The cave is a National Landmark and has a wide variety of formations including stalagmites, stalactites, flow-stones, and helictite crystals (which is what really puts it on the map!). If you aren’t so inclined to journey into a black chasm there are plenty of above ground attractions including gemstone mining in water flumes, a great visitors center, nature trail, and picnic area. The walking tour of the cave is about an hour and provides a wonderful relief on a hot day as temperatures drop rapidly during your descent. Platforms are suspended mid-air and staircases wind through as you view Lake Reflection down below and amazing rock formations above and around.  Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable on the cave and local history. Though the Miwok tribes probably knew of the cave, gold miners are credited with the discovery in 1854, how you “discover” something that is already known was a long topic of conversation in our car that afternoon. My daughter learned a lot of “fun facts” on the tour, blind spiders, no bats, oh my and so I can easily recommend the tour for younger visitors (though the stairs were a little tricky to navigate) but her interest was held the entire tour!

Since we struck out at the St. George Hotel in Volcano we decided to head to one of my favorite hotels, The National, in Jackson. It is a quick 20-minute trip from Volcano to Jackson and we were hopeful to get a reservation and extend our journey another night. I should say here that we had been talking about this hotel since staying there last year when my husband and I came up for a show in Sutter Creek at Fiest Wines featuring the incredibly talented Willie Watson (seriously, check him out!). When we got home from that trip I told my daughter that we had stayed in a haunted hotel. As I have mentioned, our daughter is 4 ½, she however loves all things Halloween, creepy, ghost related. Always has. So she was thrilled to be staying at The National. We are in no way paranormal investigators (or even believers really) but it is a lot of fun and adds a spooky element to any trip. We have had few “experiences” that leave us with more questions than answers usually (some day we will get to a Queen Mary post I promise where that will be divulged!) but it certainly provides lots of laughs and some goosebumps.

When searching for the hotel online, the autocomplete fills in “haunted” for you, and the hotel has embraced it. There have been a few serious paranormal investigators visiting the site. Videos on YouTube show “evidence” of ghosts and in the lobby there is a black leather-bound book titled, “Book of Shadows” where guests are encouraged to add their otherworldly experiences to the ghost log. There is also a “Ghost Kit” that can be check out from the desk. It has seen better days, but the one working piece of equipment while we were there, an EMF reader, provided us with a few hours of hilarious entertainment as we “hunted” on the grounds.

The ghost hunting was fun but the history of the building is what we were there for on this trip. The original building, constructed in 1849 was built by two Pennsylvania natives, Ellis Evans and D.C. White was the Louisiana Hotel and Store and it was destroyed by fire in 1862. Evans and White rebuilt and expanded and renamed the new location The National Hotel. The current owner has done an incredible job on renovations, while maintaining the historic look and feel of its Victorian design but updating with modern amenities to suite a modern traveler. The hotel is the backdrop for a well-preserved glimpse back in time. Historic buildings line Main Street and more renovations are under way, helping to preserve this area’s history.

Surviving a night ghost free we decided on one last stop before the journey home, Ione. Also located in Amador County, Ione was not a mining town but rather a stop along the way. It was a supply center, rail stop and a regional hub for agriculture. It was incorporated in 1953 and is now the largest town in Amador County. Like Jackson and Sutter Creek, its downtown has been preserved, though we noticed more for sale signs and empty spaces than in the other towns, but Ione has something that makes this history lovers heart skip a beat; the Preston School of Industry, or Preston Castle. Established by California state Legislature, the Preston School of Industry was a progressive move to provide a location that could rehabilitate juvenile offenders rather than continue to send them on to Folsom and San Quentin prisons with the adults. Construction began in 1890 and on July 1, 1894 the school was officially opened. The school remained open for 66 years until 1960. Slowly the building fell into disrepair as it remained vacant. Thankfully, the Preston Castle Foundation was formed and they have been working to restore this amazing piece of architecture and history. Tours are now given with year-round events ranging from wine tastings to paranormal conventions. The building is approximately 50,000 square feet and includes four floors and a three-story annex. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Foundation has big plans for its future including rental spaces, hotel, museum space and more. Unfortunately, there were no tours available during the time we were there but I plan on making it back for a closer look someday!

It was my hope to delve a bit deeper into these locations before posting, but as mentioned earlier, life sometimes gets in the way. Please feel free to message me any questions in the “contact” section. Thank you for reading.

 

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We’re Back… and we went to Gold Country! Part 1

Our daughter will turn 5 in less than 5 months. When I last posted she was 2 ½. You could say the last few years have been busy! We moved to a new town, changed jobs, enrolled our daughter in preschool, bought a home, lost loved ones, gained new friends, and so much more. During this time, in the back of my mind there was always a voice quietly cheering me on to come back to this space. To keep sharing our discoveries, which have been many on the historic front, and to document the tales and people we meet while out sleuthing. As the director of an historical museum I am knee deep in history most days, though from a manager’s perspective. Always looking for new programming ideas, writing grants, campaigning for memberships and donations for a cause I am passionate about. Between motherhood and work I have found myself consumed and at a loss for free time. This little space of mine on the internet never truly left me, I would hear a story or visit a location and tell my husband, “this would be perfect for the blog!”. Then some time would pass or I wouldn’t know how to begin to explain the long absence so I would let the story slip away and I would press on with my life.

That all changed a few weeks ago when we decided to take a trip up to California gold country, Amador County. We would camp two nights at the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park in Pine Grove and then stay one night at The National Hotel in Jackson. I decided enough was enough! I will document our trip, our perspective on what traveling with a 4 ½ year old is like, the things we saw, and perhaps even share evidence of a ghost!

I don’t see camping as the most appealing way to spend a vacation. We live in the Sierra National Forest, I am grateful to be surrounded by the beauty of trees, wildlife, and water and the ability to be able to enjoy them out my front door. My daughter however has books about camping and kept asking, so we found ourselves, during the 9th day of temperatures over 100 degrees, driving up California State Route 99. We exited the freeway earlier than our map suggested and from Ripon took Jack Tone road. This took us through a dry countryside and then we merged on to CA State Route 88 and passed through Lockford where we got our first glimpse of the old downtown’s we were looking forward to visiting. Lockford was founded in 1851 and is registered as CA Historical Landmark #365. We then headed straight on past Jackson and through Pine Grove to our campsite at the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553). It was a balmy 94 degrees when we arrived but the temperatures had seemed to keep the other visitors and mosquitoes away. We set up camp and got settled in quickly. The campground is small, with only 23 sites for RV or tent camping.

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Camp Queen approved!

 

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Puzzle action while dinner was cooking.

When we arrived, there were only two other sites occupied. The restrooms were well kept, though we never saw a camp host. A ranger did drive through once each day while we were at camp.  There are two beautiful trails that feel far away from civilization and take you through a reconstructed Miwok village with housing structures, a Hun-ge (roundhouse), picnic area, and museum. There are over 130 species of native plants in the park ranging from Poison Oak (which we were very careful to steer clear of), some of the most magnificent oak trees I have ever seen, lupine, pines, and more. Also on the property is the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum. Which is a wonderful starting place to get a feel for the area and learn about the Native Americans that lived here before the gold rush. The park gets its name from the outcropping of marbleized limestone with 1,185 mortar holes. This is the largest collection of bedrock mortars in Northern California. They have built a deck that you can walk out on for better viewing of the grinding holes and petroglyphs. The park was opened in 1968 and hosts many events annually as well as school group tours. It started a dialogue with our daughter about the history of the Native Americans in this area, and in the area where we live as well. The trip was over a few weeks ago and she still has questions.

The next morning, we were ready for more exploring and decided to take a step back in time with a visit to Sutter Creek. In 1846 John Sutter sent men from his fort on the American River to search for an area for lumber and this is the first recorded case with written proof of Euro-Americans in the area. After that things picked up rather quickly. By the mid-1850s mines were starting up and down the creeks and hillsides. In 1854 Amador County, named for Jose Amador, was formed. That same year a significant camp had formed in what is now Sutter Creek and it became officially incorporated in September. There was a hotel, and several stores and restaurants. We met an incredibly friendly gentleman volunteering at the Sutter Creek Visitor Center who gave us great suggestions on things to do, places to eat, and even some behind the scenes information on local restoration projects.

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Photo from Sutter Creek’s Visitor Center’s website 

Our daughter found the sidewalks “super fun!” as they jut up and down along the hillside and we enjoyed stopping in front of each building and reading the plaques that told each’s history. Small shops, antique stores, and restaurants line both sides of their downtown located on Old Route 49. I highly suggest entering as many of the businesses as you can as their interiors give hints of their histories as well. A bank vault as a dressing room, a staircase to a basement, there are years and years of stories to be told.

We hope you have enjoyed a little preview into the first half of our trip. I will post part II soon with information on the wonderfully small-town Volcano, the National Hotel in Jackson, and the Black Chasm Cave… and a ghost!

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By the second morning and a much better night’s sleep camping had definitely grown on me!

 

Visalia’s Fox Theatre

The gem of downtown Visalia would hands down have to go to the beautiful Fox Theatre. Located on the corner of Main and Encina, the theater was built in 1929-1930 by Los Angeles architect Clifford Balch and engineer Floyd E. Stanbery. The Spanish style exterior doesn’t give those about to enter much indication about the lavish interior, so upon entering your senses are immediately overwhelmed. The interior is a very opulent, East Indian theme. I think you could spend a good part of your day just in the lobby and you probably would not be able to see all of details. The sconces, stairs, and even the ceilings are decorated. One of my favorite details are the elephants painted on the interior beams. You can get an extra close view when you are on the second floor. The Fox Theatre in Visalia is one of many theater’s built by William Fox and his Fox Theatre Corporation, that grew into 20th Century Fox. It opened its doors on February 27, 1930. The opening night was packed and people lined the streets to visit something so new to the valley. In 1976 the Fox was converted into a triplex movie house in an attempt to keep up with modern demand. Despite the changes the money just wasn’t there and by 1996 it was shut down and put up for sale. No buyers were taking an interest despite a large amount of interest from the public and a desire from many to preserve this historical theater. A group, Friends of the Fox, was formed and a year later they were given the building by the seller and after much hard work and many donations the Fox reopened to a sold out house on November 20, 1999.

We have had the pleasure of seeing many different concerts and events at this theater but were overjoyed when we asked for a private tour to get some behind-the-scenes pictures for a write up on our blog. Our request was granted by the Fox’s Operations Manager, Kent Stahl. Stahl is also a local musician and sits on the board of the Sound N’ Vision organization, qualities that must give him that extra something that it takes for someone to work so hard in such a place. The Fox is like a maze and Stahl knows it like the back of his hand. He explained to us about the different access points to the roof, small ladders (and I use the word ladder quite loosely, these are pretty much metal poles with places to put your feet) that require the use of harnesses and cables, and an attic that even on a cool afternoon was blazing hot. He was not only gracious enough to let us explore the space, he went out of his way to do some extra cleaning, turn on the stage lights, and put up with my millions of questions over the hour and a half that he spent with us.

The pictures below speak for themselves, the Fox Theatre is a very special place and without the support of our community wouldn’t be what it is today. That support is something that is needed now more than ever. The theater is having its marquee replaced to look more like the original with the white lights surrounding the performers names. To help fund this project they are asking for donations and you can help to “light up the Fox”! Click here to donate, find out how to volunteer here, and for more information on this wonderful location!

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Election Tree

There is something special about uncovering the past of an area you had previously considered yourself to be quite familiar with. I have found in writing these stories for our blog each addition brings a handful of more ideas for us to discover. We have grown up and spent most of our lives as residents of Tulare County and last week found ourselves standing alongside a country road that neither of us had ever driven on before. Echoes of gunshots rang out between the surrounding foothills as we had decided to hunt out the election tree while many other area residents were after a different prize on the first day of dove hunting season. The Election Tree, or Charter Oak Tree is listed as a California Historical Landmark and it marks the location where the election by which Tulare County was organized took place. A group lead Major James D. Savage took their meeting outdoors on that blistering hot valley summer day on July 10, 1852. The group of men gathered underneath the large oak tree and voted to create Tulare County. The original plaque that was placed here was stolen in 2009 and the Tulare County Historical Society held a re-dedication ceremony on February 5, 2011 and placed the marker that is now there today.

We thought it was pretty funny that while we were trying to get the perfect shot of  the tree another couple pulled up and parked right in front of the tree and went up to read the new monument marker. I love the idea that this location drew in two sets of visitors at the same time on an early Saturday morning. Whether by accident or not it is nice to see other people wanting to stop and learn more about out area’s history. They moved on and we were left to stand under this tree, 162 years later and talk about what changes our county has seen.

This is a beautiful area for an afternoon drive, to locate the Election Tree and marker take highway 198 and exit heading north on road 182, turn left onto avenue 304, and right onto road 180. Turn left onto Charter Oak Drive and the Election Tree will be about .3 miles down on the left hand side.

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The marker on the far left is the one placed in 2011 by the Tulare County Historical Society. The stone next to it held the plaque that was stolen.

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Photo taken in 1942. Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia CA

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California Centennial Commission placed this historical marker in 1949. It was stolen in 2009 but a new marker stands today thanks to the Tulare County Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia CA.

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Other Election Tree visitors!

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Evans and Sontag

In the stories of Tulare County’s outlaws and bandits, two names are often the first to be associated, Evans and Sontag. These men and their story is even more interesting though because they do not quite fit the bill of your typical outlaw. Neither man had a past of crime, convictions, or had spent time in a jailhouse. They became the focus of an intensive manhunt and had a $10,000.00 reward luring all types to join in an attempt to capture them, even some once considered close family friends! They were wanted and on the run for ten months with the climax of their tale at a shootout at the Stone Corral, located approximately twenty miles north east of Visalia on June 11, 1893. We attempted to contact the property owner’s as the Stone Corral still stands today but they were not open to visitors during a high fire season so we hope to add our own personal photographs at a later time.

We were very excited to begin the research for this post. I have been vaguely familiar with the names Evans & Sontag. My husband and I both really enjoyed Terry Ommen’s coverage of their tale in his book, Wild Tulare County, which I can’t recommend enough if you love stories about outlaws and the old west. I expected to learn about the bandits, Chris Evans and John Sontag and feel a connection because we both have lived in the same area, though 125 years apart. What I did not expect was to see these two men as anything more than criminals or outlaws. However, I can see why many members of the community rallied to help them while the search was on to find them. Both were quite extraordinary men, and this is their extraordinary tale.

Like many tales of the Old West, a string of bad luck seemed to follow a good family. Chris Evans was no exception to this. Born twelve miles from Ottawa, Canada in 1847 to an Irish father and German mother. At the age of sixteen he ran away from home and crossed into the United States during the height of the civil war in 1863. He enlisted into the Union Army in Buffalo under a fake name.  Evans never became a naturalized United States citizen. According to Wallace Smith, author of the book Prodigal Sons: The Adventures of Christopher Evans and John Sontag, Evans’ daughter Eva asked her father about the name he had used in the war he replied, ““Can you keep a secret?” “Yes,” she answered eagerly. “Well so can I.”” (Wallace, 19). After his service ended he and army buddy headed West, and in a bit of foreshadowing, in the way only fate can provide, they chose to walk their journey along the railways. Evans decided to head south once he hit San Benito County ending up in Visalia.   He earned an honest living as a teamster hauling lumber from Cedar Springs in the mountains. The 3 day trip allowed for many stops at inns along the way, and it was at such an inn where Chris met his wife Molly. She was 15, he was 27 and they were married the same year they met. These happy times were shortly followed by a series of heartbreaking misfortune. Molly gave birth prematurely to their first son, he only lived two hours. The second child born, Eva, was born weighing only two pounds, but somehow was able to survive. Their next child, a son named Elmer was born in 1878 but died two years later after suffering from diphtheria. The fourth child born was another girl, Ynez. In 1882 a third daughter, Winifred was born. During this time of celebration and loss Evans continued to build his reputation as a hard-working man and he worked closely with the railroad companies and farmers. He saw the price gouging forced upon the farmers by the Southern Pacific Railroad. When you think of a gun slinging bandit, a train robbing outlaw, you don’t usually think of Shakespeare, poetry, and an aversion to foul language. All of these traits belonged to Chris Evans. He had a voracious love of reading, he could recite lengthy sonnets by memory, and acquaintances he made were often astonished by how well read he was. Once a group of men hired him as a guide to hunt in the mountains and they could not believe how they would find his face in a book the moment they took a pause to rest while hiking. One remarked that he had read more than the combination of educated men on the trip.

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Chris Evans was sentenced to life in prison when he was convicted in 1893. However, he later was paroled. Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia CA

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Evans’ family pose on Strawberry Ave. and N.W. 2nd Ave. in Visalia, CA, in 1896. Pictured are Winifred Evans, Eva Evans, Mrs. Chris Evans with baby Carl, Mrs. Byrd and George Byrd (Mrs. Evans’ brother). Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, CA.

 

Chris Evans home

Chris Evans’ Visalia home located at Houston and Dinuba Blvd. in Visalia, CA. Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, CA.

 

John Sontag was born fourteen years after Evans in 1861 in Mankato, Minnesota. He headed west in 1878 and began working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. While working in Fresno he was injured on the job when was crushed between railroad cars. He was told he could return to a lighter duty position once he recovered, but the railroad company did not stay true to its word. Sontag was only able to afford to stay in Fresno while friends chipped in for his room and board while he tried to recover.

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Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Museum, Visalia, CA.

 

One day, while in Tulare on business Chris Evans ran into an acquaintance at the train station. Sitting nearby was John Sontag, still too weak to stand for long lengths. This group of men began to trade stories about loses they had been dealt by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Evans told the story of how his wife’s uncle’s family had been beaten out of their land by the railroad and those issues lead to what was known as the Mussel Slough tragedy where six settlers and two railroad men were killed. John Sontag spoke up about his issues against the company. Evans felt compelled to offer Sontag a place to stay with his family in exchange for light work, Sontag accepted. He soon after became engaged to Evans’ oldest daughter, Eva, though the marriage never took place as their paths veered off the course they had once imagined.

The first robbery attributed to Evans and Sontag happened at the train station in Pixley, CA on February 22, 1889 . When the train arrived at the station two armed men boarded  the train. A deputy constable from the city of Delano sensed there was a problem and boarded the train as well, the bandits shot at he and another man, killing the deputy. They then attempted to force open a door where J.R. Kelly, an express car employee, was hiding. When he refused the set off an explosive, it did not open the door but Kelly knew they meant business so he obliged their demands. Once inside they packed their loot of nearly $3,000 and escaped.  Over the next few years similar train robberies happened in Earlimart, Visalia, Goshen, Ceres.

Also around this time John Sontag’s brother came to Tulare County. He liked his drink and one day in a bar in Visalia he was telling stories about these train robberies that only someone involved could have known. Police were tipped off and he was soon arrested and sentenced to life in Folsom Prison. On August 5, 1892 police went to Evans’ home to question John Sontag about his brother as part of their investigation. A gunfight began and the police were forced to flee. This began the intensive manhunt for Evans’ and Sontag and a reward of $10,000 was placed on their heads. The duo spent most of their time on the run hiding out in the Sierra Nevada mountains and they would receive some help from those living in remote mountain locations. Eventually though, even those they considered friends, began to try to hunt them down for a piece of the prize.

On June 11, 1893 the battle to bring them down took place at the Stone Corral. The posse tracking them had been tipped off that they would be crossing through this location in Eshom Valley. Their patience paid off, Evans and Sontag were making their way towards Stone Corral. As they approached Evans spotted the posse and began to fire. The shootout lasted over and hour but as the sun set they were both wounded and hiding behind a straw pile. John Sontag had been shot several times and the posse found him semiconscious the next morning. Chris Evans had escaped, in Wallace Smith’s book, Prodigal Sons, he details an account later given by Sontag on his deathbed about how he begged Evans to end his life and put him out of his misery but Chris Evans could not oblige. Sontag urged him to make a run for it alone, he had a family to look after and Sontag knew his life would soon be over. Evans then crawled to the home of a nearby friend but they notified the sheriff of his arrival. The battle left him very injured, he lost his right eye and had to have his left arm amputated below the elbow.

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Aftermath of the battle at Stone Corral. John Sontag lays wounded in the foreground. The U.S. Marshal guard and posse propped him up against the hay to take this photo. Photo courtesy of the Annie Mitchell History Room at the Tulare County Library in Visalia, CA.

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Chris Evans after the shootout at the Stone Corral. He lost his right eye and had to have his lower left arm amputated. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Museum, Visalia, CA.

 

Evans was tried for murder but before sentencing, he and another man in jail escaped the Fresno County Jail. He remained on the run again but officials tricked him into returning to Visalia on false rumors that his son was gravely ill. On February 19, 1894, almost 5 years to the day from the first train robbery in Pixley, Evans finally surrendered. He was well-behaved in Folsom and on May 1, 1911 he was released on parole and moved to Oregon to live with his daughter Eva. He died at age 70 in Portland, Oregon. He was laid to rest in the Mount Calvary Cemetery in 1917.

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Photo courtesy of findagrave.com

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Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland, OR. Photo courtesy of our awesome historian in the field, and favorite Oregon residents, Carly and James Brittain-Gore.

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Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland, OR. Photo courtesy of our awesome historian in the field, and favorite Oregon residents, Carly and James Brittain-Gore.

 

I don’t know why it came as such a surprise that these two men met only a half a mile from where we currently live but it just made the story seem that much more exciting to us! Another piece of the puzzle came when we learned that John Sontag was buried in Fresno, CA. We decided to head up early one Sunday morning to try to find his headstone. It was a very humid morning, it felt like we were walking in a cemetery in the South rather than Central California. John Sontag is buried in the Calvary Cemetery off of Blythe. This is a beautiful old cemetery, one that we spent a little over an hour walking up and down the aisles of, and after much searching my husband was the one who finally found Sontag’s grave. We had walked past it multiple times but had subconsciously brushed it off as we had wrongfully assumed it would be one that had not been recently visited. In fact it had two American flags and multiple flower bouquets decorating it.

 

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Here is where John Sontag has been laid to rest in the Calvary Cemetery in Fresno, California.

 

 The story of Christopher Evans and John Sontag has provided us with a fascinating trip through history. We felt close to the story as we have walked on the same city streets, lived in the same towns, and were even able to visit one of their graves. For further reading on these two men and their mark on Tulare County’s history please consult the following publications and websites:

Wild Tulare County by Terry Ommen

Prodigal Sons by Wallace Smith PH.D.

Evans and Sontag, various authors published by Pioneer Publishers

http://www.eshomvalley.com

http://www.tularecountylibrary.org/historyroom.html

 

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Gun and bullet casings used by Chris Evans, donated to the Tulare County Museum.

 

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Chris Evans’ daughter Eva. She was extremely close to her father. While he was in jail awaiting trial for the string of train robberies and murder she starred alongside her mother in a play about her father. Photo courtesy of the Tulare County Museum.

China Alley

One of the reasons I love working on this blog is having an opportunity to discover areas so close to home that I had no previous knowledge of. Today’s post features one such location. I have been to Hanford so many times, we have seen concerts at the historic Fox Theater, eaten downtown, tasted massive and delicious ice cream sundaes at Superior Dairy, and I planned a wedding at the Carnegie Library Museum. In all of these trips I never came across China Alley. While we are finishing up some loose ends for another post we went searching online for something to post about from a nearby location. Hanford was thrown out there and my husband suggested China Alley. He had learned about it from an episode of Huell Howser’s California Gold. We were not disappointed!

China Alley is actually more of a neighborhood but the alley is a time capsule.The area became home to a large influx of Chinese immigrants starting in 1877 that came to work on the railroads and in the agriculture business. Stepping into the alley you feel like you are stepping back in time, or onto an incredible movie set. The shops ranged from grocery stores, natural medicine shops, boarding houses, tea rooms, and even a gambling establishment. Sadly, this location has made the list of the eleven most endangered historic sites in the United States. Hanford does not have a trained preservation staff to ensure the safety and proper renovations of the buildings. While deteriorating, it is still such an incredible location. I truly hope its value can be realized by the community and it can be saved in time. The Taoist Temple Museum, which is only opened on the first Saturday of the month, has small gift shop and they donate the proceeds to the preservation efforts of not only the museum but the entire historic district. You can find a link to the China Alley Historic District website here for more information. If you are able, I recommend taking a trip here, the details on the buildings, locks, and signs are a glimpse into the vibrant beauty of this place. It is easy to imagine the street bustling with people, the smell of one of the many nearby restaurants wafting through the air, while the light catches the streamers hanging from many of the balconies sending reflections across the street. Though it was only my husband and I in the alley you get a sense of the many souls that once called this place home.

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Happy 4th of July!

In honor of our nation’s independence I thought we would share a few photographs that give a glimpse into the lives of those celebrating the same holiday many years ago. All photos are from the Annie Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, CA.

John Howell, the Porterville, CA, marshal is shown in his uniform in 1902.

John Howell, the parade marshal in Porterville, CA, in 1902.

4th of July parade in 1886 in downtown Visalia on Main Street looking east from Court Street.

4th of July parade in 1886 in downtown Visalia on Main Street looking east from Court Street.

Fourth of July parade entry in Visalia, CA, in the 1920s.

Fourth of July parade entry in Visalia, CA, in the 1920s.

A home that was decorated for July 4th in 1908. The home is still in use at 220 N.W. 1st Avenue in Visalia.

A home that was decorated for July 4th in 1908. The home is in 2002 still in use at 220 N.W. 1st Avenue in Visalia.

Historic Jails

 

 

First Visalia City Jail

This jail now resides at the Tulare County Museum located in Mooney Grove park. It was donated to the museum by Luella Hyde and her sons. This jail was built in 1872 on the north side of Courthouse Square on Court and Center. This facility was used by both city and county offenders. It was only used for a few years at this location, before the new courthouse was built containing its own jail. This jail was then sold to R.E. Hyde and was moved across the street. In the early 1920’s it was moved to the Hyde Ranch west of Visalia.

The jail was built from vertical 4×12″ planks and covered inside and outside with horizontal boards. At one point it contained a partition inside, that created two separate cells. Pictured below you can see how it looks today at the Tulare County Museum. On the inside, if you look closely, you can see the etchings made by the former inmates while they were held here.

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Interior view of the cell walls, note the “art” the inmates scratched into the wall on the right side of the photo.

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The Old Tulare County Jailhouse

Located on the corner of Oak ad Church Street, the old Tulare County Jail now houses commercial offices as well as a restaurant, Jack & Charlie’s in the basement. The marker out front reads:

“In 1854 the supervisors of Tulare County authorized construction of a 16′ x 16′ oak log structure with a courthouse upstairs and a jail downstairs. Before this, the most dangerous prisoners were chained to a large oak log out in the open. In 1858 a brick courthouse was constructed with the jail again on the ground floor. The prisoners were still placed in chains bolted to the oak floor. This served both the county and the city of Visalia. In 1870 the county jail was no longer to be used as a city jail. In August of 1870 the Visalia Delta noted ‘The other day we noticed a prisoner of the city chained to an oak tree in the courthouse yard; we think this an outrage in a civilized community.’ Three years later a 14′ x 24′ city jail was constructed. in 1876 a new courthouse was built with the jail on the ground floor. This an earlier jails were not escape proof and were too small as the county grew in size. In 1890 a new updated county jail was built on this site. It was constructed of brick and was two stories high with a basement, and it was considered escape proof. In September of 1891 Grat and William Dalton of the famous Dalton Gang were imprisoned here on suspicion of train robbery. Grat was found guilty. The other gang members headed back to Indian territory. Grat boasted this jail would not hold him. After having the other prisoners sing loudly for two days to cover the noise of him sawing his cell bars, Grat escaped during the night of September 27, 1891. The jail originally fronted on Church Street. When rebuilt in 1918, the entry was changed to the Oak Street side as it is to this day.”

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On historian Terry Ommen’s blog, Historic Happenings this photo was posted showing seized moonshine in front of the County Jail around the 1920’s, Photo credit: http://visaliahistory.blogspot.com/

 

Hogwallow Preserve

It isn’t too often that you hear of something that has you completely stumped, I’m talking furrowed brow confusion. Such was the case a few months back while I sat in a meeting for the Tulare County Historical Society and an item discussed on the agenda happened to be the Hogwallow Preserve. I whispered to my boss, “what’s a hogwallow?”. I don’t think I had ever even heard the word. I set out to do some research.

It turns out a hogwallow, also known as a mima mound, is just that, a mound. They can range in height and those found here in the valley are created by groundhogs that cause water to settle beneath the surface. During wet seasons vernal pools form at their bases. Unfortunately, due the extensive drought California is facing, our visit was during an extremely dry season.

It is because of one man and his family that we are able to take a look back at what a lot of the valley floor looked like before fields were plowed, farmed, or used for housing, and business development. A satellite image of the area gives you an idea of how special this preserve really is. Dr. Phil Buckman purchased 40 acres of land in 1943 and through the years he saw many of his neighbors leveling their properties to plant a variety of crops that thrived in the area. Dr. Buckman appreciated the land and saw that it was becoming more and more unique. On April 22nd 1979 his wish to keep this area forever preserved was realized when the land was donated to the Tulare County Historical Society. A maker has been placed at the north side of the preserve. To those passing by in a hurry, distracted on their way to or from the National Parks, or even those that drive the route daily, these mounds may simply look like a small parcel of land that looks a bit overgrown. To those that know what this area is, that have stopped, gotten out, and looked a little closer those are the lucky ones that know the true value of this land.

If you would like the chance to see what our valley floor looked like before the pioneer settlers the preserve is easy to find and is located about 14 miles from downtown Visalia near the intersection of Road 220 and Avenue 314.

More information about the Hogwallow Preserve, written by Dr. Buckman’s daughter Delora, can be found here.

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The marker placed by the Tulare County Historical Society.

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The Sierra Nevada Foothills in the background.

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My husband demonstrating the ease of the small platform you go over to get a closer view of the marker placed by the Tulare County Historical Society.

Though we went in late spring, in a very dry year the preserve is still a very peaceful location. I did want to provide a glimpse at what it looks like in early spring as well. This photo is from netstate.com.