Raging foothill fires are nothing new. They have been plaguing California settlements for centuries. One such place is Coulterville in Mariposa county, which was destroyed by fire on three separate occasions.
But let me take you back to a more pleasant time in 1956, and what it was like in this small California mining town.
It’s about a two-hour drive from Lodi on Highway 49. George Coulter established this Gold Rush town in 1849. Located on a gradual slope in Mariposa County, the town’s size today is only a small fraction of what it was in the 19th century.
For this story, picture my grandmother on a hot summer night in the 1950s — sitting on a wooden bench in front of the old Bruschi store, while wearing her apron dress. I’m an 11-year-old in shorts and a striped T-shirt, standing next to her and listening intently as she reveals the tales of our family history.
“Your great-great grandfather, Francisco Bruschi, was one of the first Coulterville merchants here in the 1850s,” she said. “Our family owned that building across the street. We still own most of this side of town.”
As examples, she pointed to the justice court, along with the volunteer fire department and the store where we took up summer residence.
About this time, Judge Lillian Snyder came from across the street to join us. The middle-aged lady had no law degree, but that wasn’t necessary to become a magistrate in the 1950s. The justice court only handled local infractions. She wanted to hear my grandmother’s story as well.
Nana continued: “See the old Gazzolo building to the right of us? In my younger days, I went to parties in the dancehall upstairs. I believe the old dust-covered grand piano is still there.”
The building was boarded and abandoned. The window frames were gone and the exterior wood siding had turned black from many years of weathering. There was still an old bank safe downstairs. Later that summer, two young men would break it open, hoping to find hidden treasure, but they discovered nothing.
The local constable walked by, looking like a character out of a ‘40s western movie. He was an official with no training in law enforcement, but still carried a cowboy-style Colt revolver.
Nana pointed across the street to where her family home once stood. Only the foundation remained.
“This town once had 58 saloons!” she exclaimed. “But three fires — one in 1859, along with two others in 1879 and 1899, destroyed most of everything. That’s when we lost our home and all its contents. Coulterville was never rebuilt to anything near its glory days after 1899.”
The sun was beginning to set on that warm August night. Judge Snyder bid us good evening and headed for home.
Fortunately, our storefront summer home did have electricity. My grandfather wired it in the 1940s. However, we had few modern conveniences. There was a portable radio but no television. Of course, there was no air conditioning. For cooking, there was a wood stove and a dual hot plate. An old refrigerator was located in the back, which was also the kitchen area.
At the rear of the property, we had a well, but no water was piped inside the building. There was a privy near the back door. A handful of 1930s trucks rusted in place.
Keller’s store was just a short walk for groceries.
It was a Saturday night, and our building was warm. For entertainment, Nana, Granddad and I decided to sit on the front sidewalk bench and watch the traffic. We observed inebriated country boys stumble out of a bar that was located across the road and climb into their ‘50s pickups. We took “wagers” on whether they could make it up a hill south of town. One had recently failed, and the remains of his yellow ‘54 Ford truck rested at the Standard Oil station down the street.
In a few days, we would all be returning to Los Angeles and resuming the comforts of suburban living. You would think that visiting Coulterville would be a hardship, and that the poverty-stricken area would be an undesirable place to be. But yet, I loved it!
Well, that’s my snapshot of Coulterville in the 1950s. Even today, except for technology and indoor plumbing, things haven’t changed much. Looking back, there was something wonderful about the simplicity of life in this little town.
I vowed as a kid that someday, I would return and live there permanently. But of course, that never happened. The property was sold in the 1960s, and proceeds were used to restore the family ranch in nearby Groveland.
The lure of the city, along with a formal education and professional career, took me along a different lifestyle path. But I’ve never forgotten the peace, contentment and stress-less atmosphere, along with the unpretentious people of Coulterville.
These are still the gifts that only a small, historic town can give — despite the occasional environmental risks and some modern inconveniences.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.