Gardnerville’s Jensen Mansion

Tucked away at the tail end of Ezell Street is a gem of a house. Just looking at it, you know it has a story!

When Arendt Jensen first set foot in Gardnerville, Nevada in 1887, there were just two houses in town. Jensen was young — 28 — and full of energy. By the time he died in 1940 at age 81, Arendt had become one of Gardnerville’s most successful and respected businessmen.

Heard of Douglas County Farmer’s Bank? Jensen founded it, and stepped up to serve as president. How about the Midland Garage? He built it. And the classic brick Carson Valley Merc building? Yup, Jensen built it. (It housed his Arendt Co. store.)

Locals well remember the Carson Valley Merc which used to occupy the left-hand brick store and sold — well, EVERYTHING! Arendt built this brick building in the spring of 1896.

Born in Denmark in 1859, John Arendt Jensen came to the States in 1880. He married Lena (Paulina) Norgaard (a fellow Dane) in 1882 when she was just 16. Arendt made his way west and, with a keen eye for the future, spotted opportunity in the fledgling town of Gardnerville. He and Lena moved to the tiny settlement in 1887, opening a small store on Main Street “flanked by sagebrush and barbed wire fences.” Arendt went on to build a thriving mercantile business, eventually acquiring multiple business interests and extensive property.

Jensen’s ad in 1909 for the latest washing machine — he also sold everything from groceries to wagons!

But Arendt’s most outstanding architectural contribution to his new hometown was the Jensen Mansion, a gracious Colonial Revival home that still graces Ezell Street.

Touted as a “palatial residence” when construction began in 1910, the Jensen home was to be “modern in every respect.” Floors would be hardwood, and the house would be “steam heated throughout.” Arendt himself invented a special galvanized form that would make the home’s poured-concrete foundation resemble more-attractive cement brick construction.

Arendt died in 1940, and Lena passed away in 1948. Later decades saw the beautiful old Jensen mansion become a boarding house, a vacant eyesore, a bed-and-breakfast, and eventually a much-loved private home again. An architectural survey in 1981 by the Douglas County Planning Department dubbed it as one of Gardnerville’s “most outstanding buildings.” It received the recognition of a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

Best of all, the Jensen Mansion is reputed have a resident ghost — as all great old houses should! Former owners reported the strong odor of lavender wafting through the great room from time to time.

How lovely to imagine it’s Lena Jensen, still keeping an eye on the goings-on in her magnificent home.

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Gardnerville’s Old Jail

 

If it isn’t the ugliest jail structure west of the Mississippi, it probably ranks among the top ten. Its walls are poured concrete; its lower door is metal; and its boxy shape is (as one writer politely put it) “devoid of architectural detail or ornamentation.” Inside, the jail saved space by giving prisoners the penitential equivalent of Murphy beds: fold-down bed frames made of steel.

Douglas County shelled out just $25 for Louis Springmeyer to draw up the plans in 1910 (and some might  argue that was too generous.) But believe it or not, the Gardnerville Branch Jail holds a coveted position on the National Register of Historic Places. And there’s a perfectly fabulous story filled with politics, positioning and power behind how this tiny small-town jail came to be built!

Segue back in time to the year 1910, when Genoa was the official county seat and boasted the only county jail. Roads were primitive and automobiles were few, but crime was an equal opportunity occupation. So although Gardnerville had its own share of criminals, it had no convenient hoosegow in which to house them.

East Fork Justice of the Peace L.S. Ezell (his middle name was “Socrates,” a great name for a judge!)

L.S. Ezell, East Fork Justice Court judge since 1884, had come up with a makeshift solution: he allowed constables to use his Gardnerville granary building to lock up offenders when needed. This may have been convenient but it wasn’t such a grand idea from the prisoners’ point of view; the local newspaper called the granary a “vile hole” and “no fit place for a human being.”

Opportunity for a better solution knocked when Judge Ezell finally retired in 1909 after some 25 years on the bench, and thoughtfully donated the granary property to the county. Local citizens petitioned the commissioners to build a new and improved branch jail in its stead. It seemed like a grand plan. But politics is a tricky thing.

Eager for the new town of Minden not to be left in the dust, H.F. Dangberg, Jr. launched a counter-petition to protest against building the jail in its competitor, Gardnerville. And when the County commissioners formally took up the issue in April, 1910, local heavyweights William Dressler and H. Park joined Dangberg in the protest.

As government officials so often do, the beleaguered commissioners listened politely — and went right ahead with their original plans. Approval was given to build a one-story jail. And as government officials also frequently do, they quickly expanded the project to make it two stories, adding a courtroom on the top floor.

Now that there was to be a new branch jail, an official branch jailer would also be required. Albert Daudel was hired for the post, at $2 per day — upped to $4 on more arduous days when he’d oversee a chain gang fixing county roads.

Although Genoa wasn’t eager to relinquish its time-honored post as the County seat, Fate had other ideas. On June 28, 1910, much of that town was destroyed by fire — a loss that included the County’s main jail and courthouse. Luckily only one prisoner was being housed in Genoa’s jail at the time. It is said he was “chained to a post” until he could be moved to the still-under-construction branch jail in Gardnerville.

The Gardnerville Branch Jail is listed on both the National and Nevada State Registers of Historic Places.

Within just a few more years, Minden succeeded in wresting away the crown of County seat. And by 1916, a brand new County courthouse was erected there which included jail cells in the basement. Officially, all county prisoners were now supposed to be incarcerated at Minden and, officially, the Gardnerville branch jail was discontinued. But for reasons of economy, convenience, habit, or perhaps lingering tensions between the two towns, Gardnerville’s old branch jail continued to be used for prisoners well into the 1950s.

As the National Register listing description put it in 2003, the old Gardnerville jail remains “an excellent example of turn-of-the-century jail architecture,” with its steel cages, large hasps and padlocks, bull pen and woodstove still intact.

Those poured-concrete, steel-reinforced walls may be plenty ugly. But they certainly were practical; they successfully kept Gardnerville’s prisoners “from digging through the barriers as they had in Genoa’s brick jail.”

 It’s not a museum — yet. But you can check out the exterior of the Gardnerville Branch Jail at 1440 Courthouse Street, Gardnerville, Nevada.

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It Wasn’t Always Called Jubilee Ranch

The iconic old barn on Foothill Road has “Jubilee Ranch” emblazoned on the side. If you’re like me, you’ve driven by it hundreds of times. And if you’re also like me, every time you’ve gone by, you wished you knew its tale! So, who built this great old barn, and when? And what’s the backstory to the name “Jubilee”? We did a bit of digging — here’s the story!

Peter & Lillies Van Sickle

Yes, it turns out, it’s an old-old ranch — one of the very first ranch claims in Carson Valley. Some sources suggest this ranch was originally owned by settler John Cary in the early 1850s. Sometime after Cary, the property was acquired by soon-to-be Senator J.W. Haines and was known as the “Old Haines Ranch.” And around 1857 (even before the Comstock Lode boomed), Haines sold the ranch to Peter Van Sickle.

Peter’s older (and better-known) brother, Henry Van Sickle.

Born in New Jersey, Peter was the younger brother of Henry Van Sickle. And Henry, as you’ll recall, was the early pioneer who ran the famous “Van Sickle Station” hotel and stage stop just up the road.

Peter, like his brother, was considered a “thrifty Dutchman” and he, like Henry, was skilled as a blacksmith. In addition to this prosperous hay and dairy ranch (620 acres of it, by 1881!), Peter also operated a blacksmith shop in Genoa at the northwest corner of Main and Nixon Street. Peter and his wife, Lillies, lived in a small house near the church just up the street from his blacksmith shop.

By 1892, Peter had leased his Genoa blacksmith shop to W.J. Armstrong.

Peter eventually grew tired the blacksmith trade; in 1888 he placed an ad in the paper, trying to sell his shop and other holdings. It seems he wasn’t successful at finding a buyer, however; in 1892, his Genoa blacksmith shop had been leased out to W.J. Armstrong, another blacksmith.

This was Henry’s barn, which boasted windows.

As for the giant barn at his ranch south of town, Peter is said to have built the current structure about 1900. It’s a giant indeed: some 65 x 100 feet in size. Built using a  “peg-and-groove” technique, Peter’s barn resembles that of his brother Henry Van Sickle’s barn up the street. Unlike Henry’s barn, however, Peter’s lacks windows.

Henry’s red barn, slightly farther north, is tucked into the hillside.

The lower floor of the Jubilee barn was once used for dairy cows, and loose hay was stored in its 13,000-sq.ft. second-floor loft. Although today the Jubilee Ranch barn is all on a single level, some say it originally was built into the hillside (a style called “bank-a-hill”), so hay could be loaded into the hayloft without requiring a hoist. (To us it seems more likely that this actually describes Henry Van Sickle’s red barn slightly farther to the north, however, which clearly follows the descending contour of the hillside).

In addition to his dairy ranch, Peter Van Sickle also engaged in the meat business, and by 1883 was running two meat wagons to supply local demand. Not all Peter Van Sickle’s customers were happy ones, however. Alpine mining mogul Lewis Chalmers wrote him a snippy letter in 1879, complaining: “The beef you are now sending me is not of the same quality as you sent me at first, and not such as I intend to pay for.”

Leander Hawkins, too, had unhappy memories of working for Van Sickle as his first job at the tender age of 10. When Leander finally requested the heifer that had been promised to him after a full year’s work, Van Sickle reportedly refused to pay him.

Still, Van Sickle evidently had a generous side as well. In 1895, Peter and his wife adopted a little two-year-old boy whose mother had died. They renamed him Oscar Van Sickle and Oscar became part of the family, along with the other four Van Sickle children.

Peter Van Sickle and his family are buried in the Mottsville Cemetery

Peter Van Sickle died in 1908, at the age of 77. He and Lillies had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the previous year. Adopted son Oscar continued to run the Peter Van Sickle Ranch until 1927, when it was sold to Thomas Summers, becoming known as the “Summers Ranch.”

In 1951,  young entrepreneur named Ted Bacon bought the ranch. At the time, Summers was using the ranch to raise pigs. Rather than rename it after himself as the “Bacon Ranch” (a humorous name for a hog farm), Ted decided to name it after a memory from a recent trip he had taken to England, when a “jubilee” had been held to celebrate the crowning of the queen. Bacon decided to rename his property the “Jubilee Ranch.” It was, he said, a “happy name.”

And there you have it — the fascinating story of this historic ranch, and the way it got its “Jubilee” name!

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Murder — Or Was It?

One lonely tombstone at Gardnerville’s Garden Cemetery begs silently for justice. “Murdered” it proclaims, as if visitors might help solve the terrible mystery.

Moore’s headstone proclaims the belief he was murdered around Christmas, 1900.

The victim, William Moore, met his awful fate sometime between the 9th and 14th of December, 1900. But the story behind Moore’s demise is a tangled one indeed. Did he even really die?

Moore, 67, was evidently something of a hermit. A poor man and in poor health, he’d lived alone for twenty years in a small cabin on his ranch near the east fork of the Carson River above Horseshoe Bend. Here he raised horses, ran a few head of cattle, and perhaps panned for flour gold in the nearby river.

A few days before Christmas, 1900, local Indians alerted authorities that Moore’s tiny cabin had burned to the ground. Sheriff Brockliss and Judge Dake promptly rode out to investigate. Not finding Moore, they searched the remnants of the charred cabin, but didn’t locate any trace of a body. A day or so later other local citizens, too, showed up to paw through the debris, and they, too, came up empty-handed. Possibly complicating matters was the fact that a rainstorm had gone through sometime after the fire.

Horseshoe Bend is on the east side of Carson Valley, not far from Mud Lake.

Christmas came and went, and a few determined searchers decided to try again. On December 26 they returned, “sifted the ashes” — and came up with a few small pieces of charred something that might have been bone. These were carted off to Dr. Gerdes of Gardnerville, who pronounced them shards of a human skull. And when he examined one fragment more closely, “three small shot” were found embedded in the bone.

The local newspaper promptly dubbed this as “almost positive evidence that William Moore was murdered, and his cabin burned over his body.” Dr. Gerdes opined that the position of the bone might explain why the fragment was charred but the shot hadn’t melted. A Coroner’s Jury was convened, which agreeably confirmed the general belief that Moore had beens murdered. Community suspicion instantly focused on “a certain Indian” named Mike Holbrook, a “half-breed Washoe” said to have threatened Moore in the past.

In January, the Board of Commissioners for Douglas County put out a $250 reward “for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who murdered William Moore.” That was more than enough encouragement for three enthusiastic Genoa citizens. Having heard further rumors, young William Gray, accompanied by his brother-in-law Frank Walker and their friend Edgar Seamon drove a wagon out to Mountain House in March, where they made a citizens’ arrest of “Indian Mike.” The local paper assured readers that this private party arrest was a “perfectly proper and legitimate proceeding,” adding uncharitably that if the prisoner should later establish his innocence “he will have no one to blame but himself.”

Advertisement for candles from the same paper that carried news of Moore’s “murder.” Could the fire have been purely accidental?

By now a new sheriff had been sworn into office and was eager to show the public his chops. The local paper expressed confidence that now-Sheriff McCormack would not only do his best to suppress crime, but “criminals have good cause to fear him.”

The murder case against Indian Mike was now the talk of the town. The Genoa courthouse was “packed” during the two-day preliminary hearing, and “nothing was talked of on the streets but the Moore tragedy.”

Several other Indians now came forward, claiming that Mike Holbrook had an alibi: he had been with them on a rabbit drive when the killing occurred. The evidence against Mike Holbrook appeared decidedly thin — except for one thing. Charlie George, also an Indian, swore he had personally witnessed Holbrook shooting Moore.

Charlie’s credibility as a witness left something to be desired, however. Among other things, Charlie had been arrested the same evening as Mike on an outstanding warrant for larceny. Charlie and Mike also were said to be enemies; as the newspaper put it, “it is stated that Mike is very friendly with George’s mahala.”

Nevertheless, Mike was bound over for trial. The case languished for another month until April, when a new Grand Jury could be convened to issue the indictment. Friends urged Mike to take a plea bargain and admit to manslaughter in order to “save his neck.” He refused.

Moore’s lonely headstone in the Garden Cemetery, Gardnerville, NV. Buried here presumably are the few bits of charred “bone” found at his cabin. But were they really Moore’s, or perhaps not even bone at all?

On April 24, 1901, a jury pool of 40 local citizens was pulled, and by 3 p.m. the jury was in place. Trial began the following day, and the evidence was over by 5 p.m.. Charlie George “proved a strong witness,” the paper pronounced. Other “sensational” details of the case now came to light, including a “wild story” that Moore had always kept a skull in his cabin, “the victim of his rifle in former years.” The newspaper hinted darkly that Brockliss, the former sheriff, had done a lousy job of investigation, sniffing that “no steps officially were taken to investigate the matter until McCormack, the present Sheriff, took office.”

About dinnertime the jurors retired to deliberate, and by midnight they had their verdict: Not guilty. “And so another chapter is added to the criminal records of this county, which is not without blemish now,” the newspaper concluded.

As for the County Commissioners, they rescinded their earlier offer of a $250 reward for Mike’s capture. Opined the local paper: “they have learned that a mercenary incentive for the capture of criminals does not work satisfactorily in this county.”

 

There Really Was a “Claire” behind Clairitage

Claire Marie Christy Dale adored historic buildings. Well, one historic building in particular: the old brick railroad station in New London, Connecticut.

Our growing-up memories include ever-changing stacks of reports, letters, and newspapers spread out on the dining room table — all of which had to be moved before any meal could hope to be eaten. The railroad drama was a saga of local politics, and a roller-coaster between gloom-and-doom (“they’re tearing it down!”) and the occasional glimmer hope (“they might reconsider!”). Five or six years into this long-running melodrama, even a whisper of those dreaded words “railroad station” was guaranteed to elicit a collective groan from the rest of the family.

The classic brick railroad station in New London, Connecticut, built in 1887 and designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, a predecessor to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hope, hard work and history prevailed in the end. New London’s magnificent brick railroad station was eventually saved from the wrecker’s ball by — well, by lots of folks. But Claire’s single-minded tenacity was definitely at the core.

Claire passed away in 2002, long before Clairitage Press was even a glimmer. But it would have made her happy, I think, just to know that so many folks treasure history, and get so excited about uncovering and preserving these wonderful stories.

Claire’s bright smile burst into the world exactly 90 years ago today. Just thought you might like to know  about the real “Claire” behind Clairitage!

(Happy birthday, Mom!)

Genoa’s Hanging Tree

You may have heard the tale about Adam Uber’s famous curse — uttered just before an angry Genoa mob hung him. But did you know the hanging tree is still there?

It sits on the south side of Genoa Lane, just east of Genoa (and a convenient distance from the old-time jail!)

The hanging tree is still there, on Genoa Lane. Some say the actual limb where Uber met his end was later cut off by remorseful townsfolk. (Photo courtesy Judy Wickwire)

The year was 1897, and the crime began with Uber swilling Red Eye — and ended with a gunshot. Hans Anderson was dead. And Uber didn’t even remember what happened when he finally sobered up in the Genoa Jail.

Anderson had been well-liked; Uber was not. And a group of locals decided swift justice was the finest flavor. They rushed the jail, demanded the jailer’s key, and whisked Uber off for a hasty meeting with the hangman’s rope.

But Uber got off a few choice last words before dropping into the Great Hereafter: he cursed those who did the foul deed “unto seven generations.”

And, according to local legend, Uber’s curse ultimately came true. Some of mob died sudden, violent deaths; some committed suicide; but all of them met an unhappy end. Family members, too, reportedly suffered.

Adam Uber met his end here — some say his restless ghost is still around.

They’re all gone now, of course; 1897 was a long time ago. But locals say Uber’s ghost can still be seen “hanging around” from time to time — either here at the tree, or at the old brick Courthouse which once held his cell.

If you decide to pay a visit to the scene of this long-ago murder, consider making a stop at the old Genoa Cemetery as well. Uber is buried there somewhere, in an unmarked grave.

Just west of the Hanging Tree stands a cottonwood with an amazing burl. (Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire)

Murder & Suicide 1888

“Murder and Suicide,” the 1888 headline blared! The Reno Gazette-Journal made no bones about its feelings toward a “long and rather unfavorably known” Carson Valley ranch hand named Zack Field.

Community distaste had begun several years earlier with Zack’s poorly-received romance with 17-year-old Mary Gray, pretty daughter of Genoa blacksmith W.D. Gray. Courting a teenager wasn’t all that unusual at the time, but Zack’s age certainly was: he was sixty years old when he induced Mary to run off with him to Carson to be married in 1882.

Note the skull-and-crossbones — strychnine was serious stuff!

Then came the awful rumors about strychnine. In February, 1888, Zack’s father-in-law had noticed an odd taste in his water cup. Suspicious crystals found in the bottom of his glass were tested by two local doctors, who both “pronounced it strychnine.”

Zack’s name, of course, immediately sprang to mind; he had “been acting strangely for some time,”  the newspaper hinted. (The fact that Mary’s parents recently had tried to induce her to leave her “wretched” husband also raised suspicions.)

It wasn’t the first time Zack had been suspected of foul play involving strychnine. Zack and Mary had moved in with the Hawkins family shortly after their marriage — and shortly after that, the entire household came down with strychnine poisoning. Fingers also had been pointed in Zack’s direction when rancher John Cronkite was found dead in with a “big wound in his head” — and “cattle money” missing from his pocket.

After the tainted water-glass episode, Zack and Mary high-tailed it out of Carson Valley, taking up a residence (aka hiding out) in Scott’s Valley, California. But only a few months later, things came to an unhappy head yet again.

Zack’s rifle might have looked something like one of these.

On August 13, 1888, in what the newspaper poetically called a “case of marital infelicity and pistol practice,” Zack shot poor Mary square in the chest with a Winchester rifle.

Thoughtfully saving the justice system the bother of a trial, Zack then used the remaining charge to “blow the top of his [own] head off.”

No words of sympathy were wasted by the newspaper on Zack. But despite the awful headline deeming it “murder,” readers making it to the last sentence of the column would discover that Mary actually had not actually died yet.

Although her life was “despaired of” initially, she did eventually recover. And in one of those weird twists of fate, Mary went on to marry another man named Field — thankfully no relation to the “long and unfavorably known” Zack.

Help Us Get These Great Photos Back Home!

Several years ago I bought some old photos — which arrived with a huge packet of other snapshots I hadn’t expected.  These black-and-white “bonus” pictures obviously  came from a family album of the 1920s, and are now nearly a century old. And that was the start of trying to unlock their mystery!

Most of these old photos were unlabeled, but a few names were sprinkled here and there. One cryptic caption in particular became the starting point for my hunt to learn more about these great images: “Grandma [and] Grandpa Spielvogel.” There’s Grandma, looking a little frail  — and a good bit out of focus. And there in the background stands Grandpa in his suspenders, still hale and hearty though perhaps in his 80s.

And then there was this nostalgic scene — evidently Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s family farm. This one, at least, was marked with a location: Prescott, Michigan. (And you’ve got to love that car!)

There were other pictures, too, with partial names as tantalizing clues. Here is a fascinating image of Aunt Anna and Uncle Otto. Between them is Harley, roughly ten years old  and leading a horse. And there’s an affectionate Paul and Mildred, big grins on their faces and holding pails as if they were just out for blackberries.

Such a wonderful picture! But what was their story?

Spielvogel is a lovely German last name meaning “songbird.” But these photos definitely weren’t singing much information about their original owners!

I tried reaching out on the internet to every modern Spielvogel whose email address I could find — with zero success. A few photos mentioned sites in Ontario, so I tried local historical societies and even an Ontario genealogical group, but came up equally empty-handed. Finally, a friend plugged the Spielvogel name into Ancestry.com– and BINGO!! Finally, we have Grandma and Grandpa Spielvogel’s first names!

Grandma & Grandpa Spielvogels’ grave in Mich.

He was Paul Spielvogel, born in Germany in 1856. And his wife is Paulina Newbower Spielvogel, born in 1858, also in Germany. Paul and Paulina were the proud parents of four children: Elizabeth, Paul, Anna, and a girl named Bartlair. Grandma Paulina, it seems, was indeed frail; she died in 1929, just a few years after her picture was taken. Grandpa must have missed her terribly; he died in 1930, the very next year after Paulina passed away. Both are buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Whittemer, Iosco County, Michigan.

And with that small beginning, the story behind the photos began to come together! “Aunt Anna” was one of Paul and Paulina’s children, born in 1882. Otto was Anna’s husband — Otto Charles Fuerst.  And Harley was Anna’s and Otto’s son.

But exactly which  Spielvogel descendant once owned all these wonderful photos? We still don’t know for sure.

Son Paul married Mildred Alstrom, and they seem to have ended up in Detroit. Daughter Elizabeth married a fellow named Wayne. Bartlair doesn’t seem to be in the later picture. So if Anna was an aunt, the mystery photographer was likely a son of either Paul or Elizabeth — but who was he?

We know he liked to travel; there are snapshots of the U.S. Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925 (then a wide-open street lined with Tin Lizzies). There are references to Mt. Vernon, Virginia and Lexington Avenue, New York. And there are photos taken in Vancouver and Bay City, Belle Isle and Island Lake.

Lillian Tuckey

A few more names are scrawled as possible clues: There’s Lillian Tuckey and what might be her sister, Florence. There’s a smiling Ruby and her beau, a young gent named Claire. There’s Leo with a hunting rifle.There’s a dapper lad with glasses named Lou. And here’s the best clue of all: a photo of “Herb and myself.”

The best clue of all: Herb and “myself”! But who was he??

But who exactly was the mysterious photographer who once owned these wonderful family photos?  And most important, does he have any descendants who would love to have them back?

They say that there are just six degrees of separation in this world — between friends, family, and friends-of-friends, we’re all connected. So we are reaching out to ask for YOUR help!! Do you know any Spielvogels? Anyone named Fuerst, or perhaps a contact near Prescott, Michigan? To someone, these nearly-one-hundred-year-old family photos would be a priceless legacy.

We’d love to find a way to get them back home!! Please let us know if you can help — and feel free to forward this post to anyone else who might know!

Ancient Survivor

We were driving home through the mountains recently when Rick suddenly swung the car around. “Look at that!!” he exclaimed, pointing.

“That” turned out to be the largest sugar pine either of us had ever seen, towering 150 to 200 feet in the air.

What a survivor! Rick estimates this ancient  tree at over 300 years old. That means it was already growing right here when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were being fired back east in 1776. It would have witnessed the early wagons heading for Jackson over the newly-graded Amador Wagon Road in the 1860s. And it greeted innumerable travelers over the various reincarnations of the road in the next 150 years.

Somehow this stately tree managed to avoid being converted into a campfire or a cabin during its early years. (Sugar pine wood makes marvelous shakes; Jacob Marklee, the founder of Markleeville, is said to have covered his entire cabin in 1861 with shingles made from sugar pine!)

Despite growing bigger and bigger with each passing decade, this giant tree also escaped the avaricious attention of loggers over the past century. (Modern lumberjacks are still eager to chop down huge trees like this. For woodsmen, a tree this size is an exciting challenge. But for those of us who love gigantic old trees, seeing them fall is infinitely sad. If you have a strong stomach, check out this YouTube video called “Jacking a Big Sugar Pine.”)

Whether from sheer good luck or perhaps respect for its obvious age, this gigantic sugar pine has now become a stately “Father of the Forest,” surrounded by a ring of its own strapping offspring.

A blaze mark, nearly grown over, shows evidence of ax marks and fire.

But the huge tree hasn’t been completely overlooked by man. Someone chopped a blaze mark in its trunk perhaps a century ago, a scar that’s now nearly grown over. Sometime after that, the tree must also have survived a brush with fire, as the inside of the scar is charred black.

The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is not only the tallest of the pine trees, it also has the longest cone. Perhaps because of the tree’s giant size and long life, the species plays a part in at least one Native American creation myth. As the tree’s name implies, the sugar pine’s resin is sweet. The Washo Indians called this pine sugar “nanomba” and used it to sweeten their food.

Huge as this particular tree is, it’s by no means a world’s record. The tallest sugar pine ever recorded was discovered in Yosemite National Park only a few years ago — in 2015. That tree reportedly towers nearly 274 feet in height, taller than a 20-story building! Little wonder that naturalist John Muir dubbed the sugar pine “king of the conifers.”

Surrounded by its own strapping offspring, this “King of the Forest” still towers above!

We discovered this amazing tree off Highway 88, in Amador County. But we hope you’ll pardon us if we don’t tell you exactly how to find it. This towering tree is a survivor; we hope it stays that way.

Leek Spring: Where the Wagons Rested

If you’re a fan of Calif. Highway 88, you’ve probably seen the sign for Iron Mountain Road. It’s a pleasant back-country drive — and also a route with a great bit of history.

As the road’s alternate name (“Mormon Emigrant Trail”) implies, this was roughly the route blazed by the Mormon Battalion in 1848 on their return trip to Salt Lake. For the early eager gold-seekers of the 1850s, this became the way to Placerville.

Just over two miles after you turn onto Iron Mountain Road, watch for an Emigrant Trail T-marker on your right. (These metal markers have been helpfully posted by TrailsWest.) This was the site known as Leek Spring, and the T-marker is inscribed with an excerpt from the diary of Mendall Jewett, who camped here in July, 1850.

The upper meadow near Leek Spring.

Just as today, the spot was a beautiful little valley surrounded by large pine & fir trees. Jewett dubbed it “the most romantic spot we have camped upon.”

 

Jewett wasn’t alone  in recording his stop here at Leek Spring; other emigrant diaries mention both Leek Spring and the valley below, sometimes called “Onion Valley.” With its water, grass for the draft animals, and the abundance of wild onions (a real treat for the emigrants after months on the trail!), it’s no wonder that this became a popular camping spot.

It was, in fact, so popular with emigrants that enterprising early traders quickly set up shop here, knowing they would have ready customers.

Here are several trading posts, on account of it being a great camping place,” wrote John Wood in his diary of September 13, 1850. A fellow emigrant named George Hegelstein observed in August, 1850 how pleased he was to be able to add to his provisions here, finding flour at the amazing price of “only fifty cents a pound” — and celebrated by purchasing a pint of whiskey “to refresh ourselves.”

The lower valley, sometimes called Onion Valley.

One slightly later guidebook for emigrants confirmed that this was a “favorite camping place.” But it warned would-be travelers that, late in the season, “the grass will all be eaten off about here.” (Hosea Horn’s Overland Guide of 1852).

On your drive home, take a minute to ponder how closely today’s modern roads follow the path originally blazed by the first Mormon’s wagons. The same miles that today take us mere minutes to zip over in comfort required days of arduous travel for those hardy pioneers.