Our '49ers came for gold … and for a new home
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and also of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican War and ceded California lands to the United States. In observance of the anniversary, the Sierra Star, in cooperation with the Sierra Historic Sites Association, each month during 1998 will recall the early-day life in Eastern Madera County based on material from the archives of the Fresno Flats Historical Park's research center and library in Oakhurst.
While it was gold that first brought the white man into what now is Eastern Madera County, the area was settled by people who came to build their lives, raise their families and make their living as farmers, lumbermen and merchants.
William Crooks, probably the first settler in Ahwahnee, raised fruit and vegetables for nearby gold mine towns.
North Fork started out as "Brown's Place" which served as a supply center for miners and stockmen who each spring would push their way a little further east into the Sierra.
Crane Valley, before it was flooded in 1901 by construction of a dam to store water for generation of electricity, was the site of one of the region's earliest lumber mills. Tourism was the base on which the town of Raymond was established.
Of the many gold mining centers such as Finegold, Hildreth, Grub Gulch, Gertrude and Poison Switch, only Coarsegold survived the demise of gold mining.
Fresno Flats, today called Oakhurst, never was a gold mining town, but early on was thought of as a permanent community with a future to be built on agriculture, timber and tourism.
The name of the Fresno River, derived from the Spanish word for ash trees and in some old documents is spelled "Frezno," is shown on J.B. Tassin's 1851 "Newly Constructed Map of California" and predates the goldrush era.
Thus the name was well established by the time Mariposa became one of California's first counties in 1850. Six years later when the County of Fresno was carved from the "Mother of Counties," the Fresno River and its Flats gave their name to the new county in which it stayed until 1893 when Madera County was created.
In 1852 John Harms established the first lumber mill above Fresno Flats using Redwood Creek water.
By 1856, John Beasore discovered that he could make more money with his mules hauling meat to mining camps at $1 per pound than he could with a pick and shovel and settled near Fresno Flats. He soon was joined by neighbor and lifelong friend, George Sharpton. In 1868, they built the first school in what now is Madera County. It was located in "Schoolhouse Flat" between Fresno Flats and Crane Valley.
Legend has it that when the original log school was abandoned, Mr. Beasore and Mr. Sharpton disagreed on who should buy the other out. They settled their differences by cutting the building in half, each hauling away his section. In 1936, teacher-historian Stella T. Brockman reported that Beasore's half, at first used for a corn crib and later as a cooling shed, still was standing on the Beasore property.
Much of the early history of Fresno Flats involved the four Newton sisters of Millerton where their parents operated a hotel and hauled freight to and from the closest trading center, Stockton.
Arriving in Fresno Flats in 1858 was Elizabeth Newton, the wife of Robert Nichols who acquired a large acreage here from which he subsequently donated the original site for the Oakhurst's landmark little church, the cemetery at its present location and Madera County's second schoolhouse.
Margaret Newton married William Taylor who moved to Fresno Flats in 1867 to raise cattle, hogs and hay. Their log home, the last of a two-pen, dogtrot design once popular throughout the Mother Lode, may be visited at Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historical Park.
Mary Catherine Newton and her husband, Robert Laramore, moved to Fresno Flats in the early 1870s. A construction foreman on the lumber flume extending to Madera, Mr. Laramore subsequently operated a store. It is reported that he grazed several thousand goats on what now appropriately is called "Goat Mountain." His home, for many years owned by the Lyman family, also is at Fresno Flats Historical Park, restored and furnished in the period.
Caroline Newton wed R.T. "Tank" Burford. They first ranched near Raymond, then moved about three miles south of Fresno Flats, and finally farmed and operated a way station on the Wawona stage route above the Flats. With the formation of the U.S. Forest Service, Burford Station became the forest headquarters.
As more families settled at the lower elevation along the Fresno River – the Nichols, Taylor, Burford families alone had 15 children – the school was moved in 1871 to a site along the river. Three years later the original log structure was replaced by a frame schoolhouse which later became the county library and justice court. The schoolhouse now is the Nathan Sweet Memorial Museum in Fresno Flats Historical Park.
By the time the 1880s arrived, Fresno Flats was well established and growing. Business was good. The flume to Madera had been completed in 1875. Fresno Flats boasted two general stores, a Chinese store, a Chinese laundry, a saloon, restaurant, blacksmith shop, saddler, justice of the peace, constable, school teacher, preacher, livery stable and stage stop, and post office.
Some 200 people made up a permanent community of merchants and farmers serving a growing lumber industry. Raising hay was a major business. Lum-ber mills used oxen for power and they consumed great quantities of hay. Freight and stage teams also needed feed. There were an estimated 10,000 horses and mules in the county.
Former Fresno Flats Historical Park historian Ruth Mason and her son, Bill, wrote in their 1986 "Overview of the History of Fresno Flats, 1850-1934" that social life in those early days included community picnics, dances, holiday celebrations, horseracing, quilting bees, a literary society. Plays were performed on a regular basis in a theater set up in the hotel.
Tourism was on the rise. This was not a new endeavor for the region. In 1855, James M. Hutchings, publisher of the "California Maga-zine," led the first tourist party into Yosemite Valley. Mr. Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres, who accompanied that first party, popularized the magnificent waterfalls and spectacular cliffs.
As soon as the railroad extended down the San Joaquin Valley in 1872, tourism became important to the Fresno Flats economy. A main access to Yosemite Valley was from Fresno or Madera through Coarsegold, Fresno Flats, Wawona and into the valley via Inspiration Point.
Former President U.S. Grant followed this route when he took his family to visit Yosemite in 1879.
Discovery of silver in the mountains near Mammoth gave another boost to the economy of Fresno Flats, the nearest source of supply. In 1881, work started on the French Trail to Mammoth, portions of which still remain in use. Two years later, the Central California Railroad proposed building a line from the San Joaquin Valley to Salt Lake City passing through Fresno Flats.
Then in 1887, at the behest A.C. Washburn, owner of the Wawona Hotel and a stage line serving it, a branch railroad line was built to Raymond. Fresno Flats was by-passed. The stage ran from the Raymond railhead through Grub Gulch, Ahwahnee, Cedarbrook, Miami Lodge, Fish Camp to Wawona. it was this route that President Theodore Roosevelt traveled in 1903 en route to his wilderness outing with John Muir.
Years later insult was added to injury when the all-year Highway 140 made it faster and easier for Fresnans to go to Yosemite via Merced. After the Madera-Sugar Pine Mill closed in 1931, only a few families remained. The town consisted of little more than a grocery store and a gasoline station.
Some old-timers felt the decline began in 1912 when in a secret move which caused considerable dissension, the town's name was changed from Fresno Flats to Oakhurst. For them, the town was never the same.
In her history of Fresno Flats written in 1936 for local schools, Stella Brockman lamented:
"While this is perhaps a more beautiful name, it is to be regretted that much of our early history and stories of adventure seem to die with the death of the name with which it was a part.
"Now (1936) like so many of the early mountain towns, Fresno Flats finds itself slowly rotting away, soon to become another of the ghost towns of the Sierra."
Completion of Highway 41 and the subsequent pressure of people moving to the mountains to escape southern California metropolitan areas and the San Joaquin Valley made the once sleepy town of Fresno Flats blossom into Oakhurst, a thriving community of 13,000 or so people serving the region as a commercial, educational and social center.