A birth can often be a protracted event, the effort of bringing something new into existence lingering on long after the initial labor has begun. As it is with newborn children, so it can also be with a newborn village.
The year was 1879, and the place was a wide flat meadow on a mountainside where a large stand of sugar pines stood quietly undisturbed about a mile to the southeast of the General Grant Tree. Although this now famous two thousand year old neighboring monarch was beginning to garner some attention from tourists, most of those who came to this part of the Sierra Nevada had yet to stray far from the grove of Giant Sequoias which were bringing notoriety to the area. Those who did make the arduous journey up the mountain tended to pass their time only amongst those giants, camping for a few days at their base, having a few drinks at the Gamlin’s Saloon, and perhaps carving their names into one of the huge trees before returning home with a bag of cones or a hunk of bark as a souvenir. They didn’t wander far. There were grizzly bears and mountain lions which roamed freely through this part of the Sierra and those who came to gawk at the trees were warned that they were ill equipped to deal with such an encounter. Those few who did wander freely around this part of the Sierra did so for a living; they were the hunters, trappers, and prospectors whose kind had roamed this part of the mountain range for over a century, and to whom the company of the wild life was often preferable to that of their fellow humans. One such traveler in this year of 1879 was a man by the name of Daniel Perry. Mr. Perry was a sojourner who loved these mountains, but he was also a man who had the ability to see just a few years into the future, and this vision told him that, whether the mountain men liked it or not, the years of isolation in these mountains were quickly coming to an end and that one must adapt in order to survive. Industry was on its inexorable way up the mountain, and these trees, he knew, must soon fall to the force of men’s hunt for wealth. Yet, understanding that profiting from the giant trees was going to offer much more competition than he was prepared for, Perry instead chose to acquiesce that struggle to others and rather to file a homestead on one hundred and sixty acres about a mile to the southeast of those Giant Sequoias which were beginning to garner so much attention. The land he chose was filled with tall mature sugar pines; much easier to cut down than the famous brittle giants and excellent for milling into lumber for construction.
The filing of this homestead in 1879 turned out to be the first birth pain of a Sierra village coming into existence.
But the actual birth of the village was destined to be a difficult and protracted one, because the government shelved Perry’s homestead claim and refused to act on it without giving him a reason. Six years passed, and Perry’s patience was wearing thin. So in 1885 he refiled his homestead claim, again with no response from the government. Four more years passed without any kind of action from the government. Perry was a patient man, but this was becoming hopeless so he decided to give up and move on to other ventures. So as 1889 was drawing to a close Perry sold his homestead claim to the Smith Comstock Lumber Company. Smith Comstock was prepared to wait because they wanted the vast number of sugar pine trees which they viewed as just waiting for the swing of the axe. All of the many miles of flume being planned needed to be constructed from seasoned knot-free sugar pine, and having this hundred and sixty acres of this specialty wood was just what the company needed.
The next year, 1890, saw the creation of General Grant National Park, four square miles of neighboring land which did not impinge upon Perry’s claim. So the next year Perry finally received acknowledgement of his hundred and sixty acre homestead and promptly signed it over to Smith Comstock.
With the homestead now official, the birth of the mountain village moved one step closer.
Smith Comstock immediately set out to cut and mill all of the sugar pines and didn’t finish this extensive undertaking until 1895. The homestead then passed to its third owner, a Mr. E.O. Miller, in 1900. Miller soon opened the area to campers, charging a nominal nightly or weekly fee. The place proved so popular that many from the San Joaquin Valley used it as a protracted escape from the summer heat, even building wooden platforms to give their tents a semi-permanent status and staying long into the Autumn. Miller’s Campground remained a popular destination for the next seventeen summers. In 1918 the Miller family sold the homestead to Andrew Ferguson, who promptly tried to resell it to the federal government for the optimistic asking price of $65,000, thinking the government might want it to add to their new park. His offer was refused, as Congress would not appropriate such an outrageous amount of money for something so unnecessary. After all, General Grant National Park had already been created to save the Sequoias – why add to it a hundred and sixty acres of useless rotting pine stumps? So Ferguson immediately put into effect his Plan B. He christened the homestead with a new name – Wilsonia, after the then president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and subdivided most of the homestead into 292 lots and offered them for sale for $50.00 each.
And, after thirty-nine years in labor, a Sierra mountain village was finally born.
The infant village grew quickly after that. Within a few years the lots in Wilsonia were selling for $125, then $200, then $400. In 1920 the Masonic Family Club of Dinuba purchased twenty acres in the northeast corner of Wilsonia for the exclusive use of their members. By 1924 there were so many houses in the village that the property owners all contributed to a fund to build a clubhouse – and they decided to build something unique to represent the new village instead of merely constructing a traditional place to get together. They opted for a large, eight-sided structure with an open middle courtyard where community barbecues could be held all summer long. The clubhouse itself soon held a grocery store, barber shop, butcher’s store, and hair salon. Andy Ferguson continued to help his newborn infant village grow and dug a community well for the residents so they wouldn’t have to keep hauling water from park wells. A riding stable opened, and a year later a bakery went into business. A herd of cows were set to graze in a meadow just south of Big Stump, and a small dairy came into existence – very small, as the milk was bottled on top of one of the giant stumps and then sent by wagon into Grant Grove and Wilsonia for sale. Just to the South of Big Stump a chicken farm was established and provided fresh eggs for both the park and for Wilsonia. In 1926 the General Grant tree was formally dedicated as the nation’s Christmas Tree, and the following year saw over one thousand people ascend into the mountains for the Christmas ceremony. Wilsonia fed and housed many of those visitors both as campers and at the new Osbourne Lodge. By 1935 Andy Ferguson had opened his own retail store as well as a photography service and a gas station. Outside of the gas station he erected a large wooden signboard, in the center of which he proudly displayed a picture of the man after whom the village had been named, President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilsonia was by now – 1935 – a bustling mountain community; the beating heart of Grant Grove which offered more variety of services to mountain visitors than the park itself. In the late 1930’s the Western Music Camp came into being in Wilsonia, offering students two weeks of summer musical training under the tutelage of Major Earl Dillon of Fresno notoriety. By 1938 the Fresno Bee newspaper was being delivered in Wilsonia, courtesy of Dorothy Wilson and her horse. In 1942 Ferguson’s store burned down, but he promptly built and opened a new venture called the Big Stump Lodge. At about the same time the old chicken farm to the south was turned into a chinchilla farm.
During these first few decades of Wilsonia’s existence it continued to thrive, partially because those who came here wanted to build something special; partly because those who came loved the mountains; partly because those who worked for the National Park Service were happy to have such a good neighbor.
But that was about to change.
In 1955 the McGee Fire burst onto the scene, roaring its way unchecked toward the park. Wilsonia residents were ordered to evacuate. The park superintendent’s office ordered fire fighters to stand in a firm line around the giant Sequoias and to save the General Grant Tree at all costs. At the same time a new attitude toward Wilsonia was signaled – those same fire fighters who were being ordered to possibly sacrifice their lives for a tree were also instructed to offer no protection at all for Wilsonia. The park administration told them to let it burn. But Fate had a different path in mind, and when the fire reached into the high mountains near Grant Grove it seemed to change its mind and moved away from the park structures and campgrounds, away from the big trees, and away from Wilsonia. The president’s village had been saved by an unseen hand, but the National Park Service wasn’t to be as easily deterred.
By the 1960’s Wilsonia was under attack from the park service. The agency wrote letters to property owners offering to purchase their property for ridiculously low amounts, and rumors were spread that the government would soon take the property to make it part of the national park. The commercial property was among the first acquired by the federal government, as that was identified as being the heart of the village. The Wilsonia Lodge, the Kings Canyon Lodge, and Osbourne Lodge were all acquired and demolished. The county stopped sending fire engines to Wilsonia, and the sheriff deputies also soon stopped coming. The grocery store closed and the horse stables were pulled apart. A feeling of being under siege fell over the village as the government acquired more and more property; an in-your-face attitude as park personnel moved themselves into many of the nicer properties while bulldozing others. By the mid-1980’s the park service had spent over two and one-half million dollars in purchasing land in Wilsonia. This was coming to the notice of those of a more frugal nature in the government, yet they were just as determined to take the private property away. So in their written multi-year plans it was seriously proposed that Wilsonia be completely acquired by the National Park Service; that all of the structures be demolished; that the acreage should then be paved and turned into a parking lot for park visitors and a staging area for bus tours. The Joni Mitchell song, “Pave Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot”, once just a satire, appeared to have become a frightening official government policy.
But by the late 1990’s the government appeared to have changed direction and backed off on its aggressive policy of land acquisition in the area, and seemed content to let the remnants of Wilsonia exist in relative peace. Half of the homes were by now gone, and many of those lots which Andy Ferguson had once so proudly sold now fell under the uncaring grace of the federal government. By now there were no stores; no restaurants; no fire station and no sheriff’s presence; no barber shop; no bakery. The horses were gone, along with those pioneer spirits who had once enjoyed that primeval link with the past of riding a racing beast across the mountains. The octagon-shaped clubhouse burned to the ground and was replaced with something smaller and more traditional. Where Osbourne Lodge and Wilsonia Lodge and Kings Canyon Lodge once stood there were now only empty, uncared for lots. Where Andy Ferguson’s home once stood there now sat a garbage dumpster – a fitting statement, perhaps from the park’s view, of their opinion of his efforts to create and nurture a mountain community.
In the years that have passed since Andy Ferguson brought the village of Wilsonia into existence it has often been speculated as to why he gave the village that name. The most popular theory held that, in the 1916 presidential election, Wilsonia voters had overwhelmingly voted for Wilson and tilted the balance of a very close election in his favor, thereby giving him a second term in office. That was, perhaps, a view that best reflected the boisterous, can-do attitude of the builders of the new village rather than a more candid reality. The 1916 presidential election was indeed a very close one, with the final results not being known until a week after the election. And California was indeed one of the swing states that, by a very small number of votes, did indeed hand the election to Wilson. But Woodrow Wilson ended up winning California by about 3700 votes, and although that was a very small figure it still vastly exceeded the entire population of Wilsonia. So the people of Wilsonia did not send a president into office. The truth, as is often the case, was much more mundane. It was simply that Andy Ferguson’s son was married to a cousin of President Wilson. And, since that made President Wilson part of the family (or almost, anyway), it was a handy way of showing pride in that relationship.
Woodrow Wilson passed away in 1924, suffering first a stroke and then from continuing heart problems; leaving this world peacefully without ever having visited the village that bore his name. And Wilsonia, the village which holds the memory of this man perhaps more vibrantly than anywhere else, should itself continue to be remembered as a part of the human history of Kings Canyon National Park; of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; a picture frozen in time of the way in which people have loved these mountains and embraced life within them. Wilsonia lives on – perhaps, like President Wilson, now deprived of the vibrant heart which once kept it alive. But the president’s village nevertheless continues on with a dogged spirit of survival; a stubbornness to keep the village alive in the face of weighty opposition from a federal bureaucracy which exists under the motto “Preserve and Protect”, but which apparently considers that a motto to be exercised selectively; a federal agency which, ironically, was created by President Wilson just one year before the president’s village itself was born.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.