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.
The year is 1873, and this early October evening has brought a distinct chill to the air, a coldness which is seeping through to your bones as you ride through a dusty ravine in the mountains of the High Sierra. Although the sunlight can still be seen glinting off of sharp rocky peaks in the distance the shadows around you have grown long, melting together to form a dark cloak wrapping itself heavily onto the path you follow. As the horse’s hooves clop softly on the rocky soil of the trail and the cold penetrates deeper you wish that you had a cloak just as heavy as this nightfall in which to wrap yourself, and you pull your buckskin coat just a little tighter. Winter is growing close. It won’t come tonight, or even tomorrow, but you can feel it growing nearer. Your horse can sense it as well; that dark black beast upon whom you ride – you can see this in the way she sniffs the evening air. Raven is her name, and she’s the best friend you have on your travels through these mountains. You’ve lost count of the times she’s carried you confidently through snow drifts deep enough to have buried you both; carried you sure-footedly around rock slides so huge you thought them impassable; carried you carefully across mountain trails back to camp when you shook with fever and could have fallen from the saddle had she not been so gentle. She’s your friend, and more. So when she lifts her nose into the evening breeze and sniffs again, then snorts knowingly, you reach out and stroke her neck softly, telling her that you feel it too. If she’s half as smart as you think she is then she’s wondering about just what place you are planning for the two of you to spend this approaching winter – high up here in the mountains, where you have passed most of the past decade of winters? Or perhaps you will go down into the valley, where bones which are growing older and which more readily feel the penetrating chill might rest for a few months and move more easily in warmer comfort? You reach down and stroke her neck once again, and tell her that you don’t know. You just don’t know, because you really haven’t even thought about it until this moment. And you don’t really want to think about it now, either. Darkness is falling and you just want to make it the last few miles to that place you heard about several days ago and so many miles back; that strange and lonely saloon hidden high up here amongst these tall trees; hidden somewhere in the middle of all this nowhere. So you nudge Raven with a touch of your knees and urge her forward into the growing darkness, trusting her to guide you along a trail you can no longer see to a destination you know not where. You smile softly, knowing she will do it. And Raven turns her head slightly, rolling one dark wet eye at you, thinking; Yeah, I can do it. You bunch up the folds of your buckskin jacket even tighter, and ride on.
Yet, when you suddenly come into the grove of large red trees a couple of hours later you are both surprised. The shadows long ago faded to complete blackness and your eyes, good as they are, have for many miles only been able to make out the shaded forms of things too huge to be real. But this grove is now dimly lit with a tentative flickering light spilling from the window of a small log cabin. Horses in the corral along one side have sensed your arrival and whinnied their greeting, and two large dogs have jumped through the glassless window of the cabin to inspect their unexpected guests. You ride up slowly, dismount, and stretch. A man comes from the cabin carrying a shotgun which might be considered to be pointing generally in your direction. You nod and hold out your hand, telling him your name. He shakes your hand firmly, and introduces himself as Israel Gamlin. You exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, then tell him that you heard that this might be a place where a man might get a drink. Israel nods and points at a location lost in the darkness back over your shoulder, telling you to go on and make yourself at home and he will follow shortly. He disappears back into the cabin, leaving you to make your own way through the trees. You look at Raven and you could swear that she just shakes her head; No, she’s telling you; not this time. So you sigh and turn and walk off into the darkness, this time it’s you leading her.
Within moments you come upon the carcass of a huge tree laying on the ground before you, stretching off into the darkness in both directions and you stand there, staring. Soon a shadow moves up from your left and then appears to melt into the lines of the dead tree. A match flickers and then touches the wick of a lamp. Then, several feet off to one side, another match and two more lamps add their glow and help to light the tableau before you, and you know that you have finally reached your destination – that high mountain bar about which you had heard; Israel’s Bar. The saloon is pretty much as it was described to you, but you still have trouble believing your eyes. The dead tree is huge – even laying on its side its reclining diameter is much taller than you. But it’s the fact that it is hollow that grabs your attention. Completely open on the side facing you the hollowed interior blends into the darkness where the shadowed details of its inside escape from the yellow flaming light of the lamps, but you can see from the charred interior that the work of creating this setting must have been done by some long-ago fire. The first lamp that was lit by Israel is sitting on a roughly hewn small oblong table, alongside of which are two small benches. The other lamps light the top of a bar which stands a little taller than the table, and the surface of which seems, in this flickering light, to be much smoother and shinier from the repeated sliding of glass along its surface. You start to step forward but then remember the reins you hold in your hand, but Israel seems to have already read your mind and is filling a bucket of water for your horse which he places farther down inside the tree, and nods for you to leave Raven there. You hesitate, but Israel is already adding a second bucket into which he has shoveled a stingy scoopful of oats, and he drops that next to the water. So you lead Raven over to her dinner and, with a quick promise to return soon and remove her saddle and brush her, you drop heavily onto one of the benches near the table, and you sigh. Israel asks if you would like a drink of whiskey, or if you would instead prefer a drink of whiskey, and you smile at his joke; an attempt at humor you are certain he has offered as many times as there have been guests in his bar. You hadn’t exactly expected a cold beer to be on tap, and you wouldn’t want one of those fancy drinks you could order in the city, so whiskey – you reply – will be just fine. When it comes it’s in a glass larger than is seen in most saloons, and its smoky flavor hints at it likely originating from a local still. But it goes down smoothly and it tastes just fine. You sit back and sigh again. You have just ordered a drink in Israel’s Bar, the first saloon to grace this part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and it’s proven to be worth the long ride. Israel brings a bottle over and joins you, dropping onto the other bench, and together you sit there talking long into the night. You try to ignore Raven’s reproachful gaze as she stares at you after her dinner has been finished, but you apologize to her later when you finally keep that promise about the saddle and the brushing and then you fall onto your blankets next to her at the bottom of the hollow log, musing to yourself of the strange things which life can unexpectedly bring one’s way. As you drift off into the edge of sleep a memory from long past slides into your head and you suddenly recall your Sunday School teacher from all those years ago admonishing you never to let your vices follow you through life. And you laugh softly, thinking that – this time, at least – your vice preceded you across the mountains and was here waiting for you when you arrived. And then you and Raven both sleep.
The morning brings more wonders. Those giant shadows which had lined your road last night now show themselves to be real giants; trees larger than any you have ever seen or could even imagine. Israel and his brother, Thomas, escort you through the grove where each red monolith seems even bigger than the last; hundreds of giants reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, many of them even more monstrous than the fallen monarch which holds the mountain tavern in which you were entertained last night. Just like kids in a candy store the Gamlin brothers save the best for last, finally leading you up to the largest of the monarchs standing guard in this grove. As you stand before it you know that it must spread forty or fifty feet across in diameter, making a pale shadow of its hollow fallen cousin which serves as a saloon. And then you squint, trying to make out something you see near the base. You walk a few steps closer and can now make out that it’s a sign on a rough board that has been nailed to the tree, and the words on the board spell out a name – General Grant. You are puzzled, and give the Gamlin brothers a curious look.
Thomas then explains that a few years ago – in 1867, he thinks it was – a woman by the name of Lucretia Baker made a three day wagon trip up the mountain from the town of Porterville to see the big trees she’d heard so much about, and ended her visit by tacking that sign to the biggest tree she could find – the biggest tree in the world, she thought; a tree worthy of bearing the name of her war hero, General Ulysses S. Grant. You gaze at the tree and shake your head and wonder again at the oddities of life, of the utter strangeness of a woman from the San Joaquin making a pilgrimage to name this wonderful living entity before you after a person who was so efficient at killing so many other living creatures. You are snapped out of this brief reverie by the sound of chopping, and you refocus your eyes to see Israel whacking a large hunk of bark off of General Grant with an axe kept by the base of the tree for just this purpose. He walks over and offers this odd souvenir to you, but to his obvious puzzlement you decline. What would you do with that hunk of bark, you ask? And why would you and Raven want to carry it around in your travels across the mountains?
You wander off to spend the remainder of that morning and the early afternoon strolling through the trees by yourself, relaxing in the warm afternoon sun and letting Raven take a much earned rest. By early afternoon you’re back in the bar, ready to again sample the Gamlin brothers’ home brew. To your surprise you see a stranger already sitting at your table gazing out into the trees with a broad smile on his bearded face. Even more surprisingly, it looks suspiciously as if his glass holds . . . water? He leans forward and introduces himself, offering his hand, and says his name is John – John Muir – and he asks you to join him – which you immediately do, of course, because a conversation with another man of the mountains is something you haven’t shared for many long weeks. Yet after listening to him talk almost without pause for several minutes it doesn’t take you very long to realize that this conversation is going to be pretty one-sided, and so you decide to just give in and nod occasionally as John expounds his philosophy of the utter magnificence of these trees; of these mountains. He is on a walking trip from up north, from the valley of the Yosemite, and he’s come here because he’s heard of the trees, not this unique saloon which attracted you. And although you have walked these mountains for years you now find yourself looking at them with different eyes because of the words he speaks and the eloquence with which he offers them. Perhaps it’s the smoky whiskey which you drink which causes this; perhaps not. But John’s ideas of preserving and protecting somehow seem to make sense, and they seem so logical that you wonder why they have never before occurred to you. But somehow everything seems so logical now; now at this time and here in this place. Later that evening you and John walk through the grove of giant trees one more time, talking long into the night of the magnificence of nature as well as of the follies of men. John has brought his blanket along and spreads it on the ground beneath what might be the largest tree on earth and says he thinks he will pass the night here beneath the giant and the stars, so you end the evening with a sudden goodbye and wander alone back to Israel’s Bar where you lift another glass of whiskey to the trees, and the mountains, and the thirst which brought you here.
It all seems suddenly quite normal now to have been sitting in the hollow remains of a giant tree listening to a man who calls himself John of the Mountains eloquently argue the near sentience of the trees while Israel served homemade whiskey and General Grant offered his generous shade.
The next morning you give Raven some extra brushing and then mount up, saying goodbye to this saloon in a dead tree; Israel’s Bar. You know that you won’t be returning, because things this strange, this good, never last. They can’t, because people find out about them, and tack names on them, and they become famous and lose that Something which makes them so special. So you know that Israel’s Bar will soon fade away to a memory held by just a few, and you’re just grateful that you had the chance to taste it while it still flickered with life.
“Which way, Raven?” You ask as you settle into the saddle. “Where would you like to spend this Winter?”
She looks around at you, that one wet eye glistening brightly in the sunlight, thinks a moment, then turns slightly and heads off through the trees, taking you to the place where you will pass the coming winter while thinking of the oddities of men, the eloquence of John, and of the strange pleasures of Israel’s Bar.
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.
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