A History of the Kaweah Colony
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
A History of the Kaweah Colony
By Jay O’Connell. This 3RNews version as published August 2020.
Of the 102 cabins/homes at Sequoia Crest, 55 survived but unfortunately, not the original Rouch cabin built ca. 1946
By John Elliott for 3RNews, 2 October 2020.
“We sure have had a wonderful opportunity to have spent even a moment in our mountains. It’s hard to explain to someone the experience if they’ve never had it.” – Kerry Kaye Davies
Of the 102 cabins/homes at Sequoia Crest, 55 survived but unfortunately, not the original Rouch cabin built ca. 1946 Fire on the Mountain
In any disaster, and especially in this unprecedented fire season, there are hundreds of tragic stories. But for those who lose everything, and others whose homes are spared and return to desolation all around, their lives are forever changed.
Countless other persons are attached to these mountain communities across several generations whose lives were shaped by their time spent in these special places. Meet Kerry Kaye Davies, a mother of three, artist, photographer — her heart was broken the moment she heard about the SQF Fire burning in Sequoia Crest.
Davies 52, who now lives in Riverside, was immediately inspired to create a painting of the Amos Alonzo Stagg Tree. The Stagg Tree, see TKC article below, is the fifth largest giant sequoia in the world, and the centerpiece of Sequoia Crest, a cabin community nestled in the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias.
Sequoia Crest was a subdivision developed by Sonny Rouch in the years following WWII. The original Rouch cabin was built ca.1946 on Redwood Drive. With the end to logging in the area, it became the real estate office to sell other lots in the tract. After at least one other family owned the cabin, John and Hardie McFadden, parents of Kerry Kaye Davies, purchased the cabin in 1987 and owned it until 2009. During those years it was known as McFadden’s Cottage.
Kerry Kaye Davies in her own words:
Sequoia Crest won our hearts back early in the 1980’s I was barely a preteen taking art lessons with an art teacher who had a cabin in Sequoia Crest. They had invited our family up to their home and I immediately fell in love with the essence. I later got married and started a family and my parents bought their cabin in 1987 on Redwood Drive.
This began our family’s trips to the mountain, and our escape from the business of cities. My three sons and two nieces grew up visiting and living upon the Crest as this place became my parent’s retirement home. When they bought the cabin, it came with two old photographs evidence of a great storm season that had dropped a record snowfall.
There were many tales of that storm (late-1940s), although it wasn’t until 1997 that a measurable amount to match it landed on the Crest once again. My dad told me to take care of these photos because they are special, they were old when we got them, and yes they are indeed special.
Even though my parents did a major remodel of their cabin, the side door and window to the loft were kept the same as this photo. And it was that top window that became our room and our children’s when we visited. As you can see in the photos, it must have been quite a task to dig and to get in and out. I’ve had these photos hanging and in my possession for 30 years . And now, since the fire, they hold even greater significance for the several families who have graced this cabin’s life.
There are special places upon the Crest — Jordan Peak, Poppy Lake, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Tree, and the embodiment of the Sequoia National Forest itself, that makes us migrate back making memories as evidence of the generations who care and love this mountain. Even though my parents did move several years ago (2009), for 23 years we called this place our second home.
Today, even though we live in cities and towns, our hearts never leave this special place once you have fallen in love with the Crest. You can’t open any of our family photo albums without having some photos of the cabin in them and the evolution of the growth of the kids.
“It feels like salt on a wound to think of the devastation”
The Three Rivers Historical Society grounds hold a re-creation of what is believed to be the first public saloon in Three Rivers.
By Laile Di Silvestro. This article is partially based on a 14 January 2021 article by John Elliott for 3RNews.
In January of 2021, the Three Rivers Historical Society unveiled a re-creation of the Bahwell Saloon, believed to be the first public saloon in Three Rivers. The structure is 8’x16’ with a windows enabling visitors can look inside. The re-creation is based on a 1907 photo and data collected during an archaeological investigation. According to the investigators, the original saloon was located just 35 feet from the site of the re-creation, above the Bahwell Ditch.
A pit or small cellar found by the archaeologists suggests that water from a nearby spring may have been used to cool the beverages until 1896, when water from the new Bahwell ditch was used for the purpose.
Despite the archaeological evidence, the history of the Bahwell Saloon has been shrouded by time.
Local lore suggests that the structure in the 1907 photo was created in 1895 and lasted until Prohibition shut it down on July 1, 1919. Historic documentation, however, indicates that the Bahwell family had a hospitality business entailing alcohol sales by 1892, and may have established a wayside for travelers to Mineral King by 1888.
Adam Bahwell (1830-1901) was baptised Adamus Bahwel in the Duchy of Hesse in Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire (later in Prussia and now in Germany). He left Hesse in 1846 and arrived in California by 1847. He was just in time to join the earliest rush to northern California’s gold fields.
Reportedly penniless after his mining adventure, Adam moved to Visalia in 1859, where he married Nancy Atlantic Stephenson (1843-1892) in 1861. The two immediately commenced building a family and a large business empire.
Adam became a wheelwright, repairman, blacksmith, farmer, sheep rancher, citrus nurseryman, and mortgage lender with no qualms about collecting on debts. He and Nancy acquired a block of land in Visalia, where they built some of their businesses. Their blacksmith shop was famous for producing and selling the acclaimed Bahwell pruning shears.
They didn’t limit their sights to Visalia, however. Over time, they acquired farming and ranching property throughout the San Joaquin valley, primarily in Tulare County.
One of these properties was a tract in Three Rivers, where the Bahwells built a home on the south side of the Kaweah River, across from the confluence of the North Folk and the Middle Fork and below a footbridge across the river. Records suggest that Nancy, Adam, and their six surviving children move there in 1880, but returned to their Visalia home in 1881.
According to official records, the Bahwells didn’t move to Three Rivers permanently until late 1884 at the earliest. A that point, they had added two more children to their family, and their oldest son, Charles Franklin “Charley”, had suffered a serious harvesting accident.
By 1888, “Bahwell’s” was a landmark. Geologists surveying the area used it as a point of reference, and noted that there was a house on the site. They didn’t mention a hotel, store, or saloon, but it is possible that Bahwell’s served as a wayside at that time.
By 1892, however, the new county map indicated that there was a store and house on the land, and a newspaper account indicates that the Bahwells were serving alcohol to the 4th Cavalry soldiers assigned to protect the new Sequoia National Park.
Nancy died at the end of 1892, but Adam and the children continued running the hospitality business. Perhaps due to his history as a tough lender, Adam’s reputation began to suffer. In 1893, Adam was accused of assaulting the wife of one of the 4th Cavalry soldiers, and news media declared him “a bad man.”
A newspaper report indicates that the Blossom family entered the roadside alcohol business in 1894, forcing the Bahwells to reduce the price of beer from 40 cents a bottle to 10 cents. The news media encouraged hungry and thirsty travelers to avoid Bahwell’s and buy from the Blossom family instead.
According to Forest Grunnigen (3RNews January 2021), the association of the saloon with the Bahwell family ended in the mid-1890s. According to official records, however. Adam Bahwell continued to run the hospitality business, and by 1900 considered his primary occupation that of hotel keeper.
By this time, Adam had become a very wealthy man. He was so wealthy, a young woman whom he had been wooing sued him for $25,000.00 for refusing to marry her. This is equivalent to $782,779.76 in spending power today.
Adam died in 1901 of dropsy (edema), and his son Charley inherited the property. It appears that Charley sold the saloon property within a decade.* At some point, according to local accounts, David F. Carter took it over.
According to local lore, the Bahwell Saloon survived WWI and the pandemic despite the growing prohibition movement. In November 1918, however, supply became an issue when the Wartime Prohibition Act banned the sale of beverages having an alcohol content greater than 1.28%. The 18th Amendment made the saloon’s demise final.
The saloon didn’t die quietly. Forest Grunnigen remembered having a beer at the saloon in July 1919 at the “grand closing party” when Prohibition became the law of the land.
*Confirmation of property transfers awaits the end of the 2019-2021 pandemic.
A history of the Riata Ranch, its “Cowboy Girls,” and the former Kaweah Colony property that they now call home.
By Jay O’Connell for The Kaweah Commonwealth, July 2014
When Irvin Barnard joined the Kaweah Colony, the struggling co-operative endeavor gained one very important asset. Comrade Barnard had considerable capital and was able to purchase a 240-acre tract of land at the lower end of the North Fork canyon for $2,000. After the period of road building, with tent settlements at Advance and elsewhere up canyon, the move marked the final phase in one of the most colorful chapters in California’s history: the Kaweah Colony.
One poetically inclined colonist described the area of this new Kaweah Colony townsite:
The canyon broadens here—
with calm incline
The hills up-billow
from the oak clad plain;
The river ripples blithely
Or rolls thru pools with
But don’t get me started on the Kaweah Colony. The last time I started writing about those old-timey North Fork hippies, it resulted in over 100 columns for this newspaper. I don’t think anyone is prepared for something so long-winded ever again.
In recent years, I have repeatedly promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) to start submitting articles to the Commonwealth again. Now I have come upon a subject that is part western legacy, part present-day show-stopper, and part future and continuing asset for the community.
Amazingly, they recently relocated right here to the lower North Fork, where “the canyon broadens with calm incline” and “the hills up-billow from the oak clad plain.” But the sounds of the “river rippling blithely over stones” are now complemented by the thundering hooves of horses and the excited voices of adventurous young girls.
When I learned that the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are now based in Three Rivers, at a property that I have written about on more than one occasion, I decided I had to learn more.
* * *
It was while having a beer at the Gateway that I fell into conversation with a congenial fellow one barstool over. He wore a cowboy hat and had a voice like a rodeo announcer.
We got to talking about the Chilcott place up past the Roping Arena and its connection to the Kaweah Colony. I explained that it was the location of the Kaweah Townsite during the last days of the colony, and later was owned by the Redstone and Hopping families, who were prominent members of the failed co-operative endeavor.
I mentioned that the Hopping brothers ran a stagecoach to Sequoia National Park during those early days when the Colony Mill Road was still the only road into the park.
It was about then that I had to confess (okay, brag) that when it came to questions about the Kaweah Colony, he was talking to the right person. I had actually written a book on the subject.
There is no way this didn’t sound like a blatant boast. Just like now, I suppose.
But it’s key to the story, so I include it, even if it makes me look like a bit of an ass. Chad Nicholson (by now I knew my barstool companion’s name, and he actually is a rodeo announcer) explained that his wife ran the Riata Ranch, which had recently relocated to the Chilcott property.
The world-famous Riata Ranch now in Three Rivers? Color me impressed.
And, yes, of course I’d heard of them. I’m not a total city boy. I’ve been to a rodeo or two. Or at least the Woodlake Rodeo more than once.
I have also previously written about the Chilcott’s Redstone Ranch. The former site of the Kaweah Colony was later owned by Dr. Forest Grunigen (a Hopping descendant) who sold the property to Bob and Janine Chilcott in the 1980s.
With an appreciation for local history, they named it “Redstone Ranch” and for many years raised Percheron horses on the property.
For several years, the Chilcotts hosted Woodlake High School-Class of 1924 reunions with Dr. Grunigen and several of his classmates. I was fortunate to attend one of the last of these reunions in 1999 and featured an account of it in a biography of Dr. Grunigen that I co-authored.
And my experience with two more things qualifies and motivates me to write about Riata Ranch. Horses and show business. Make that three things. Horses, show business, and pretty young women.
I have fond memories of helping bring horse and actress (portraying Eva Evans, the “Train Robber’s Daughter”) together on stage at the Fox Theatre in Visalia. And how many sitcom producers get to work with a horse as talented as Gunner and actresses as lovely as Kat and Beth?
And so it wasn’t long before I contacted Jennifer Welch Nicholson, Chad’s wife and the executive director of Riata Ranch International. At the time of this writing, I have already spent a couple Saturdays at the former Redstone Ranch, watching Jennifer work with the young girls and talking with her about the past, present, and future of the Riata Ranch.
I plan to spend a lot more time at the ranch and with the performing Cowboy Girls on tour later this year. And if you haven’t gathered by now, I am destined to write a multipart series on the Riata Ranch for The Kaweah Commonwealth.
In coming installments, I’ll look back at the history of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, all the way back to its founding in 1957 by the late Tom Maier. I’ll profile the talented performers and their spectacular trick riding and roping and take readers behind the scenes.
I’ll highlight the training of young girls and the wonderful life lessons they learn at Riata. I’ll trace the path Riata took to Three Rivers and how their relocation came to be.
And finally, I’ll look at the future goals and plans for Riata as, from here forward, it becomes a Three Rivers institution.
In a way, the story of the Riata Ranch started when 12-year-old Tommy Maier left his North Dakota home and landed in Hollywood. As the Los Angeles Times recounted in a 1985 profile, “There he got a job… training horses for movie stars until he could support himself bulldogging and roping calves on the rodeo circuit. When a car accident ended his ability to compete, he found his way to Exeter… where in 1956 he started a riding school for children.”
Riata founder’s road to Exeter
As a stunt rider during those early Hollywood days, Tom worked with Ronald Reagan in Stallion Road and doubled many actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Hutton, and Jennifer Jones. It was a prescient way to earn a living — dressing in women’s costumes and riding horses — for the man who later became the founder of a famous troupe of trick-riding girls.
But those first years in Exeter, with his riding school enrollment blossoming, the curriculum had little to do with trick riding. Classes covered various levels of ability in Western and English riding, rodeo disciplines and, as always, a variety of chores and horse care.
The Riata code
Tom Maier was a strict and demanding teacher. To call him gruff or “old school” was an understatement. But his high expectations and demand created a way for young people to be successful.
The importance of chores and the philosophy that “every job counts and every action is noticed” became a defining foundation. Tom himself once described it as a “concept of young people learning life skills built on the Code of the West.”
Throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, Tom Maier’s Riata Ranch continued honing its horse show “Special Classes” until, by the mid 1970s, it was well-known as one of the most competitive and winningest horse show barns on the West Coast.
But Tom always had unique things going on at Riata as well. He might have the students riding steers, or filming old-timey movies, or even working with and riding wild or exotic animals.
Eventually Tom introduced yet another pursuit: a gymnastics program emphasizing physical fitness. By now, Riata was concentrating increasingly on girls, and Tom felt there were few other sports opportunities available to them. The gymnastics training soon evolved, progressing from vaults on a stationary horse to trick riding feats on galloping ones.
Evolution of trick riding
Trick riding was nothing new to American rodeo, and indeed has a long and interesting history. It has roots as far back as the Roman Empire, where riders rode standing atop a pair of horses, and the Russian Cossacks, who used their unique style of riding in battle.
Watch a trick rider today perform the Cossack Drag (also called the Suicide Drag), and you can see how Cossack horsemen were nearly unconquerable. When communism overtook Russia, many Cossacks moved to America and used their riding talents to make money. As entertainment, it caught on.
Not always just an entertainment act, up until the 1930s trick riding was a standard competition at American rodeos. With the hardest tricks earning the most points, the competition eventually became so dangerous it was deemed too risky and was relegated to an entertainment act and the sport began to die out.
Girls just wanna have fun
Additionally, women’s place in rodeo has a long and sometimes controversial legacy. In 1903, women began competing at the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days.
By 1920, women were participating as relay racers, trick riders, and rough stock riders. In 1928, one third of all rodeos featured women’s competitive events.
But in 1929, Bonnie McCarroll was dragged to death by a horse and rodeo promoters severely curtailed women’s competitive participation, relegating them instead to serve as rodeo queens.
Some female rodeo competitors, like Mabel Strickland and Bonnie Gray, continued to compete in sponsored contests outside the rodeo mainstream (although even these competitions increasingly emphasized beauty and attire rather than athletic skill) and gave trick-riding exhibitions. Gray was one of the first performers to ride under the belly of her horse at full gallop.
Other women made names for themselves as trick riders. Faye Blackstone performed on the rodeo circuit during the 1940s and ’50s and rode in a traveling show with Gene Autry. Blackstone is credited with inventing the flyaway, the ballerina, and the reverse fender drag, wherein the rider hangs on the lower left side of the saddle while her head bobs by the horse’s haunches
Edith Happy began working rodeos as a trick rider in 1943 and spent more than two decades entertaining crowds with her famed Hippodrome Stand. She later became one of the first mentors to Tom’s new performance team, helping them with riding tricks and even making their flashy outfits. She had an incredible and lasting influence on Riata Ranch.
As Jennifer Welch Nicholson, current director of Riata Ranch and an original performer, remembers, “Tommy really started the performance team as kind of a sidebar to his riding school. It developed to provide entertainment along with the competition horse show and junior rodeo team.”
Riata talent diversified
The trick-riding team, initially comprised of four 13-year-old girls, made such a splash that a rodeo producer began booking them in the famous Flying U rodeo company. In 1977, they were featured in a special rodeo show for the Chrysler Corporation’s national convention in Reno. Their roaring success brought the promise of many more future engagements and tours.
Always on the lookout for a new challenges, and with the Cowboy Girls gaining notice, Tom had the girls form another new act: the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girl Band. With the same high standards applied to music as competing in horse shows, trick riding, or even raking a stall, Riata’s homegrown band was soon performing to rave reviews, everywhere from the Cow Palace (San Francisco) to Madison Square Garden (New York City) and ultimately international tours.
They are what they are
When that initial trick-riding team needed a name, Tom dubbed them the “Cowboy Girls.” Years later, a Los Angeles Times journalist called it “a horrible name.”
Maybe nascent political correctness prompted Tom’s opinion that calling anyone a girl sounded sexist. But they really were girls. And they certainly were cowboys. So what better name could there be?
And while I opened this article by quoting “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” I somewhat errantly attributed the lyrics to Willie Nelson. He merely (albeit wonderfully) sang the sentiment. It was actually written by a woman, Sharon Vaughn, who was once a little girl.
Emblazoned on the side of the gooseneck trailer that carries their horses are the words Riata Ranch International. It isn’t mere hyperbole. They have earned that name.
Since the first performance team received an invitation to perform in Europe in 1979, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls have performed in 18 countries on four continents. And beyond taking their talents to the four corners of the globe, Riata Ranch has attracted riding talent from all over the world, bringing international riders to rodeos and equestrian events right here in the United States for decades.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1985, when it comes to the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, “We’re talking really big time: taking their trick and fancy riding and roping routines to Austria, Japan, Belgium where they performed before all the heads of state; also to Canada, England, France, Germany, Holland and Italy.”
The Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls represented the United States at the 1981 Equitana in Germany, ultimately earning the respect of initially doubtful European military representatives. During a tour of Japan that same year, they perhaps flirted with resentment when described as “Ninjas on horseback.”
As Janna Copley, a team performer at the time, recalls in the book Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls: Life Lessons Learned on the Back of a Horse, “Back then, the Japanese didn’t consider women self-sufficient. Yet here we were, young girls, doing all these daredevil stunts and being compared to legendary warriors! We were presented to the prince, and I’ll never forget the look on his face as I shook his hand. It was real admiration. He later became Japan’s emperor.”
They faced the challenge of performing at the 1999 Equitana Asia-Pacific in Australia on horses that were green to the demands and peculiarities of trick riding. Perhaps that contributed to the following episode, again from the above-mentioned book, which illustrates the mettle of these girls:
During the main performance, Kansas Carradine was doing a Backbend when her horse suddenly changed leads behind, smashing the cantle of the saddle into her face and breaking her nose. Reeling from the impact, Kansas nonetheless held on, completing the trick although blood was flowing.
“That Backbend was my next-to-last trick,” she recalls. “For the final trick, I was to carry the American and Australian flags in a Liberty Stand. The funny thing was no one realized I’d broken my nose because I had a flag in each hand and the audience couldn’t see my face. As soon as we rode out of the arena, I jumped off and ran to the bathroom. Tom [Maier, founder of Riata Ranch] kept the flag with all the blood on it.”
A true red badge of courage!
* * *
But for all their international appeal and experience, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls are uniquely and utterly American. In addition to all the top American rodeos — their tour every year takes them to rodeos far and near, from the Woodlake Rodeo to the Sioux Falls Round-Up in South Dakota; the Clovis Rodeo to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, just to name a few — the Riata Ranch Cowboy girls have also taken part in events as diverse as the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the Tournament of Roses Parade, and have proudly carried Old Glory down the track at world-famous Churchill Downs.
They performed to a standing ovation at the Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Hall of Fame. They have even been touted in the Congressional Record as “unofficial ambassadors-on-horseback as they travel around the world providing entertainment and an outstanding demonstration of American equestrian skills.”
That reputation and fame, both in the U.S. and abroad, has helped Riata attract performers from all over the world. Over the years, they have supplemented their homegrown talent with performers from Australia, France, Germany, and Israel. That mix of local and international talent continues today, with this year’s performance team comprised of two young women from Canada, one from Australia, and three from the local area.
But, of course, touring the world and performing is only part of what makes Riata Ranch such an institution. The real work of Riata is what goes on day to day at the ranch. As the decades rolled by, that day-to-day work was sometime interrupted when its founder and guiding force faced serious health issues.
During the early years of the performance team’s tours, Tom Maier was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. The news was initially devastating to Riata, but surgery proved medically miraculous and Tom conquered that challenge.
In 1983, a freak accident while roping a bronc resulted in a traumatic head injury. During his recovery, the entire Riata organization pulled together to keep the ship sailing on course. Part of the Riata tradition is grounded in mentoring and peer education and support — the older more experience girls teach and guide the younger girls — and that tradition certainly served the program well during these times.
More health issues arose when a bout with diverticulitis landed Tom in the hospital for a month in 1994, and two years later he had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Through these difficulties, the Riata Ranch girls were always there for him.
As Tom once recalled, when he came home after his heart surgery, several of the girls were “waiting to help me up the stairs. So, you see, I’m rarely alone.”
One of the girls always there to help Tom was original performance team member Jennifer Welch. As a horse-crazy 10-yearold from Visalia, she started with Riata in the mid 1970s and became a superb rider, roper, and performer (even singing during the days of the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girl band).
Jennifer soon served as a team leader and eventually became Tom Maier’s partner and business manager. As Tom’s health declined and he was able to do less and less, she took on more and more responsibility until eventually running the entire operation.
When Tom Maier died in 2002, Jennifer was the logical and, indeed, the only choice to continue running the Riata Ranch.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll learn about the challenges Jennifer Welch Nicholson and the Riata Ranch faced in the years following Tom Maier’s death. We’ll see how these internationally famous Cowboy Girls searched for a much-needed permanent home.
They have been all over the world, they have performed for celebrities and heads of state. In 2012, they even took part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant at Windsor Castle where that once horse-crazy little girl from Visalia got to perform for and meet Queen Elizabeth.
And that long and winding road has led them to Three Rivers, where they have now settled.
Back in the 1950s during the very early days of his riding school, Tom Maier purchased six acres of land near Exeter — at the end of Avenue 300 on the far side of the railroad tracks. For the next four decades, it became the home base for Tulare County’s spectacular ambassadors on horseback: the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls.
In 1998, facing overwhelming medical bills, Tom took out a loan against the property, written on the Code of the West and sealed with only a handshake. But when the man he owed the mortgage to died, his family wanted to close out the estate, and the ranch went into foreclosure. Tom Maier drove off the property in 1998 for what he thought was the last time.
After a couple of years, the new owners of the property, having fielded so many inquiries about Riata, realized they had purchased much more than just a ranch, and invited Riata back home. As Brenda (Caskey) Sampietro, one of Tom’s first students, recalled in the above-cited book, “When I drove out to the end of Avenue 300 and crossed those familiar tracks, my heart sank. It was a mess… nothing had been done for two years. Tommy greeted me with ‘We’ve got to get it cleaned up.’”
With a lot of help from Riata members past and present, they got the place restored, and Tom Maier and the Riata Ranch were back. But now they were merely tenants. It wasn’t the same, and another major hardship was about to befall Riata. In 2002, Tom Maier passed away.
By the last years of Tom’s life, his health had deteriorated so much that although he was still making all the decisions and the success or failure of the operation rested on his shoulders, Jennifer Welch, his longtime assistant and one of the original members of the performance team, was virtually running the entire operation.
“For a long time people thought I was running Riata Ranch,” recalled Jennifer. “What they could see clearly, I couldn’t. Everyone could see that I would probably end up running Riata when he was gone. I never saw that.”
It wasn’t necessarily something Jennifer wanted. Even Tom had often advised her “to run and not keep Riata going.” He’d tell her how hard it would be and all the obstacles she’d face. “Just go on with your life,” he’d say.
But then once, toward the very end, he told her “if anyone could do it, she could.” By then, Riata Ranch was her life, and she couldn’t help but take hold of the reins.
“I realized there was nobody going to run it,” she said. “There was no money, and we needed to make some right now because there were bills to pay.”
With some big performance contracts looming, Jennifer thought she’d stick with it just long enough to fill the contracts, make some money, help Tom’s widow get situated, and then move on.
With resolve to give it “just a couple years,” and with some sound business advice from a friend, Jennifer took action. She incorporated and went after their 501(c)3 status. Riata Ranch became a nonprofit (and yes, one can make the joke that they had never really made a profit), formalizing a mission statement that had always been their credo.
Riata Ranch is dedicated to “enriching and enlightening young people by building positive life skills in a safe environment that in turn changes lives by allowing good kids to become great citizens.”
By the end of the summer, Riata had 22 students. Things started to look up. But without a permanent home, it was tough to build the program and recruit students and riders.
Although Riata was back at their original headquarters for the first couple of years after Tom’s death, they didn’t own the property. It was a little like selling a house and then renting a room.
They then moved the operation to a place in Farmersville, but only stayed there for a year or so. It just wasn’t the right fit.
They moved out to the former Jackson Ranch, home of the Woodlake Rodeo, for a few years.
“That was okay,” Jennifer explained. “But it’s a rodeo grounds and working ranch. No facilities, and they didn’t want to turn it into any kind of equestrian facility.”
Then they moved to another ranch property in Exeter, but again they were only renting and had to share facilities with other tenants. For more than a decade, Riata Ranch was without their own true home base on which to build a program and expand operations.
By this time, Jennifer and her husband, rodeo announcer Chad Nicholson, were living in Three Rivers. People up here kept telling her she had to talk to Janine Chilcott.
Jennifer knew the place, the Redstone Ranch, where Janine and her late husband, Robert Chilcott, had raised Percheron horses. It is a magnificent property with a storied history (detailed in the first installment of this series). But it seemed out of reach of Riata’s modest resources.
Hoping to perhaps just lease some land for their horses, Jennifer finally set up a meeting with Janine.
“I didn’t even really know what I was asking for,” she said.
By the end of the meeting, Janine had laid out a whole plan.
“I looked at Chad, and I looked at her, and I said ‘Okay, we’re going to move here!’”
They jumped in with both feet.The ranch has turned out to be a perfect fit.
The facilities are ideal for the great work that Riata does. The property that was once the base of utopian dreamers in the 19th century is now the training grounds for little girls with dreams of being trick-riding and roping performers.
The ranch with the historic name honoring a pioneer Kaweah Colony family (1890s) — the Redstones — where stately draft horses flourished (1990s), is now a ranch with a much-honored name — Riata.
And now, and for generations to come, when those horses and girls perform at rodeos around the country, announcers will proclaim, “Ladies and gentlemen, from Three Rivers, California, the world-famous Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls!”
Now that deserves a standing ovation.
Once one of the smallest operating post offices in the United States, the Kaweah Post Office is a now a much-photographed destination that tells the story of adaptability after loss of a utopian dream.
This article is a compilation of multiple articles written by John and Sarah Elliott for The Kaweah Commonwealth on in 2015, 2016, and 2018 with an editorial update in in April 2021.
Almost daily, travelers make their way the three miles up North Fork Drive to visit the historic Kaweah Post Office. It is believed to be, in its own detached structure, the smallest continually operating post office in the United States.
In addition to being charming, the Kaweah Post Office has a remarkable story. It is one of the last vestiges of the Kaweah Cooperative Colony, a utopian project started in 1886 on the North Fork of the Kaweah River.
Part 1: History
The Kaweah Post Office was initially established at Advance, the Kaweah Colony camp four miles farther up the North Fork than its current location. It was established in 1890, the same year Sequoia National Park was created. At that time, Robert Kellar was 14 years old. He was the son of Charles F. Kellar, one of the founders of the Kaweah Colony in 1885 and surveyor and foreman during construction of the Colony Mill Road from 1886 to 1888. Robert’s mother, Caroline, who was the camp cook, and his older brother Carl were also part of Colony life.
Although the Kellar family left Tulare County before the Colony dissolved in 1891, the family returned in 1905 and lived in Kaweah (next to the present-day location of the Post Office) until 1918. At the turn of the 20th century, Robert was a local rancher and builder.
At some point, the post office was later relocated to Redstone Ranch (present-day Riata Ranch). In 1910, Robert rebuilt the post office near its present location along North Fork Drive.
Robert’s descendants have record of Robert building both the Kaweah Post Office and Sulphur Springs School. The school building is now a private residence at 42612 Kaweah River Drive.
The Kellar family also has photographs and a contract showing Robert reconstructed the Marble Fork Bridge on the Crystal Cave Road in Sequoia National Park and the River Inn Bridge in Three Rivers (which spans the Middle Fork to provide access from Highway 198 to North Fork Drive).
In 1926, postmistress and librarian Ida Purdy asked for the post office to be moved 800 feet closer to her home, which then served as the library.
In 1948, California officially designated the Kaweah Post Office as State Registered Landmark No. 389 owing to its association with the Kaweah Co-operative Colony. A first-day cover was issued and 5,000 cachets were mailed to collectors.
In 1999 Kathleen McCleary purchased the property. Since then, she has owned the Kaweah Post Office building and, until 2010, leased it to the United States Postal Service.
The U.S. postal service terminated the full- service post office contract in May 2010.
Part 2: Preservation
Any historic structure requires investment and dedication to preserve and maintain it. The Kaweah Post Office had needed additional care because it is actively used by over forty members of the community and welcomes hundreds of visitors each year. Unfortunately, it has also been victim of the drought, which toppled a sheltering oak, and thieves and vandals.
Kathleen McCleary has been owner, custodian, and protector of Kaweah Post Office since purchasing the property.
“It was sort of, ‘By the way, a post office comes with it,’” she said. “But soon I became aware of how this tiny little building is the very heart of the Kaweah community and what it means to the people who live here and who visit time after time.”
On Presidents Day February 16, 2015, two distinguished scholars in the field of stamp-collecting history visited the Kaweah Post Office. Calvin Mitchell and Daniel Piazza, assistant curators of philately at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., stopped off at Kaweah as a part of a fact-finding tour of western postal places for an upcoming Smithsonian exhibit.
Both men are recognized experts in American history. According to Kathleen McCleary, who hosted the dignitaries for a picnic, the two researchers were tracing two postal continuums during their current tour: mail delivery on Route 66 (National Historic Corridor) and post offices that served national parks.
Not long after the visit, however, the future of the post office was jeopardized. On Monday, September 21, 2015, several large branches of an adjacent live oak came crashing down shortly after dark. The entrance to the 10-foot-by-12-foot wood frame building was damaged and the porch was completely covered by one huge branch that failed.
That same tree has stood as silent sentinel over the quaint little post office since the building was moved in 1926 to be near Postmistress Ida Purdy’s home. Though damage appeared extensive, the integrity of the 105-year-old wooden structure remained intact.
An outpouring of community support for the time-honored edifice was immediately evident.
A crew from Gene Castro’s Tree Service was on site the next morning and cleared the tree fall from the fragile structure. One large limb had penetrated the roof and it was removed without any further damage to the structure.
On Saturday, October 10, Kathleen McCleary and neighborhood volunteers staffed a booth during the Living History Day celebration at the Three Rivers Historical Museum.
“I want to thank all of the people who made donations; purchased the commemorative shirts, posters, and other items; and shared their love of our beloved ramshackle wooden box,” said Kathleen.
After a carefully executed restoration with like materials by general contractor Aaron Cluck, the structure is once again sound.
A new county-approved shake roof as be installed by Rascon Roofing just in time for the iconic post office to reopen on Monday, November 30, 2015 at 1 p.m., for the usual hour to distribute mail to postal box-holders.
On that day, the tiny Kaweah Post Office resumed what it’s been doing at one location or another since 1890. That’s providing mail service for dozens of patrons who wouldn’t want their mail delivered any other way.
At the time of Walt Disney’s death in 1966, he was leading the charge on building a world-class year-round resort in the Mineral King valley.
Published 20 December 2016, The Kaweah Commonwealth
December 15, 1966, marked an inauspicious event that had major implications for Three Rivers, Mineral King, and, ultimately, Sequoia National Park. On that day, Walt Disney died of lung cancer at the age of 65.
At the time of Disney’s death, he was leading the charge on building a world-class year-round resort in the Mineral King valley. This was going to be the ski resort that showed other ski resorts how it was done. There is no doubt that if this project would have been completed, the Winter Olympics would have been held here.
The Disney proposal eventually pitted environmentalists against developers and, in Three Rivers, neighbor against neighbor. Some residents believed the valley was best left in its current state and others envisioned the dollars that would be pumped into town by the millions of visitors heading up the mountain as well as the winter recreational opportunities that would be just an hour away via state highway.
The U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that had jurisdiction over what was until 1978 the Mineral King National Game Refuge, was backing the Disney plan. Plans for the ski resort included a new 26-mile, all-weather state highway built from Three Rivers to Mineral King, accommodating 2.5 million visitors annually.
The proposal included a behemoth parking structure, up to 10 stories high, a few miles below the valley that would accommodate 3,600 vehicles. Visitors would access the resort and its two dozen ski lifts spanning 13,000 acres via a tramway.
The year-round “Alpine Village” in Mineral King, nicknamed “Disneyland East,” would consist of two hotels with more than 1,000 rooms, dozens of shops, movie theatre, chapel, conference center, a dozen restaurants, ice-skating rink, and heliport, all in a space smaller than Yosemite Valley but providing an estimated 2,500 jobs.
It was back in 1949 that the U.S. Forest Service first issued a prospectus for a ski development with the blessing of the Sierra Club. But it was the lack of a highway to the area that left this project without any bidders.
That is, until Walt Disney first visited Mineral King in 1960. As of 1963, he had begun quietly yet determinedly moving forward on bringing the business of skiing to Mineral King. He hired experts to poke, prod, peruse, and even purchase the islands of private land in the Mineral King area. Over the next two years, nearly 30 acres had been purchased from 18 contingents.
In 1965, upon a request from the County of Tulare, an amendment to the California Legislature’s omnibus highway bill provided a $25 million grant to improve the Mineral King Road. This opened the floodgates, and bidders began vying for the project. The name Disney carried much clout, and in December 1965, he was the selected to be the developer of a $35 million ski resort in Mineral King (in contrast, Disneyland cost about one-third of that price). He now had three years to complete a plan.
Immediately, the snow surveys began. After all, snow was what was needed for a successful ski resort. But it was snow that also led to the demise of the Disney dream.
In September, just three months before his death, Walt Disney held a major press conference in Mineral King on a cold, blustery day. Governor Pat Brown was in attendance, among other dignitaries.
After Disney died on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney Productions, under the direction of Walt’s brother, Roy, doubled down and continued to push forward with the project.
The ongoing snow surveys required that mountaineers reside in the valley during the winter months. The winters of 1966 through 1969 consisted of heavy snow in the Sierra and flooding of the Kaweah River in Three Rivers on multiple occasions.
On February 23, 1969, three avalanches struck the Mineral King valley from all sides — Empire Mountain, Miner’s Ridge, and Potato Patch Ridge, the steep, west-facing slope that towers over the pack station and East Mineral King area. It was the latter avalanche that slammed into the Mineral King Store and the resort cabins where two ski mountaineers, Wally Ballenger and Randy Kletka were housed. Tragically, Kletka, 26, was killed.
The battle for conservation vs. development in Mineral King was fought all the way to the Supreme Court. The Sierra Club, which had initially been in favor of the project, was the plaintiff in the case against the federal government. Ironically, Walt Disney was an honorary life member of the Sierra Club, bestowed with that distinction in 1955 in recognition of Disney’s nature films.
The Sierra Club ultimately lost the case, but the State of California also withdrew its funding for the highway, so the proposal simmered. (There is so much more to this court battle and highway sage that will have to be saved for a future article.)
Down in Three Rivers, there continued to be two factions, for and against the proposed development. Three Rivers had been without a newspaper since 1956 when, in 1972, Jack and Virginia Albee moved to town and founded the Sequoia Sentinel.
The couple was outspoken in their support of the development in Mineral King. As late as August 1976, they published a two-part article submitted by Robert Hicks, a Disney agent for the Mineral King land purchases. The front-page, above-the-fold, headline exclaimed “Disney dream can still be reality …Says Men who should know!” the first week and “Mineral King Myths” the next, disputing a whopping 47 “myths.”
Here is the editor’s note summarizing the article:
The following material on Mineral King was furnished to ‘The Sentinel’ by Robert Hicks of ‘WED Enterprises’ [the private family holding company of Walt Disney] with the cooperation of the Far West Ski Association. It is a factual update of the whole proposal clearly indicating that Disney interests still, to use the venacular [sic], ARE ‘hot to trot’. In short, they would welcome any changes in both Washington, D.C. and Sacramento that would bring about realization of the fascinating dream of the late Walt Disney, who had such a personal viable interest in the whole affair.
These articles were a last-ditch effort to garner public support for the development after it was proposed that Mineral King become a part of Sequoia National Park. In 1978, the legislation introduced by Congressman John Krebs to add Mineral King to Sequoia National Park was signed by President Jimmy Carter. The matter of a ski resort in Mineral King was finally settled more than a decade after Walt Disney’s death.
While this was not to be the end of contention in Mineral King, it forever laid to rest the threat of a major development occurring in this alpine valley.
Like many popularly-accepted community histories, the Three Rivers narrative tends to exclude or marginalize the women, Native Americans, Chinese, and other disenfranchised groups who played important roles in the community. This excellent summary captures this narrative. How would you augment it?
By Sarah Elliott. Published 20 April 2019, 3RNews
When Tulare County was created in 1852, its boundaries encompassed 24,231 square miles from Mariposa County on the north to Los Angeles County on the south and westward to the Coast Range and east to the Utah Territory. Near the geographical center of these far-flung political boundaries was a remote river canyon inhabited by about 2,000 Indians and containing a wealth of natural beauty.
The first white settler arrived in 1856. That man, a cattleman named Hale Dixon Tharp (1829-1912), settled on Horse Creek near its confluence with the Kaweah River (today Lake Kaweah). During the 1860s, other stockmen and ranchers began to locate along the various forks of the Kaweah River. Much of the land being claimed in the area was under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed a settler to occupy 160 acres, or 320 acres for a man and wife.
Early homesteads were located along the South, Middle, and North forks of the Kaweah River. Following the discovery of silver in 1872 and the subsequent creation of the Mineral King Mining District in 1873, a trail built by John Meadows (who later founded Silver City near Mineral King) was extended from the growing foothills community to link with a stock trail that led from Milk Ranch into the Mineral King valley. In 1879, the Meadows Trail was improved to accommodate prospectors and travelers who made their way up the East Fork. This wagon road became known as the Mineral King Road.
On Sept. 9, 1873, Cove School opened, the first school in what was to become known as Three Rivers. It was located in an area known as Cherokee Flat (present-day Cherokee Oaks subdivision). As small settlements grew along each fork of the Kaweah River, other schools were established. In 1927, local voters approved unification and the Three Rivers Union School District was formed. In 1928, a new building was constructed along State Highway 198 and all the local school districts merged into one.
In 1879, the name of Three Rivers was suggested by Louisa (Mrs. Lorenzo) Rockwell, and an application was filed for a post office. The community was so named for the North, South, and Middle forks of the Kaweah River, which converge nearby.
In 1886, the Kaweah Colony was established as a tent camp at Advance on the North Fork. The utopian socialists began to attract attention, both locally and nationwide, with the building of a road to access timber claims in the Giant Forest.
On May 17, 1890, an application for the Kaweah Post Office at Advance was granted. In 1910, the current 10-by-12-foot structure was constructed with a materials cost of about $15 and was moved several times to accommodate its patrons. In 1926, the post office was moved to its present location on North Fork Drive. On Oct. 24, 1948, it was designated a State Historic Landmark.
Having their sights set on Giant Forest timber that included giant sequoia trees, the Kaweah colonists inadvertently fueled a conservation movement that led to the establishment of Sequoia National Park (California’s first national park and the nation’s second) in September 1890. In 1892, internal strife and the failure to procure timber claims contributed to the demise of the Kaweah Colony. Many members packed up and left, but a few of the original colonists and their descendants stayed and settled in Three Rivers.
Travel and Tourism
After Congress established Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers began to cater to an increasing number of visitors to Giant Forest and Mineral King (which was not added to Sequoia National Park until 1978). In 1892, James Barton deeded the North Fork road right-of-way to Tulare County for one dollar, and it was extended to link with the Colony Mill Road, providing public access to the newly created national park.
In 1894, the Britten brothers built the two-story Three Rivers Lodge in the vicinity of the South Fork (later known as Old Three Rivers). In 1897, Noel and Nellie Britten opened the area’s first general merchandise store in that same location.
In 1899, John Broder and Ralph Hopping opened Camp Sierra on the North Fork and guided visitors into the park on horseback. In 1900, they started the first stage line into Sequoia Park, which traveled to road’s end at the old Colony Mill. From there, travelers would walk or ride horseback remaining six miles to Round Meadow in Giant Forest to stay at Broder and Hopping’s camp.
In 1903, the federal government completed a road extension linking the eight-mile segment of Colony Mill Road with Giant Forest. This route remained the main entrance to Sequoia until the completion of State Highway 198 in 1923 and, after five years of construction, the opening of the 18-mile Generals Highway in 1926.
In 1935, the park-to-park highway opened, linking Sequoia National Park with General Grant National Park (which was enlarged and became Kings Canyon National Park in 1940). Also in 1935, the Three Rivers Airport opened, dedicated as Jefferson Davis Field. The one-runway airport closed to air traffic in 1970.
In September 1898, Mount Whitney Power and Electric Company began construction on a flume along the East Fork of the Kaweah River using redwood lumber from Atwell’s Mill near Mineral King and built a hydroelectric power plant (located near the present-day junction of State Highway 198 and Mineral King Road).
On June 29, 1899, when the water first surged through Kaweah No. 1, transformed to energy, and was delivered to Visalia, it was called “an enterprise of mammoth proportions.” On that day, electricity was transmitted a greater distance than had ever been accomplished before anywhere. Ironically, Three Rivers did not benefit immediately from this electrical engineering feat, although it was the settlement closest to the source of the hydroelectric power.
It wasn’t until 1926, after a campaign by the Three Rivers Woman’s Club, that community members had the luxury of electricity to light their homes, provide refrigeration, and irrigate their ranches. In 1905, Kaweah Powerhouse No. 2 (located on present-day Kaweah River Drive) was completed, and in 1913, Kaweah Powerhouse No. 3 (Ash Mountain) was built. Mount Whitney Power and Electric Company was acquired by Southern California Edison in 1917. In 1947, the original redwood flume was replaced with metal siding.
In 1904, the first telephone line was installed in Three Rivers. The “farmer’s phone line” connected Three Rivers residents to each other and to the Valley a decade later. In 1909, Sequoia Hall was built, which became the community civic center. In 1910, Adam Bahwell donated land to the County of Tulare for the creation of the Three Rivers Cemetery.
On Dec. 23, 1955, a 100-year flood on the Kaweah River washed away homes and bridges and marooned many sections of Three Rivers. Downtown Visalia and hundreds of acres of agricultural land downstream also flooded. As a result, in 1962, Terminus Dam was constructed. Lake Kaweah, with a capacity of 150,000 acre-feet, was created to provide downstream flood control and storage for irrigation water supply, as well as recreation and hydropower. In 2004, 450-ton fusegates were installed, the largest in the world, to increase flood protection and storage capacity to 185,000 af.
In 1955, the County of Tulare built the South Fork Fire Station. In 1970, the Three Rivers Community Services District was formed. The government entity was created to monitor water quality and to oversee any other general services necessary for the safety and protection of the unincorporated foothills community of Three Rivers.
Three Rivers has a history of flooding. The last major flood occurred in 1997. As destructive as it was, however, it is likely to be dwarfed by floods of the future.
Published 24 January 2017, The Kaweah Commonwealth
In this era of recurring drought, a flood disaster seems improbable, but it can and will happen again. And with each passing year, the odds become more favorable. All it takes is weather similar to what Kaweah Country experienced in 1938, 1955, 1966, 1969, 1978, 1983, 1986, and 1997.
That weather entails the buildup of a sizable snowpack followed by a series of subtropical storms that produce 10 to 20 inches of rainfall in a short period. How severe the impacts or property damage from the dramatic rise of the river depends on several factors: rainfall per hour, condition of the streambed, and if the ground is already saturated at the time of peak runoff.
Another factor that must be considered today is the thousands of dead trees that exist in and near the Kaweah drainages. In extended periods of heavy rainfall, dead and downed trees enter the rivers as debris, blocking narrow channels and impeding critical areas of flow.
At the time of the 1997 event, Three Rivers had become complacent to the likelihood of a flood. There had not been a significant high water event on the Kaweah River since the 1980s, and even with a building snow pack at 7,000 feet, a flood event in January 1997 did not appear imminent.
These were the pre-digital days, and even the meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Hanford were reluctant to broadcast anything more than the typical regional small stream flood advisories. For a season that was neither an El Nino or a La Nina, a 10-day forecast in those days was far more problematic than it is today.
For the several days previous to January 1997, local weather watchers monitored reports of heavy rainfall occurring in northern California that began December 26. More than 50 recording stations along the coast and in the northern Sierra recorded historic one-day precipitation totals.
Precipitation and storm damage was heaviest throughout Northern California, including Yosemite National Park. A number of stations recorded 15 to 30 inches of rainfall between December 26 and January 3.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, it rained steadily in Three Rivers during the daylight hours with intermittent periods of “heavy at times.” Three to four inches of rain was recorded in the 24 hours ending January 2, and where it mattered most, at 8,500 feet in the nearby mountains, it rained 11 inches in that same period.
Along North Fork Drive, the river rose steadily toward the roadway. Locals who were here in 1955 recall vividly that when the river crosses North Fork Drive, it’s the “Big One.”
No one could actually see the high water when the January 2, 1997, flows peaked at 11 p.m. At approximately 10:50 p.m., a transformer exploded behind Three Rivers Chevron, producing an eerie strobe light effect then all went pitch black as the power short circuited.
Thousands of cubic feet per second of water were rushing down the Middle Fork channel. Downed trees were careening thunderously from side to side in the rapids, and the sound of boulders being moved by the water’s force and crashing into each other echoed ominously through the canyon.
Water, already lapping at the buildings on the north side of Highway 198, was entering the roadway in a torrent next to the Noisy Water and Three Rivers Market. Another stream was flowing down from Reimer’s Candies on the roadway all the way to Three Rivers School. The two rebellious flows threatened to join forces.
There was lots of property damaged but no structures lost. For comparison, the 1955 flood actually swept away a number of riverfront buildings and houses and was estimated to be nearly twice the size of the 1997 flows that peaked at 11 p.m. on January 2.
The inflow at Lake Kaweah that peaked just before midnight was 56,595 cubic feet per second. In 1955, which was pprior to the building of Terminus Dam in 1962, the peak flow was estimated at 98,000 cfs to more than 110,000 cfs.
During the 1997 event, Lake Kaweah added nearly 60,000 acre feet — 40 percent of capacity — in 24 hours. The lake level rose more than five feet an hour.
As daybreak arrived on Friday, Jan. 3, Three Rivers residents and visitors gathered all along the river and at Lake Kaweah’s viewing points, surveying the damage to roads and bridges and watching the high water recede. In the flood’s wake, there was a bathtub-ring pile of debris that included lots of curiosities, including giant sequoia logs that had made their way down from Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park.
The experts continue to debate whether 1997 was a 30- or 50-year event and even whether 1955 was truly a 100-year event. At any rate, floods will always be a part of Kaweah Country, past, present, and future.
It’s not if these historic events will occur but when.
The Mineral King Room in the Three Rivers Historical Museum displays artifacts and murals that tell the history of Mineral King and the impact it has had–both locally and nationally.
This article is a compilation of two articles written by John and Sarah Elliott for 3RNews in January 2017, with editorial an editorial update in April 2021.
The Mineral King Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986, curates the Mineral King room, which house artifacts, documents, photographs, and so much more that relate to the fascinating, sometimes tumultuous, history of the Mineral King valley. This history had an significant impact on the region and the nation.
The Mineral King Room is located at the Three Rivers Historical Museum, 42268 Sierra Drive. When there is no pandemic or other intervening force, it is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and admission is free.
Part 1: Mineral King
Mineral King is located 25 miles and 90 minutes from Highway 198 in Three Rivers via the windy, narrow, sometimes hair-raising Mineral King Road. The road is open from the Memorial Day weekend into October. It is closed nine miles up during the winter months.
From geologic formations to indigenous peoples, mining to summer recreation, U.S. Forest Service to National Park Service, lumber industry to cattle-grazing and stock-packing, national game refuge to Walt Disney’s ski resort to John Krebs Wilderness, Mineral King has an abundance of stories to tell. And the history of Three Rivers and Mineral King is intertwined and has been for 150 years.
The first road through Three Rivers led to Mineral King. Three Rivers was a way station and stage stop for the miners and prospectors, lumbermen, stockmen, and others who were searching for riches or to simply eke out a living in the alpine valley. From here, it could take another arduous two days of travel to reach this high-country destination.
It is difficult to overstate the role of Mineral King in shaping both regional and national history.
The Mineral King mining rush was instrumental in development of the nation’s precious metal monetization policies. The mining rush orchestrators directly influenced the market value of silver at a time when the world was transitioning to the gold standard and reeling under the effects of the first global depression.
The woman’s enfranchisement movement coalesced there when women prospected and claimed mines decades before they did so elsewhere, and when woman voted in the mining district elections 35 years before gaining the right to vote in California and 44 years before gaining that right nationally. In doing so, they tested the new Mining Law of 1872 and paved the way for women to own mines throughout the United States.
The Mineral King Road provided the initial access to Sequoia National Park when it was created, and hosted the 4th Cavalry troops assigned to protect the new park from livestock. Mineral King had a substantial influence on the development of National Forest and National Park livestock policies.
At the end of the 19th century, the waters and giant sequoias of Mineral King were harvested to provide the first electrical power to the great valley, power that was essential to irrigating crops and transporting them to market. This power helped establish the San Joaquin Valley as “the bread basket of the world.”
In the 1960s and 1970s Mineral King was the center of a battle between environmentalists and the federal government and Walt Disney Corporation, which proposed to build a year-round resort there. The legal outcomes have helped guide and motivate the forces for conservation throughout the nation and the world.
Today, the Mineral King area includes several historic cabin communities, including Silver City and Cabin Cove. Most of the structures date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The settlements as a whole are referred to as the “Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape District,” which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Ora Kay Peterson, who was a founder in 1986 and executive director of MKPS until her death in 2010, realized the importance of collecting artifacts and archives while sharing the history of Mineral King with the public. In 1987, a MKPS display of some of its earliest museum-quality pieces became part of a display that for many years was housed in the Mineral King Ranger Station.
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, MKPS gathered historical information relating to Mineral King and assisted the National Park Service in finding a way to preserve the cabin community and the district’s cultural resources. That landmark research and grassroots movement culminated in 2003 with the official National Register of Historic Places designation of the Mineral King Road Cultural Landscape.
The Mineral King Room features rotating displays that will highlight items from the MKPS collection that will help the public and especially those whose lives have been touched by this magical place to better understand the remarkable history and its preservation.
The displays tell the tale of prehistoric occupation, the discovery of Mineral King by pioneer settlers, the road-building, the mining, the cabins, the trails, the dams, the Disney era, and how the area became a part of Sequoia National Park. Mineral King’s historic structures and sites include mines and mills from the 1870s, a road constructed in 1879, lumbering sites (ca. 1870-1890), Mt. Whitney Power Company dams (1904-1906), and the cabins, which date from 1895 to the 1950s.
Part 3: Mineral King Room History
From humble beginnings more than 30 years ago, the Mineral King Room is a dream that has become a reality.
On Sunday, 22 January 2017, the Mineral King Preservation Society (MKPS) and the Three Rivers Historical Society (TRHS), along with a throng of celebrants, cut the ceremonial ribbon officially opening the Mineral King Room. The Mineral King Room, now the home for archives and artifacts that were donated to and collected by MKPS since its inception in 1986, became recently a joint undertaking of MKPS and the local Historical Society.
Key members of both historical groups were joined for the ribbon cutting by Kuyler Crocker, District 1 supervisor, and Bob Hicks, a former agent for Walt Disney, who donated his personal archives detailing the Disney Company’s unsuccessful efforts (1965-1978) to transform Mineral King from a national forest game preserve to world-class ski resort.
Louise Jackson of Three Rivers, a Crowley cabin descendant and among the founding members of MKPS, said it has been her dream for the past 16 years to see the MK Room become a reality in Three Rivers.
“Creating a place where the public could learn about the colorful history of Mineral King was a big part of why I moved to Three Rivers,” Jackson explained.
Jackson, who more than any individual is responsible for the getting the MK Room opened, said she could not have done it without the help of Tom Marshall and his vision as the president of TRHS.
“The Room is open now, although at times I seriously wondered if this project would ever get to this point,” said Louise. “For me, it is truly a labor of love, and this opening is only the beginning. There is so much more than needs to be done.”
Louise’s brother, Bruce Jackson, who donated the cost of the construction ($130,000), and a host of others who earmarked funds and labor for the building of the MK Room, were instrumental in the Three Rivers museum’s annex becoming a reality.
In October 2015, construction was started by Pete Crandall, general contractor; it was completed in the fall of 2016. Donations by Hicks and many others will make it possible to maintain the 768-square-foot room and also the rest of the MKPS collection, which is housed on the Three Rivers site in a climate-controlled storage unit.
The Three Rivers Woman’s Club is the community’s oldest service organization. Founded in 1916, the women have been instrumental over the years for several community accomplishments, including ensuring electricity was available for Three Rivers residents ca. 1920; restoring Tharp’s Log (1923) in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park, today a popular visitor attraction; operating The Thingerie thrift shop since 1980; and providing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to academic scholarships and civic projects.
Published 28 March 2016, The Kaweah Commonwealth
“Our club began as a sewing group that met in the homes of the members,” began Wilma Kauling as she recited the 100-year history of the Three Rivers Woman’s Club.
This was one of many highlights during the club’s Centennial Celebration held Sunday, March 20, in commemoration of the founding of the club in March 1916. The dinner was held at St. Anthony Retreat with nearly 200 people in attendance.
“How many of you enjoyed the wine tonight?” Wilma asked. “Well, it wasn’t always that way. The Three Rivers Woman’s Club unanimously supported Prohibition.”
A lot has changed since that dry period from 1920 to 1933. In fact, at the dinner, the Woman’s Club had its own custom label on the Cacciatore wine with multiple bottles placed on every table. And they sold bottles of the keepsake wine for $8.
As evidenced, Woman’s Club members enjoy a good time. But they work hard too.
Over the years, they have donated well over $500,000 to community projects, including the academic scholarships they award annually to hardworking high school students.
The Club has provided financial assistance over the past century to many facets of civic improvement, as well as lobbied successfully to bring electricity to Three Rivers when before there was none, begin PTA groups at Sulphur Springs and Three Rivers schools, have the painted line installed down the center of the main highway through town, and establish the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce.
Club members have also accomplished some special projects of their own such as restoring Tharps Log in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park; installing the original sign at the Veterans Memorial Building listing local residents serving in World War II; and, in 1922, planting a giant sequoia — the Club’s official emblem — in the yard of then-president Nellie Britten (located on South Fork Drive about a half-mile from its intersection with Highway 198).
A home of their own— The Club intended to transplant the tree when they secured a clubhouse, but for unknown reasons, the tree was never relocated. A plaque was installed at the tree in 1996, part of the Club’s 80-year anniversary celebration.
Just two years after the giant sequoia was planted, the Club was bequeathed a clubhouse, which is what they wanted more than anything. Upon her death in 1924, Anna McMullin Hays specified that her home be donated to the Club.
For the next 40 years, the members of the Club worked diligently on the remodeling, upkeep, and maintenance of this property that today is the Three Rivers Arts Center on North Fork Drive. But it was determined that too much of their funds and time was going into keeping the clubhouse in operating shape, so in 1965 the home was given back to the Hays descendants and meetings began being held at the Three Rivers Memorial Building, where the Club gathers to this day.