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.

Detail of the Thompson 1992 atlas, p. 46.

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.

Daily Delta (Visalia), 13 November 1892, p. 1.

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.”

Daily Morning Delta, 17 August 1894, p. 1.

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.

This thirsty cyclist, Philip Alles, stopped off in 1907 for some refreshment at the Bahwell Saloon (then purportedly Dave Carter’s place.). The more times change the more they remain the same. Three Rivers Historical Society photo

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 

over stones

Or rolls thru pools with 

soothing undertows.

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.


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

The iconic view that has lured many to settle in Three Rivers, Calif., over the years.

Early Settlement

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.

The Kaweah River, and the availability of year-round water, also made Three Rivers an attractive place to settle.

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.

The historic Kaweah Post Office.

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.

The Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park is little changed since 1926.

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.

Vital Services

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.

The devastation of the 1955 flood.

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

Flood on the Kaweah River, January 2, 1997 (Photograph by Tony Caprio from TBWI)

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.

Part 2: Mineral King Displays

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

Participating in the ceremonial ribbon-cutting of the Mineral King Room on Sunday, Jan. 24, were (from left to right): Robert Hicks, former Mineral King manager for the Disney Company; Jim Barton, whose great-grandfather built the first cabin in Mineral King in 1873; Tom Marshall (back), president of the Three Rivers Historical Society; Kuyler Crocker, District 1 supervisor; Louise Jackson, MKPS/Mineral King Room coordinator; and Jim Ingram, MKPS vice president.

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.

The Bequette House symbolizes a century and a half of hospitality and land stewardship. Even more so, it symbolizes community– a community that the house still helps sustain.

This article is a compilation of two articles written by John and Sarah Elliott for The Kaweah Commonwealth on July 14, 2014 and 3RNews on May 17, 2017, with historical background added by Laile Di Silvestro in April 2021.

The Bequette House rests on a hillside next to the Three Rivers Historical Museum, overlooking the community gatherings and festivities that take place below, as well as the thousands of Sequoia National Park visitors that stop by each year to rest and seek the story of the locale. 

Built in 1926, the house sits on land occupied by the Wukchumni Yokuts for at least 3000 years. Euro-American settlers arrived in the mid 1800s, and by the mid 1870s the land now holding the Bequette House overlooked the Mineral King Road, which  extended from Visalia to Mineral King during the mining rush of 1873-1883. At that time, an immigrant named Adam Bahwell and his wife Nancy acquired the land and constructed what is believed to have been the first public saloon in what was to become Three Rivers.

The land that holds the Bequette House also holds a story of tragedy and romance, and perhaps a share of uninhibited debauchery.

Part 1: The Bahwells

Adam Bahwell was a Hessian, born in 1830 in Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire. He left the Grand Duchy of Hesse in 1846, and was in California in 1847– preceding the earliest members of the California Gold Rush.  Inevitably, he joined the rush and was living in the immigrant district of Calaveras in 1850 with two brothers from Mexico.

It is uncertain if he struck it rich; however, by 1859 he was in Tulare County. In 1860, he was penniless, living with a roommate in Visalia, and working as a wheelwright.

Two of his defining characteristics soon became clear, however. He was a shrewd businessman and women were not necessarily averse to his company. He married the 18-year-old Nancy Atlantic Stephenson in about 1861, and they commenced building a large family and business empire throughout Tulare County.

Nancy Atlantic Stephenson Bahwell (standing) with her mother Lydia Smith Stephenson Flagg, her niece Mary Blincoe, and her sister Armilda Josephine Stephenson Blincoe. Date unknown.

It is uncertain when the Bahwells acquired the land on which the Bequette House now stands. The official records indicate that the family lived in Visalia until 1880, when they moved to the property. We can assume that they had acquired the land at least a year or two earlier, and moved there only when there was a comfortable house for Adam, Nancy, and their six surviving children. Both the records and an obituary indicate that the family returned to their home in Visalia in 1881, however, and moved to Three Rivers permanently a few years later after they had added two more children their family.  

The Bahwells established an orange grove and plant nursery on the property, and used it as a stopover when herding their sheep into the mountains for summer pasture.

Daily Morning Delta, 17 August 1894 (front page)

At some point, the Bahwells set up a hospitality business on the property. The earliest known references to it date from 1892 when the store was noted on a map. That same year, four soldiers from the 4th Cavalry assigned to protect the new Sequoia National Park partook in a drunken brawl at Bahwell’s, and one received serious cuts on his backside.

At the end of 1892  Nancy died, but Adam and the children kept the hospitality business alive.

By 1894, the Adam and his children were hosting boarders and feeding people on their way to Mineral King for a summer respite. That year they entered into a price war with the neighboring Blossom family, which had just set up a liquor and food stand on the side of the Mineral King road. The price of beer dropped from 40 cents to 10 cents a bottle!

By 1900, Adam considered his enterprise a veritable hotel, and his primary occupation that of hotel keeper. He died in 1901, and the land went to his son Charles Franklin before being acquired by John Allen MacKinnon and his wife Bessie in 1909. It appears to have been a “friends and family” transaction. Bessie was a Three Rivers resident and the daughter of Water Fry. Fry was  a civilian ranger for Sequoia National Park and a close friend of the Bahwells. As testament to their friendship, when  Charley Bahwell had a diabetic emergency in 1915, the Frys cared for him in their home until he died.

Part 2: The Bequettes

In the late 1840s and 1850s, an extended family of Bequettes migrated west from Missouri to join the  gold rush in northern California. There the Bequette family settled and grew until several members migrated south to Tulare County in 1857. They put down roots in the Farmersville area where they amassed large quantities of land and eventually entered into the world of high finance as self-described capitalists.

When the Mineral King mining rush commenced in 1873, however, the Bequettes couldn’t resist.

Paschal Bequette Sr. (1806-1879), his son Paschal Jr. (1845-1925), and his nephews, the brothers Charles Clovis (1834-1916) and Cyprian Ladislas Bequette (1825-1875) made their way to Mineral King in June of 1874. Rather than prospect the slopes and canyons surrounding the Mineral King valley, however, they climbed over Farewell Gap. There they established Bullion City.

Although there is no record that the Bequette woman partook in the mining, women did live in Bullion City. One such woman was Harriett Hill (1834-1887), who became the first woman to sign her name on a mine claim in the Mineral King Mining District at a time when female ownership of mine claims was extremely rare. Perhaps as an indication of their progressive outlook, the Bequettes partnered with Harriet.

Although the Bequette family actively mined the area until the mid 1880s, the untimely death of Cyprian Ladislas in 1875 ended his branch’s involvement in mining. The family’s attachment to the area didn’t end, however. They established a ranch in the Lemon Cove area, and in 1924, Cyprian’s great grandson Bruce fell in love with a Three Rivers girl. She was Jessie Agatha MacKinnon, the granddaughter of Sequoia National Park superintendent Walter Fry, and the inheritor of the Bahwell land.

Photo of Bruce’s father Cyprien Lamlieslan Bequette (1875-1911), circa 1887. Cyprien was born the year his grandfather Cyprian, co-founder of Bullion City, died. The photographer was E.M. Davidson of Visalia. (Courtesy of Peter Neeley)

Part 3: Jessie’s Story

The following is excerpted from “A History of Woodlake Union High School – The Woodlake 11: Class of 1924,” by John Elliott (published in 1994, in cooperation with the Three Rivers Historical Society).

Jessie Agatha MacKinnon Bequette: I was born September 11, 1906, in the Pollasky Depot in Fresno. My parents, John and Bessie MacKinnon, lived in a small apartment upstairs. My father was employed by the San Joaquin Valley Railroad.

In 1907, we moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, where my father homesteaded a wheat farm. My mother later told me that the winters were so cold there that the milk would freeze when it was rushed from the barn to the house.

After two years of hard times, we moved home to Three Rivers [where her mother Bessie Fry MacKinnon was raised]. We lived for a time with my grandparents, Walter and Sarah Fry, while our house was being built a mile or so south of their place [on the old Bahwell property].

In 1910, we moved into our new house. It was the nicest home in Three Rivers and, I think, the only one with an inside bathroom. That was the same year my sister, Edith, was born in Fresno. 

That wonderful home burned in a tragic fire in August 1914. My father died in that fire trying to save the family piano [a wedding gift from John to Bessie].

My [pregnant] mother, too depressed to stay in Three Rivers, moved with Edith to Tulare. That was the time, when I was seven years old, that my grandfather, Walter Fry, took charge of my upbringing. [She was living there when Charley Bahwell died in the house under Walter’s care.]

Some of my fondest memories are the Sequoia National Park inspection tours made on horseback as a youngster with Grandpa Fry. Each summer, we would start up the South Fork, crossing Hockett Meadow northward via the Tar Gap trail to the Montgomery cabin in Mineral King.

My first trip up the Colony Mill Road, the main route to Giant Forest before the completion of Highway 198 and Generals Highway in the 1920s, was in Grandpa’s Model T. Grandpa bought his first auto through the mail and learned to drive in his 40-acre pasture [near present-day Hawk Hollow Drive]. 

It was wonderful living at Grandpa’s house. It was the heartbeat of Three Rivers. There were lots of bedrooms; one on the first floor was his office while he was superintendent of Sequoia National Park [Walter Fry was the first non-Cavalry superintendent of Sequoia, 1912-1920].

The second story was a large, open room. It was great for parties and dancing.

I went to Sulphur Springs School from 1912 until 1920. The school was located north of the main river on what was then the Ogilvie ranch. We walked to school, crossing the river on a footbridge.

In all my high school memories, Senior Sneak Day [1924] had the biggest impact on my life. That was the day we put the big “W” on the hill above Woodlake, then went to Terminus Beach [present-day Terminus Dam at Lake Kaweah] for a picnic. 

On that day, I noticed a handsome fellow named Bruce Bequette, who was playing golf nearby. Bruce had graduated from Woodlake High School in 1919, so he joined our class at the picnic.

Six months later, I married that man. We first lived at the Pogue Hotel in Lemon Cove [present-day Lemon Cove Women’s Clubhouse]. Bruce later got a job in Sequoia National Park. We had 43 wonderful years together.

* * *

In 1926, Bruce and Jessie built their Three Rivers home on the old Bahwell property where Jessie’s parents’ home had been.

Following, perhaps unknowingly, the course set by the Bahwells, they established hospitality services. They built an adjacent structure that became Bequette’s Gift Shop (1953-1967). There was also a gas station and a plant nursery where, during Bruce’s National Park Service career, he worked on a botanical project that shipped giant sequoia seedlings for experimental planting throughout the world.

In 1967, Bruce died suddenly from a heart attack. Jessie closed the gift shop and it remained vacant until 1975. That year  it  was purchased by Jeanette Barton, Jane Cheney, and Nancy Campe and became Mountain Arts, a gift shop and weaving store, for the next 20 years. In 1996, the business was sold and became Gallery 198 for one year. For the past 20 years, it has been, fittingly, the home of the Three Rivers Historical Museum.

Jessie resided in her little white house on the hill for 68 years, moving to Visalia in 1994 at the age of 87 to be near one of her nieces.

She and Bruce never had children.

Jessie died in Visalia on April 9, 2010.

Part 4: Preservation

The Three Rivers Historical Society purchased the 2.5-acre Bequette property in 2012. Since that time, the home has been under renovation.

Currently, it is in the process of being furnished with period pieces, including some of the Bequettes’ belongings, donated by nieces Joan Thomsen and Rachel Caggiano (Edith MacKinnon Perry’s daughters).

Three of Jessie’s dolls from childhood are in a glass case. A hutch in the dining area contains the couple’s Depression glass. A roll-top desk belonged to Jessie’s mother, Bessie; a barrister’s bookcase was Walter Fry’s. A treadle sewing machine belonged to Jessie’s sister, Edith Perry.

There is also a wood cookstove, a spinning wheel, and household furnishings. Still to come will be several themed gardens and a bathroom. The house will be available for group events and artist’s exhibits.

On the grounds, plans include the construction of a two-story barn, in addition to the new replica of the old Bahwell Saloon (the first public watering hole in Three Rivers) and a public-restroom facility.

This massive undertaking would not have been successful without the help of the community of Three Rivers. More than five dozen individuals donated time and/or money to the restoration, as well as public agencies and local businesses.

The house arose out of  a community and sheltered people that helped hold that community together and keep it firmly attached to its roots. The Bequette house continues to bring community together, both to gather within its walls and to preserve it and its story.

Settling in Three Rivers 140 years ago

There were houses built in Three Rivers, Calif., before it, but none have outlasted the ranch house on North Fork Drive that was built in 1880. And, in that time, the oldest home in Three Rivers, located at the confluence of the Kaweah River’s Middle and North forks, has been owned by just two families — the Bartons, then the Pierces.

Part One: The Builders

This segment was written by Sarah Elliott, whose paternal great-great-grandfather built the house.

On April 30, 1865, the Barton family left Davenport, Iowa, and began their 2,000-mile journey by covered wagon across the plains. 

James and Susan Barton and their nine children — ranging in age from 22 years to nine months — arrived September 6 in the California mining town of Columbia, where they met up with James’s younger brother, Stephen, who had come West in 1854.

The Bartons stayed in the Mother Lode mining region for just a month before heading south to Visalia. In his possession, James had a land grant for 120 acres that had been given to his father in partial payment for his service in the War of 1812.

Upon location of the parcel, situated west of Elderwood, son Hudson later said: “A poorer piece of ground we couldn’t have found.”

The family then homesteaded in the Auckland area, in the foothills north of present-day Elderwood. It was here where their 11th child, Milton Montgomery “Mont” Barton, was born on Feb. 14, 1867. 

James and Susan later moved to Three Rivers after their son, Orlando (1847-1917), had acquired some property on the North Fork in 1878. They lived in a log cabin along the North Fork river near present-day Kaweah River Drive until they completed their ranch house in 1880.

James Barton, 1819-1912

James was a member of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors for 17 years. He would walk to and from Three Rivers to attend the meetings in Visalia, a distance of 35 miles one way.

In 1888, Mont married Harriet “Hattie” DeMasters. The Barton house and 120 acres were subsequently deeded to Mont.

On Sept. 16, 1910, Mont was tragically killed while installing the first electric irrigation pumps in the area for the Elderwood Citrus Development Company, owned in part by his brother, Jason. The commercial use of electricity was largely untried and Mont’s electrocution was caused by a lethal combination of water, electrical lines, and a misinterpreted signal that caused a switch to be thrown too soon. He was the first person to be buried in the newly established Three Rivers Cemetery.

Susan Barton died Jan. 19, 1912, on the couple’s 69th wedding anniversary, at the age of 88. Less than eight months later, on Sept. 1, 1912, James died at the age of 93 at his beloved Three Rivers ranch. Both are buried in the Three Rivers Cemetery. Hattie and her youngest of four children, daughter Lois, left the Three Rivers ranch and resided in Elderwood. In 1920, when Lois was 12, they moved to San Jose where Hattie felt she could ensure a better education for her daughter. 

Lois was the first in the family to graduate college, earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Stanford University.

James and Susan Barton are my great-great-grandparents. They are the first of what has now been six generations of Bartons to reside in Three Rivers, all on land originally owned by them or their children.

* * *

The next owners of this historic ranch house were James and Julia Pierce, beginning in 1911. Today, the property continues to be owned by Pierce descendants.

Part Two: The New Owners

This segment was written by Juanita Tolle (1931-2017), who lived on the ranch with her mother and grandparents from the age of three months until she was 12.

My grandfather, James H. Pierce, was an oil company superintendent in Coalinga. In 1910, he and his wife, Julia, made a vacation trip to Giant Forest.

They traveled to Lemon Cove by train then made the trip up the North Fork road by horse-drawn stage. The stage stopped at the Mont Barton ranch for lunch. The North Fork road passed directly in front of the ranch house.

Juanita Tolle, 1931-2017

(The front of the ranch house faces the river and the North Fork road used to pass within 30 feet of the front door. In 1892, the roadway was moved down slope from the house and closer to the river. As buggies gave way to cars, and cars began to travel faster, this curvy section of road — known as Pierce’s Corner — became notorious for traffic accidents. The road was rerouted in the 1980s and today crosses the ranch behind the house.)

James and Julia fell in love with the ranch and the area. Due to the untimely death of Mont Barton, the Barton family was in the mood to sell, so a deal was made. A deed was recorded June 13, 1911, which transferred the property from Milton M. Barton, et al., to James Henry Pierce. 

In the years prior to the formation of the National Park Service in 1916, the U.S. Cavalry came each summer to supervise Sequoia National Park. The troops rode up the North Fork road right in front of the ranch house.

The Hengst family’s cattle were also driven past the ranch house each year on their way to summer forage in the high country. Imagine the dust, bellowing cattle, and shouting cowboys. 

Redwood logs that had washed downriver in the flood of 1867 provided ample wood for picket fences that demarcated much of the ranch property. Some sections of this fence remain today.

  My grandparents used kerosene lamps to light the house. They cooked on a woodstove — inside in the winter and outside under the grape arbor in the summer. Many a delicious meal was created and served from this woodstove, which is still in the house today along with a supplementary electric stove. The other heat source in the house was the fireplace in the living room. The fireplace had a granite slab as a hearth, a brick-and-mortar chimney, and cast-iron owl andirons to hold the logs.

At bedtime, the family carried hot flatirons or heated rocks wrapped in newspaper to warm their beds in the cold bedrooms. The remainder of the nightly fire was covered with ashes to provide hot coals to start the next morning’s fire.

The foundation of the house includes large flat granite rocks plus occasional sturdy redwood posts to share the burden of weight. A second story was added to the house for more bedroom space, but studs for support were not included.

The upper rooms and porch shake a bit, which adds to the charm of the house.

The kitchen floor creaks and slants, but holds an oak table that can be extended to seat 20 people. Over the years, other floors and doors have sagged and have been shored up by helpful neighbors.

The original paint on the house was maroon with green trim, but little evidence of this remains today. The screened-porch doors were added in 1915 and have been patched with various bits of board over the years.

The plan for domestic water was well thought out. A good spring a half mile up the North Fork road was boxed with redwood and a small iron pipe was laid in the Brundage ditch to keep the spring water cool in the summer and safe from freezing in the winter.

There was another spring below the house enclosed by granite boulders that later became a water supply for the house. The Pierces named their property Rock Spring Ranch.

Mont Barton had built a flume to the washing area to run a waterwheel that operated a washing machine. 

We had a three-hole outhouse outside the fence beyond the big walnut tree, complete with spiders and the Montgomery Ward catalog.

The ranch house had an inside bathroom with a claw-foot bathtub. We had no hot water heater so water was heated on the stove. 

A large copper kettle made in Pennsylvania was left behind by the Barton family. Grandmother Pierce used it to scald butchered hogs, made soap in it during World War I, and boiled clothes in it. The kettle was later professionally polished and has been a treasure in our family.

We had a telephone on the back porch. To make a call, we cranked the phone to reach the local operator, who was Rena (Alles) Ogilvie during my childhood. Rena would either connect the caller with the person they were calling or, in many cases, could tell you where they were: “She’s up visiting the Petersons” or “They went to town this morning,” etc.

With the ranch, the Pierces inherited fruit orchards that included several acres of apple varieties, citrus, olives, peaches, plums, apricots, pears, nectarines, quince, persimmons, and pomegranates. In the fall, Jim and Julia stayed busy selling apples and cider along with the Savages, Taylors, and Mehrtens.

A large walnut tree outside the kitchen and an almond tree provided annual crops of tasty nuts. As the apple orchards diminished, the orange and grapefruit harvest became the main income.

Jim and Julia Pierce developed a beautiful flower garden of roses, irises, Matilija poppies, zinnias, jasmine, and many other favorites. At one time, Julia had 75 different varieties of iris in her garden. When the irises were in bloom, her garden would be advertised in the Visalia newspaper as a place to visit.

An earth cellar was built under the ranch house. In the winter, melons, cabbages, apples, and squash were stored there. Grandmother Pierce canned dozens of jars of canned fruit during the summer that were stored on the cellar shelves and provided tasty desserts during the winter.

The family had a Jersey cow named “Old Pet,” who produced pans of whole milk that were cooled in the cellar. This milk provided rich cream for churning butter, milk to drink, and to make ice cream in the summer.

To make the ice cream, the family drove their wagon six miles to the Hammond powerhouse to secure 100 pounds of block ice. The ice was wrapped in newspaper and made a cool seat on the ride home.

Part Three: The Pierce family

This segment was written by Juanita Tolle.

My uncle, Bruce, and aunt Mary were born in Three Rivers, joining their two sisters, Frances and Elizabeth (my mother).

Grandmother Pierce was a teacher (graduate of Wilson College in Pennsylvania) and home-schooled her children during the early elementary grades. Then they all went to Sulphur Springs School (today, the private residence with a bell tower on the south end of Kaweah River Drive) and Woodlake High School. My mother attended UCLA for two years.

I lived on the ranch from the age of three months to 12 years (1932 to 1945) with Mother and Grandmother Julia. Uncle Bruce was there until he left to attend Stanford University to obtain a degree in Mining Engineering and, later, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Aunt Mary was with us until she entered training at the Stanford School of Nursing and later served as an Army nurse in World War II.

Frances had married in 1931 and was living in Washington with her husband.

My mother worked in Visalia and Grandmother Julia (“Nana”) was my primary caretaker. She was an intelligent, dignified, courageous lady with a wonderful sense of humor.

Grandfather Pierce left the ranch in the late 1930s because severe allergies and asthma were severely affecting his health. He lived in Hermosa Beach and later in Banning, where he found the desert climate the most compatible for his health.

In the late 1930s, the back porch was enlarged and screened in to accommodate a wringer washing machine and a flush toilet, and still serves these purposes today. At the time, this was a big step forward in family convenience.

At age 60, Grandmother obtained her California teaching certificate and taught at the CCC camps in Three Rivers for several years. She found this role very rewarding as many of the young men could not read or write and were very grateful to her for teaching them these skills. Her last teaching assignment was in a two-room country school south of Tipton (Hanby School).

Grandmother Julia was creative in arranging transportation for herself between her job assignments and the ranch as she never learned to drive a car. She continued to manage the ranch affairs with help from Bruce, my mother, and local handymen, living there until her death in May 1948.

My mother remarried in December 1944 and we moved to Morro Bay in 1945. After Grandmother Julia died, mother looked for someone to rent the ranch house and oversee the property.

Dale and Virginia Williams rented the house for 18 years (Virginia was a former publisher of the Three Rivers Current newspaper in the 1950s). After they built their own home on Kaweah River Drive, Joe Doctor (the late Tulare County historian and author) and his family rented the house for several years.

Eventually, Joe’s daughter, Julie Doctor, became the primary renter for several more years. When Julie built her own house just upriver and moved into it, she was successful in finding a willing caretaker to live in and care for the ranch house.

Billy Hancock is the current caretaker and has proved to be a very satisfactory, caring occupant. Julie still oversees the property and pastures her horses there.

After Grandmother’s death, the ranch was divided amongst the four children. Frances and Mary gave up their shares to Bruce’s wife, Helen, and her sister, Charlotte.

Mother and I shared a quarter interest, even though Mother did the lion’s share of the business affairs. After Bruce’s death, Helen and Charlotte wanted to sell the ranch property, and all but 8.04 acres was sold in the early 1980s.

Helen retained her share for her two children. I later bought out Charlotte, so the current ownership is Helen Pierce, 50 percent, and me, 50 percent.

The property sale was a very painful process for me because I love this ranch so much. My fond memories are too numerous to include here.

The river is still one of my favorite spots. Many summer hours were spent in the river, diving for rocks and enjoying the cool relief from the summer heat. Mother and I shared a bedroom and the sound of the river lulled us to sleep each night.

Unfortunately, more recent floods have drastically changed the configuration of the “swimming pool” in front of the ranch house, and the main river has intruded into the North Fork.