Landmarks on Washington Street

by Ora Moss Morgan

Another landmark along Washington Street has disappeared – the removal of the second-story porches on what was known as the Keil Building in the yesterdays – later Elsebree’s Corner. Somehow we have affectionate memories of these places and their passing causes a nostalgic twinge.

The Keil Saloon was the second door from the corner, and his home with large front porch, was built upstairs. It was the custom in the early days for families to live in the rear of their stores or business places – this was both economy and convenience. On Summer evenings the families would gather – sitting on benches and chairs on the sidewalks along the street. Later on, some built homes over their business houses – and there were several of them along Washington Street.

On the park corner was the Parsons Saloon with the home and porch upstairs. What delightful gathering places on Summer evenings! There were lovely daughters in both the Keil and Parsons homes and always groups of young people around. Both Keil and Parsons families were staunch pioneer stock and played a big part in Sonora’s early day history. We have missed these old friends – the girls I walked with “only yesterday”.

The old City Hotel had a lovely upstairs front porch beautifully shaded by elm trees; here crowds gathered on the 4th of July and other big days to watch the parade, races and other events; the old Victoria (now Sonora Inn) had two long porches upstairs that were popular gathering places during celebrations.

Oh, yes – porches were in style in those days – and wasn’t there something friendly and homey about them – Nowadays we must “hide away” to a patio in the back yard where we can have privacy and seclusion.

I remember the front porch of my childhood home – fairly covered with vines – climbing white jasmine and Madera vines – both so fragrant – where have they all gone? We never see them anymore. After supper we all sat on the front porch – sometimes we could hear crickets chirping and frogs in the creek nearby. There were not so many diversions in those days – and besides there were home loving hearts and togetherness.

I must not forget the old Eichelroth home on north Washington Street and the wide sweeping porch close to the sidewalk. The same old-time gathering place on Summer evenings. A pretty, rambling house with flower garden, and nearby, the Doctor’s office.

Oh yes, our town is growing modern and up-to-date – we would not have it otherwise – we love progress – we love new things – but there is something in the passing of these old landmarks savoring of the sweet and simple long ago that give us a pang.

Churches

by Mae Bromley McHahon

A doctor’s wife was suppose to be active socially, in church and civic duties. Mother was an active member of the Methodist church. I was baptized there and went to Sunday School.

Sonora had a number of churches. The Episcopal Church everyone who comes to Sonora sees at the top of Washington Street, where it forks at Snell Street. I remember at Easter the members of the Masonic Order with their dark hats with white plumes and dark suits would march up there to attend services.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was on a hill. Coming into Sonora on Highway 108 you can see the white cross on it steeple.

The Methodist Church is near the old Courthouse on Yaney Street near the Catholic Church and facing Norlin Street. I have heard this part of town was called Piety Hill

I had Methodist, Episcopalian and Catholic friends.

There was quite a bit of intolerance and bigotry. My Sunday school teacher said Catholic’s were sinners because they worshipped idols, quoting the Bible story of the people worshipping the Golden Calf. This even carried over at school; some children being very unkind. One little girl was in tears because, being a sweet Catholic child, they made fun of her and said she would have to kiss the Pope’s feet. Also there were lots of rumors that oftentimes a tunnel was dug connecting the nun’s quarters with the monastery. All in all the priest sis not like ministers and ministers returned the non-affection.

The churches tried to entertain their young people. There were after-school meetings at the Methodist Church with chocolate and coolies. I hope most of us didn’t go just for the chocolate and coolies. On Sunday evenings the Christian Endeavor had meetings for the young high school students. It was one way to meet their girl or boy friends. My Episcopal friends invited me often to their parties in the hall behind the church. They allowed dancing which the Methodists did not approve of.

I will never forget the wonderful Catholic picnics. Father Patrick Guerin owned some land on t he road past the Catholic Cemetery. There was a big pavilion there where they had dances after other festivities were ended in the evening. In the morning a King and Queen were crowned to reign over the affair. Once Lorena Hartvig was queen and another time Laura Morse Hardin. Alice Fahey was queen too. Frank Baker was king once.

They sold all kinds of goodies, ice cream, coolies and enchiladas. I never had quite enough money for the enchiladas. I can still see now how good they looked, and after walking all the way out there I was hungry.

The Methodists had picnic too. They were sometimes on the fields opposite the Sonora Plaza. I loved to pick the dainty trembling grass that grew in the shadiest spots. These picnics weren’t nearly as impressive as the Catholic picnic but they were lots of fun.

Our Courthouse

by Pat Perry

Tuolumne County was established as one of California’s original 27 counties on February 18, 1850, with Sonora as the County Seat. Sonora remains the County Seat and is the only incorporated city in the County.

The first Tuolumne County Courthouse was constructed of wood in 1853. this two-story structure faced Green Street between Jackson Street and Yaney Avenue. Water to this building was furnished through one single faucet from which containers were filled for use in the various courthouse offices. On court days a bucket of fresh water was placed by the courtroom door with a long-handled dipper hanging conveniently nearby for community use. Other amenities included spittoons for the interior rooms and outside privies. Electric lights were not installed until 1892 when the City of Sonora was electrified.

In 1898 the county tore down the old courthouse and replaced it, on the same site, with the masonry building with its distinctive clock tower that we have today. The new building faces Yaney Avenue instead of Green Street as the old building did. Local lore tells us the S.S. Bradford, a lumber baron who lived across Yaney Avenue from the courthouse, wanted the front of the courthouse to face his home instead of a side of the building, and used his influence on the County Board of Supervisors. Bradford’s home was torn down in the 1930’s for the Rose Court apartments which were subsequently replaced by the County’s Francisco building.

Sonora's Opera Hall a 'Point of Pride'

by Pat Perry

Sonora’s historic Opera Hall, located on South Washington Street, was built from the ruins of the Star Flouring Mill in 1885.

In 1879, James Divoll and his partner in the Bonanza Mine, Joseph Bray, constructed the Star Flouring Mill on the site. The Bonanza, located between the Red Church and Sonora High School, was the largest pocket mine in the Southern Mines and it was believed by many that gold from the mine was stored in the mill until it was ready for transport to San Francisco. On the night of August 5, 1885, the flour mill burned. Although never proved, it was the general consensus that the fire was deliberately set to cover up a robbery. The night watchman, Jacob Bray (Joseph’s brother), who slept overnight at the mill, was killed in the fire.

Almost immediately Divoll and Bray began to construct the Opera Hall out of the ruins of the flour mill. The brick walls with stone supports still remained after the fire and became the walls of the Opera Hall. The five front openings of the mill became the entrances into the Opera Hall. Divoll had a background in engineering which is evident in the construction of the building, from the stone foundation, brick and stone walls, to the trusses in the attic.

The perimeter walls of the Opera Hall are eighteen inches thick. Iron tension rods that run north and south through the building are still visible in the upper portion of the walls. The original roof was of approximately 30-inch long sugar pine shakes. Originally a large chandelier hung from the center of the building, which could be lowered for lighting by means of a pulley system which still exists on the east interior wall of the balcony. In addition to the chandelier and smaller surrounding lights, the hall was lighted by large windows in the front and sides. For comfort, the hall had chairs instead of benches, and Ben Sears, a local artist, was engaged to paint three full sets of scenery and a magnificent drop curtain. Charles Sell had the construction contract.

One of the local newspapers was very impressed with the progress of construction on the hall, proclaiming, “The new hall and theatre…will be an edifice of strength and beauty.” It was 56 feet wide and 75 feet long, about 15 feet wider and longer than the Turn Verein Hall, which was the only other community center at the time and was located in the north half of Courthouse Park on North Washington Street. According to the newspaper, the strength of the building was so strong that it would “defy even an earthquake to throw the structure down.”

The Opera Hall opened for its first event on Christmas Eve 1885, for a roller skating carnival and masquerade ball, a popular form of entertainment for adults and children at that time. Approximately 350 people attended the event, a large majority of whom were ladies. The Columbia Cornet Band played. The paper described the event as “brilliantly lighted and the gay costumes of the different masqueraders, as they circled around the room on the swift rolling skates, was like a picture from fairyland.”

Many events were held at the Opera Hall during the next ten years, from Washington Birthday balls sponsored by the local volunteer fire companies to the Tuolumne County Fair. Unfortunately, while the hall was quite popular, the owners lost money on the operation. In 1896, Joseph Bray became the sole owner of the hall, with plans to convert the building into a carpenter shop. The Union Democrat stated that, “It seems a shame that the one building in the town to which our people were want to point with pride is to be transformed into a carpenter shop.”

In 1911, Joseph Francis and John Damas purchased the Opera Hall from the estate of Joseph Bray, establishing the Opera Hall Garage. Francis purchased Damas’ interest in 1922. It remained as the Opera Hall Garage until 1979. Subsequent owners were interested in restoring the building, but private funding was not readily available. The City of Sonora acquired the property in 1986, and, through several historic preservation grants, redevelopment funds, and the efforts of volunteer fundraisers, the city was able to restore the Opera Hall to its present condition. It is once again an “edifice of strength and beauty” and a “point of pride” to Sonora’s historic downtown.

The Little Old Red Schoolhouse on the Hill

by Teresa A. Mallard

The site where now stands the Sonora Elementary School dates back long before my time. In the year 1882 I “started” school with Mrs. Adelaide A. Miller as my first teacher in the “little room” of the old red brick school. We learned our ABC’s in little straight back seats, and were happy when we could quietly play outdoors under the watchful eyes of our motherly teacher.

Hanging from the ceiling inside the room was a rope which, under hand, rang a bell for recess and dismissal of the school. The little folk were dismissed at two o’clock; then Mrs. Miller taught a class in geography in the afternoon.

In the “big room”, connected to the “little room” by a door, we advanced to further study. In there, two students could sit at a desk, though with no room to spare.

This comprised the Sonora Grammar School in 1882. Later when it became necessary, a small wooden building, detached from the one of brick was added and two teachers installed. Still later, a lager, one was built on top of the grade in the same lot and we were allowed to play up there. When the “in recess” bell rang, we ran at top speed to line up for marching into school to the accompaniment of the principal, Miss Maggie Fahey. Who tapped on a hand bell. We could not talk or move out of line. When we had an organ, I played for marching and singing, while another girl, “pumped” to keep the music going.

There were not “grades” in our school – just “classes”. As we progressed our final years were in the “big room” with Miss Fahey, the one teacher of the “first class” the “first division” and the “advanced class”.

To graduate, it was necessary to appear before the County Board of Education and take the same examination as those aspiring for teachers certificates, the only exception being a very few subjects in higher education. When I won my diploma, examinations were conducted at small tables in the Turn Verein Hall. We had no graduation honors.

Miss Maggie Fahey taught in this school a half century, from primary teacher to principal-ship, and was highly regarded for her keen mind, firm leadership and understanding nature. Pupils I remember, who later were co-workers of hers as teachers were Ora Moss Morgan, Rachel Shaw Watson, Maude May, Pearl Hoskin Murrow and Gussie Symons Splain.

We had no janitor in those days. Each teacher was responsible for the upkeep of her room. In cold weather, a boy assigned for that purpose would put wood in the stove for heat. Boys carried water from Divoll’s well at the foot of the long hill. Monitors went along the rows in school. All dipped from the same long-handled dipper.

A soft spoken voice was trained by Miss Fahey. She would stand at an open window until such time as the reader’s voice would clearly carry from the yard below.

For whispering in school, we were fined points, which was deducted from our credit rating. For other violations, we sat on the boy’s side of the room. For chewing gum, the offender had to “stand up front” holding the gum in his outstretched hand!

On Friday afternoon we “spoke pieces” and had literary programs. We also edited a school journal of essays and poetry.

We gave several creditable public performances at the Opera Hall. An outstanding musical cantata of flowers comes to mind; by request, it continued two nights.

School picnics were held at Kentucky Flat, a beautiful spot across from the home of Miss Fahey. There was always a king and queen crowned midst maids of honor and pages, lovely wild flowers and singing birds. A Maypole Dance was held with music by Eugene Goffinet play on a harmonica.

There were huge swings to “pump high” from the limbs of sturdy shade trees and games to pass the time away.

Mrs. Rebecca Lick made and served her famous ice cream and candy, and Tom Leonard provided us soda water from his factory.

Teachers and children in the early morning formed a long line and marched up the length of Washington Street and down and out the ditch trail. Whole families walked that distance. Their lunches were spread on cloths on the green grass and all sat around. That night a big dance was held in the Turn Verein Hall, with the king and queen leading the grand march.

“On Decoration Day” (we always called it that), we marched with band music to the cemeteries and placed flowers on the soldiers’ graves.

Every national holiday, we paraded from the school up the length of the main street, counter marched through the Bauman Brewery, and returned to school.

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