Getting to Know the Community
Ahwahnee, like many towns in the region, began when settlers arrived to find their gold nuggets. Instead, they struck pay dirt in the fertile fields, and began growing fruits and vegetables to sell to the mining camps ringing the area.
When the railroad line to Raymond came through Ahwahnee, even President Theodore Roosevelt stopped to lunch here on his way to marvel at Yosemite. Newspaper stories reported every detail, including the fact the innkeeper told him to wash his hands in a tin bucket out back before eating. She may have been one of the first citizens to complain about an error in the press — it was her best china basin, thank you!
Ahwahnee was also home to a tuberculosis sanitarium built at the turn of the century in hopes those suffering from the disease would benefit from the area’s purer air quality. Later, it flourished as a home for boys.
Today, Ahwahnee is a peaceful small community with a population of approximately 1,680 who strive to keep their rural atmosphere. It is home to The Wassama Roundhouse, built by Miwok Indians, one of a few authentic roundhouses left in California.
BASS LAKE VILLAGE
You could call Bass Lake Village a planned community: it sprang up in 1895, when state officials created the Bass Lake Reservoir as part of Central California’s first hydroelectric generating project.
Bass Lake, population 2,195, is now a natural retreat for all types of water sports and fishing, thanks to the United States Forest Service Recreation Area that surrounds the lake. Entrepreneurs have rolled out the red carpet to visitors with a smorgasbord of dining and lodging options, including camping and day use areas.
Residents consider themselves the county hosts: they hold the region’s only Fourth of July fireworks display, and an annual fishing derby the first weekend in May. And every Friday night in the summer people flock here to enjoy jazz concerts under the stars.
This unusual name reflects the fact that a group of Texas miners discovered gold in the nearby creek in the early 1850s. They named their settlement Coarse Gold Gulch (they later renamed their abode Texas Flat, but the name didn’t have staying power among Californians).
Coarsegold produced the first deep lode mine in the region, but time revealed that wasn’t the area’s true wealth. Cattle, sheep and hogs headed for Stockton became the treasure as ranching became the way of life in the latter half of the 19th century.
That’s why Coarsegold — population 7,280 — is still known for its large ranches. In fact, native ranchers still hold huge cattle drives to the cooler high country every summer. Visitors can learn more about Coarsegold’s colorful heritage from The Gold Gulch Museum and Coarsegold Historical Society Museum.
In 1881, Albert Philip filed a timber claim called Fish Camp, an odd name for what became a busy logging center and cattle range. Citizens knew how to have a good time — by 1883, Fish Camp was the home of the then-famous Summerdale Hotel, a general store, a saloon, a post office and a barn where dances were held every day of the week.
Hospitality continues to run deep through this community of just 277 residents. Because it’s only two miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, tourists stream through here, making this a hub for everything outdoors, including hiking, fishing, skiing, snow boarding, and ice skating and tobogganing.
The townsfolk operate two large hotels and several bed and breakfast facilities. In the summer, Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad offers daily rides through the Sierra National Forest in vintage steam locomotives.
Nipinnawasee — an Indian site whose name means “home of the deer” — is one of the newest communities in Eastern Madera County. It began as a Michigan transplant’s homestead stake as late as 1908. The U.S. government established a post office here by 1912. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1961 when a fire consumed the entire town in just 15 minutes.
Nipinnawasee proper was never rebuilt, although people continue to live in the area for the breathtaking views of the Sierras alone. Most residents drive into Oakhurst 15 minutes away.
North Fork owes its accidental birth to Milton Brown, an ambitious businessman who saw Willow Creek’s north fork as the perfect place to drop off sheep and cattle on their journey to higher summer pastures. Roads and lumber mills followed the traffic, giving North Fork a reputation in the milling industry until the Natural Forest discontinued timber harvesting a few years ago.
Today, its 3,892 residents are deep into plans for the town’s promising future as a historic tourist site. It’s already a gateway to the Sierra National Forest, the Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway, and the Scenic Route to Yosemite (as well as being located in the exact center of California), so adding a mill site to tour will only add strength to the area’s tourism base.
A majority of the population are Mono Indians, whose museum displays beautiful Mono Indian basketry as part of the peek at this town’s past.
OAKHURST (a.k.a. FRESNO FLATS)
Fresno Flats has the distinction of not stemming from a gold mining town. It began quite deliberately as a community with homes, schools and churches to provide stability for the miners, lumberjacks, cattlemen and farmers finding this area in the 1850s. The name Fresno Flats alludes to the Spanish word for ash trees (Freszo).
From the get-go, Fresno Flats thrived. In 1893, it boasted a hotel, a restaurant, a saloon, a Chinese store, a Chinese laundry, a post office, a stage stop, a livery stable and a blacksmith. But the railroad line to Raymond skipped Fresno Flats, and later Highway 140 also left the town in the dust as tourists sought the fastest and most direct path to Yosemite. When the Madera Sugar Pine Mill closed early in the Depression, the few hundred people left seemed destined to abandon the area, making it a true ghost town.
However, Highway 41 was completed by the end of the decade to draw visitors from the San Joaquin Valley — and it ran right through dying Fresno Flats. After the revival, the town renamed itself Oakhurst.
Today, 13,700 people call Oakhurst home — small enough to retain that close community atmosphere, large enough to support modern industries and retail. Oakhurst enjoys being part of a region that has the highest number of artists per capita of area in the United States.
Art galleries, antique shopping, live theater, including a new murder mystery dinner theatre, a Cineplex, a Children’s Museum, several other museums, historical parks and markers, gold panning, hiking, biking, horse riding, bowling, dancing, hunting, fishing, golfing, swimming, skiing, dining, arcades, baseball games, marathons, bluegrass festivals, concerts in the park and car shows keep this town hopping! There is always something wonderful to see and do. Plus, the Oakhurst Area Chamber’s Peddlers Fairs are the two largest street fairs in Madera County, attracting 10,000 to 15,000 visitors every Memorial Day and Labor Day holiday.
Charles O’Neal came to California in 1857, first to manage the Santa Rita Ranch for cattle baron Henry Hildreth and then for “California’s Cattle King,” Henry Miller. The O’Neal family eventually used its wages to buy the Gilmore-Mace Ranch in Spring Valley, California, which he turned into a town named after himself. It turned out to be a popular theme — in 1903 Harmon Bigelow ran a phone line from his house to his mother-in-law’s home and launched the Bigelow Telephone Company. He also operated the Bigelow Stage Line, serving Sugar Pine, Bass Lake and North Fork.
Cattle ranches remain the story for the 434 people living in O’Neals, joined by well-known ranching names like Bissett, McDougald, Ellis and Brown. Bigelow’s Telephone Company, however, is now called Ponderosa Telephone Company.
Raymond was a tent city that sprung up when floods threatened the Fresno River in the winters of 1885-1886. Simultaneously, A.H. Washburn, owner of the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company and of the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite, convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to build an alternate route to Wawona. One of the new railroad’s stops was at this tent city, so officials named it after Israel Ward Raymond. Local legend has it that traffic was so heavy through this town, the local inn had to serve wildcat one evening when it ran out of beef. People soon nicknamed the town Wildcat Station.
But in the present, Raymond is known more for its granite mines and ranching opportunities than its gourmet fare. In fact, the granite from this area was used to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires.