A tour group from out-of-town got a snapshot history of Placerville last Friday.
Sponsored by the El Dorado County Historical Society, the tour was led by Don Uelmen and Debbie Hunger Lightfoot. Dressed in period costumes, the duo took a group of 28 members from the Daytona Ski and Travel Club on a quick 60-minute tour of the long and colorful history of downtown Placerville.
Starting at the elegant Cary House Hotel, where many of the tour group were staying, Uelmen noted at one time it housed the Wells Fargo Office and was a stage stop. It was also the site of a presidential campaign speech by Horace Greeley, a famous newspaper editor, in 1859. Greeley’s ride over Echo Summit in a stage driven by Hank Monk was immortalized in Mark Twain’s “Roughing it.”
Walking up Main Street, Placerville Hardware seemed to be one of the most popular stopping places of the tour. The oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi, Uelmen directed the people to note its wooden floors, original bins, rolling ladders and floor-to-ceiling merchandise. However, from the comments it appeared that many of the tour members had already discovered the hardware store and had visited it — repeatedly.
Uelmen went on to note that at one time, the east side of the building was the home of the Mountain Democrat — the oldest newspaper in California. Its presses were operated with a water wheel located in Hangtown Creek. He also told the story of a previous owner’s son who put his foot through the ceiling. Rather than repair it, the leg of a mannikin was put in the hole — where it remains to this day.
Another point of interest was the site of what used to be the Hangman’s Tree Bar and how Placerville got the name Hangtown. Now a registered landmark, Uelmen said the story behind the site dates to 1849 when a gambler named Lopez came into some big winnings at the local saloon. Later in the evening, several men tried to rob him but were caught and taken to what used to be a hay barn to be whipped. During their flogging, three of them were accused of being wanted for murder and robbery. After a short 30-minute trial, the verdict came back guilty and they were hung. The stump of the hanging tree and a dummy hanging from a rope still remain at the site, which is currently undergoing restoration.
Uelmen concluded his story by saying that two things happened after the hanging: crime dropped and the name of the town was changed from Dry Diggings to Hangtown.
The role of fire in shaping the city was a constant theme of the walking tour, with Uelmen noting that the city had burned down several times, with the foundation of one building still showing signs of being charred.
The ongoing threat of fire was the main reason for the erection of the Belltower, one of Placerville’s most famous landmarks. In 1856, Placerville suffered three fires which destroyed a good part of the business section of town. Realizing the need for an alert system, the townspeople erected the Belltower at its current location in 1865. Later it was moved to a hilltop but returned to its original location in 1910 after the Court House fire.
During the tour Uelmen said that Placerville has been home to many famous people, including Thomas Kinkade and John Studebaker. A Kinkade gallery still exists on Main Street and many of his paintings feature the beautiful Victorian mansions scattered throughout the city.
Studebaker, on the other hand, came to Placerville as a young man seeking gold. However, Studebaker didn’t make his money mining but instead by building and selling wheelbarrows to miners who before then had to haul their loads out on their backs. With the money he made, he returned to South Bend, Ind., in 1858 and invested in the family wagon business that made millions during the American Civil War. Later the family founded the Studebaker Automobile Co.
Placerville still honors the role Studebaker played in the city’s history with an annual John M. Studebaker Wheelbarrow Race held during the county fair.
The tour included many more stops and anyone interested in local history is encouraged to join one of the public tours that are scheduled for the third Saturday of each month from May through August at 11 a.m. Contact Marilyn Ferguson, the manager of the Fountain-Tallman Museum, at 530-626-0773, regarding where the tours meet and for additional information.
Groups can also schedule a personal tour by calling Ferguson on Wednesday through Sunday, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Tours last 60 to 90 minutes and are free, although donations are welcomed.