Pat Cook is a force of nature. Just ask anyone who has dealt with her when it comes to Gold Bug Park. Energetic, funny and often unorthodox, Cook, chairman of the Gold Bug Park Development Committee, has been involved with the park for 32 years, helping it grow from weed-covered Bedford Park to one of the most popular, and lucrative, historical attractions in El Dorado County. On Nov. 1, she retired from her positions with the park.
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Cook, 79, moved to the Placerville area from Lake Tahoe with her husband Bill and two children in 1978. They bought the Gold Trail Motor Lodge, joined the Hangtown Chamber of Commerce and decided to explore Placerville’s attractions. They followed a dirt road down to a huge patch of blackberry bushes to Bedford Park. Cook later found out that the park had been used as a rest stop by the Greyhound buses that came up from the valley on their way to Lake Tahoe.
“I was a new member of the Chamber of Commerce, assigned to the Tourism Committee and the park’s development became my project,” said Cook. “I didn’t know what to do, but my husband said, ‘Just listen for a while and you’ll figure it out.'”
She’d already had experience working with state and local government in Tahoe where she was chair of the King’s Beach/Tahoe Vista/Carnelian Bay Beautification Committee. “We were horribly successful and had a lot of fun,” said Cook. She contacted the legislators she’d met while working on that committee to find out what she needed to do to get Bedford Park developed into a real attraction.
Working with the members of the Tourism Committee with the help of the city’s Recreation and Parks maintenance crew, Cook attacked the berry bushes and anthills. “We discovered tables and benches under the berries and found that a mine was being used for tours on occasion, lit with a string of electric bulbs from front to back. Kids loved to unscrew the bulbs — especially when a tour was in progress.”
Bedford Park became Gold Bug Park and in 1980, the Gold Bug Park Development Committee was formed to clean up, protect and develop the property for public use. “We had to get a historical designation, first of all, because a lot of grants and funding depends on that,” said Cook. “And we needed to know if we built something, who the park would belong to.”
In 1981 the Bureau of Land Management turned the 61.45-acre park over to the city. “We had a huge ceremony outside and one of the BLM officials kept brushing away oak leaves from his head,” said Cook. “But it wasn’t oak leaves; it was poison oak.”
“Then we got the historical place designation,” said Cook. In 1982, she wanted Caltrans to put up brown and white signs on Highway 50 so people would know the park was a historical place. She was told that Caltrans wouldn’t do it, but Cook knew the District 3 Caltrans people, having worked with them in Tahoe. “I drove around with a couple of engineers and Caltrans guys and pointed out where I thought the signs should go and they put them up. That was fun.”
It took Cook three years to write up the nomination proposal for Gold Bug as a State Point of Interest, working closely with the State Historic Office. The Gold Bug Committee invited the State Historic Commission to hold their next meeting in Placerville and Cook put the commissioners up at local bed and breakfast inns.”They loved the inns — some of them didn’t show up for the meeting the next morning because they were enjoying their stay so much,” said Cook.
That day, in 1985, the State Historic Commission declared Cook’s detailed nomination document as one of the best proposals they had ever received and it was used by the Commission as a model for years. Gold Bug was approved as a State Point of Interest.
“At lunch, there was a Federal representative who took a copy of the proposal back with him to Washington, D.C. and we were approved for the National Historic Registry. I was very proud of that,” said Cook. “Being a State Point of Interest and on the National Registry of Historic Places put us in the market for funding, development and infrastructure.”
Working with legislators
The next step was to go to Washington D.C. and hit up the legislators. Despite never having been east of the Rockies, Cook paid for a trip to Washington D.C. from her own funds and met the lobbyist reperesenting the city of Placerville, David Turch. “I learned a lot about how to approach legislators from him,” said Cook. “You don’t ask legislators; you tell them.”
Cook’s visits to Congressman John Doolittle and her persistence paid off with a $50,000 grant. “It took the city about five years to use it,” said Cook, “but we reroofed the Meagher House and did the all the gutters and downspouts.”
Other visits to Doolittle, one with a new gift shop item of Bear Poop candy, resulted in more federal money for Gold Bug, some of which was used for the rebuilding of restrooms to accommodate the growing numbers of visitors. Access to the park and parking at the park, lighting in Gold Bug Mine, interpretive signage, the restoration of the stamp mill, construction of the gift shop, museum, blacksmith shop and pavillion, development of a fire safe plan and ongoing restoration of the Meagher House are all results of Cook’s involvement and determination.”I knew where to go, who to talk to and how to get what we needed,” she said.
Her unorthodox methods including putting in a foundation for the Joshua Hendy Stamp Mill — without a building in mind. “I was told that you can’t put a foundation in without having a building to go up around it, but I knew it was the beginning of getting the stamp mill stabilized and we’d come up with a building if we put a foundation in.”
Cook knew the park could be a viable money-maker when a group of seniors from Oklahoma arrived by bus.”They were so excited when I was wrangling them together for the tour,”said Cook. Once the seniors were back on their bus, a gentleman with a gray fedora hat passed it up and down the length of the bus for donations. “He collected $250,” said Cook, “and that was the proof I needed that we could make money giving tours.
“We learned how to give tours. We had a card table and a chair outside the entrance to the mine and charged 50 cents. Now we book more than 10,000 children a year for tours. We’re already booked up for next year,” said Cook.
Gold Bug Mine is owned and operated by the city of Placerville, the only city in California to own a gold mine. The park offers self-guided audio tours and guided tours through Gold Bug Mine, guided tours of Priest Mine, two miles of hiking trails, Hattie’s Museum, Hattie’s Gift Shop, the Joshua Hendy Stamp Mill, the Liberty Pavillion and picnic areas, gem panning and the Meagher House. An estimated 30,000 people visit the park yearly with 14,000 people taking group tours and more than 15,000 doing self-guided tours. The park hosts some 600 special events annually.
Gold Bug Park supertintendent Frank Jacobi said, “I have tremendous respect for Pat. I am going to miss her.”
Placerville Mayor Mark Acuna, a long-time supporter of the Gold Bug said, “It was Pat’s burning passion for Gold Bug that kept it going and growing … She has lobbied, pleaded and shared the Gold Bug story without fail — gaining funding and support from places never imagined possible in Placerville before she tried.”
“Thirty-two years is an awful long time,” said Cook.”It’s time to leave. I’m almost 80 and I feel it. No matter how you eat and exercise, you do slow down.”
She almost quit Gold Bug when her husband of 38 years, Bill, became ill in 1990. “He told me that I needed to stay with it, that it would be good for me … and boy, was he right. But I never did any of this by myself — I always had people to show me and people to help me. ”
In addition to her work with Gold Bug Development Committee, Cook has been an Extended Day Adult Assistant at Sierra School for seven years and is the caretaker for her older, developmentally disabled sister. She plans to spend her free time with her daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters in Oregon. “I’m also doing some writing and I want to take up knitting again,” she said.
Community Services and Public Works Director Steve Youell said, “Pat Cook has always been the driving force behind the ongoing success of the world renowned historic Gold Bug Park and for her efforts we will always be grateful.”
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.