STANDING IN FRONT of the Papini House, one of the Historic Holiday Houses presented by Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park are, left to right, park docent Jennifer Steward, park ranger Holly Sisson, and park docent Frances Matthews. Democrat photo by Pat Dollins


Historic homes get decked out for the holidays

By From page B1 | November 25, 2013

What: Historic Holiday Houses

Who: Docents and volunteers

Where: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Highway 49 in Coloma

When: Saturday, Nov. 30 from 1-5 p.m.

Cost: $5, no charge for children 5 and under for the tour, $8 parking fee

Information: 530-622-3470

Docents at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, on Highway 49 in Coloma, have been working away on a special holiday treat for the public this year, sharing a treasure trove of historical homes in the tiny community where gold was discovered in 1848.

Many of the wooden structures, each with a fascinating story to tell, are not open to the public normally, but this special Historic Holiday Houses tour will swing the doors wide on 13 homes that dot the town.

“It will be kind of like a treasure hunt, complete with maps to all the houses,” said park volunteer Jennifer Steward, who broached the idea of the holiday tour with park officials and got the go-ahead for the venture.

The Historic Holiday Houses tour will be on one day only, so be sure to mark your calendar for Saturday, Nov. 30, right after Thanksgiving and get into an old-fashioned Christmas mood with a visit to Coloma.

Park volunteers have dedicated hours and hours researching the history of each shop, cabin and church on the tour, and docents in period costumes will share the knowledge during the four-hour event, from 1 to 5 p.m. Those wishing to take the tour will find refreshments at a few of the stops, and there also will be wreath-making and cookie decorating at one venue.

Music and carolers will complete the scenario, taking participants back to the 1850s for a taste of what the Christmas season might have looked like then, when the town of Coloma was filled with residents drawn to the area by gold’s promises of riches.

Start out at the park’s Visitor Center, where a map will be provided to begin the tour and for a small fee of $5, you’re off and touring. Although there is no charge for children 5 and under for the tour, a standard $8 parking fee is in place — so pack the car tightly with history-minded friends and neighbors for this special day.

Take your time and meander down the lantern-lined streets, walking throughout the homes, which have been cleaned up, brightened up and spruced up for the Christmas holidays. Prepare to be transported to a simpler, slower time as the volunteers tell what they’ve learned of the 13 tour highlights.

First on the map is the Miner’s Cabin, followed by the Mormon Cabin, Bekeart’s Gun Shop, the Monroe House, the Blacksmith Shop, the Schoolhouse, the Papini House, the Weller House, the Old Post Office, the Thomas House, Marshall’s Cabin, St. John’s Church and finally, the Emmanuel Church.

The list might look a bit lengthy, but Steward, who has been a volunteer at the park for eight years and currently serves as president of the Gold Discovery Park Association, assured that it won’t be tough to indulge in all 13 historical sites.

“You can pretty much set your own pace; there are no guided tours as such,” she said. “Each home or building will have a crew there, telling its story and people will likely wander here and there, making wreaths and decorating cookies, taking in the entire day, as they take the tour on their own.”

Each of the buildings will feature authentic furnishings, from wood stoves to period cupboards and cabinets, and decorative touches such as doilies and old photographs give the rooms a haunting aura, causing one to wonder just who lived here, and what was it like …

That’s where the docents come in, Steward said.

“I love this park and so many people tell me the same thing. Visitors are always delighted to hear everything we know about the history here — and now we have more to tell them.

“It will give you an inside look at what’s available in the park and will also give you a real jump-start on getting into the holiday season.”

Steward, 55, will be explaining the history of the Weller House to the public during the Historic Holiday Houses event and during a recent preview she pointed out the rugs and carpets that lie near an antique fainting couch inside the home. It’s thought that the carpets may have come from the California Governor’s Mansion but that fact hadn’t been confirmed yet.

Steward will be joined by other docents, such as Frances Matthews, 63, who said she delights in donning period clothing and entertaining and informing the public about the world-changing history of the area, where James Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill; a replica of the mill is a centerpiece of the park that lies along the South Fork of the American River some 7 miles north of Placerville.

Matthews will be on hand at the Monroe House, where an African-American family made their mark in the community during the Gold Rush days.

“Their story is a part of the history that I researched and will be sharing,” said Matthews, who added that her overall interest in history led to her becoming a volunteer with the park a couple of years ago after she retired from a career as a systems engineer with Bank of America.

“What I enjoy about working here as a volunteer is when people who are just driving through decide to stop, and they are amazed at everything we have to offer,” she said. “I hear ‘I didn’t know that was here’ all the time and from locals as well.”

Matthews, who frequently dresses in old-fashioned outfits such as gingham prairie dresses to perform her parkly duties, said sometimes it can lead to comical situations.

“I’ve learned to bring extra clothes when I come to work,” she began. “I was going home one day on Marshall Grade when I had a flat tire. The tow truck driver thought I was Amish.”

Park interpreter Holly Sisson laughed at her colleague’s recollection, then said volunteers such as Matthews are highly regarded by the park’s staff.

“We’re thrilled that Frances is here,” said Sisson, 26, who has worked for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park for three years. “Our volunteers are great and we could always use more. For the Historic Holiday Houses event alone, they have put in hundreds of hours preparing.”

Steward said most volunteers demonstrate a “passion for history,” and added that duty at the gorgeous state park can be quite fulfilling.

“They find that it’s great to volunteer, yes, but they also find a family here,” she said.

Those wishing to learn more about volunteer opportunities at the park may call 530-622-3470.

Steward said the idea for the Historic Holiday Houses tour came to her after she and her family visited Monterey and participated in a similar experience touring adobe homes and buildings there. She said the sense of history and fascination with those structures inspired her to try something along the same line in Coloma, and she is hoping the public will take advantage of the one-time-only opportunity.

For more information call 530-622-3470.

Pat Lakey

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