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PHILLIPS STATION in El Dorado County was one of the resorts built by the Phillips family. Courtesy photo


Relatives bring history to life

By From page B2 | August 04, 2014

A white wooden trunk that sat in a closet for 30 years held the key to a family’s knowledge about their ancestors and a book that paints a portrait of life on the American frontier. Through more than 200 letters from the trunk, Mary Jo Sonntag and her mother, Mary K. Sonntag traced their family’s migration from Vermont to Northern California and together they used the letters and family stories to co-author, “Write, If You Live to Get There.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 6, Mary Jo Sonntag will make a presentation at the El Dorado County Library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville, from 1-3 p.m.

The Pennsylvania author uses storytelling, readings and some of the 120 years of family letters to richly detail life on the American frontier in the 19th and early 20th centuries. History buffs, members of the Phillips clan and the public is invited to attend.

By reading selected letters, displaying vintage family photographs and using her own captivating storytelling ability, Sonntag will introduce the audience to the daily thoughts and activities of the intrepid Phillips clan and chronicle how they combined their entrepreneurial skills and hospitable instincts to build prominent resorts in the Lake Tahoe region at Phillips Station, Rubicon Springs and Meeks Bay.

“I’ll be sharing tales about ancestors like J.W.D. Phillips, who ran for the State Assembly twice as an independent and lost both times by a narrow margin. As superintendent of mines, this fascinating man developed several patents for mining equipment,” said Sonntag.

“You’ll also learn about Mehitable Jane Ball Phillips who taught the Indians a lesson about manners after they startled her awake by peering through her bedroom window,” said Sonntag.

“When my grandmother died in 1962, my mother inherited the trunk, but it sat on a shelf in the closet until 1992,” said Sonntag.

“In 1992, I came out to Sacramento for business and drove up to Placerville. I found our family tombstones in the Placerville Union Cemetery and when I went home I told my mother we should get the trunk down and organize the letters and then follow the trail of our ancestors,” she said.

The mother/daughter duo did just that and found more than they expected.

“When we got to Placerville and went to the cemetery, it was Memorial Day and there were fresh flowers on the family graves,” said Sonntag. “So, we knew there were living relatives and that was a surprise because my mother thought she was the only one left.”

Because of the holiday, they weren’t able to talk with cemetery personnel to track down the relatives and so they proceeded to Truckee where a helpful groundskeeper located the unmarked graves of other ancestors.

“We went to Meek’s Bay in Tahoe where Sierra Nevada ‘Vade’ Phillips had a resort (The Rubicon Resort). A college student at the front desk of the resort said she knew all about ‘Vade’ because she had studied her at UNR (University of Nevada, Reno). Then the owner came out and he called all the historical societies,” said Sonntag.

The Sonntags had family documents and photographs the historical societies had never seen before and, in turn, they let the Sonntags know about how important the Phillips clan had been in the region.

One of the best parts of that journey was finding a living relative in Placerville.  The El Dorado Historical Society invited the Sonntags to the El Dorado County Historical Museum and the president of the society told them that, “Sally would be so glad to see them.”

Sally turned out to be a cousin that Mary K. Sonntag had met as a child. Neither one realized that the other was still living.

When the Sonntags returned to Pennsylvania, Mary K. transcribed the more than 200 letters onto a legal pad and Mary Jo typed them.

“My mother was also full of family stories, so we hired a writer to help her record them. She gave my mother 3 by 5 cards and told her to jot down memories as they occurred to her,” said Mary Jo. “Those became the introduction to each decade in the book.”

During this 2014 visit, the first time Mary Jo has returned to Placerville since 1992, Mary Jo’s brother and family from New Jersey will join her.

“I am so excited to take them to the El Dorado County Historical Museum and show them all about our family,” said Sonntag.

Sonntag’s presentations are free of charge and open to the public. She will present at the Placerville Library, 345 Fair Lane in Placerville, on Wednesday, Aug. 6 from 1-3 p.m. and at the El Dorado County Library in South Lake Tahoe, 1000 Rufus Allen Blvd., on Wednesday, Aug. 13 from 6-7 p.m.

For more information about  Sonntag and “Write, If You Get There” visit the Website at or check Facebook at The book is available for purchase in both softcover and e-book versions on and at the event.

Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.

Wendy Schultz

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