During the early days of mining in California, it was very common to name communities after a person, a landmark, a local group of Native Americans or often even a hometown or state important to a group of settlers. But one town in El Dorado County is unique, its name coming about as a result of a dinner in celebration of the independence of the United States of America.
It was only natural that the early gold miners would start exploring the ravines that drained into the American River near Coloma. They knew the gold found there was being washed into the river from other places and, who knows, one of these many ravines might be the source of all of the riches, the often sought after “Mother Lode.”
In late 1848 several miners started exploring northward from Coloma, along Johntown Creek near a place known as Stony Point. There they found good quantities of gold and by 1850 a permanent mining camp had been established, a camp that included a saw mill being operated by some gentlemen named McConnell and Cody.
When the fourth of July came around that year, the miners were invited to a vegetable dinner in celebration of the day, hosted by the owners of the saw mill. They had planted a large vegetable garden the previous year and wanted to share their abundant crop with the others. Needless to say, this was a welcome change from the quite boring, “beans and something they shot,” normal diet of the miners, and nearly everyone must have attended.
After dinner the conversation turned to the fact that their town had no name and that it should be given one. With the delicious meal still on their minds, it was voted to name the place Garden Valley – a name that still remains to this day.
Most of the original town of Garden Valley was built near the sawmill, on the right bank of Johntown Creek. The town was fairly large and consisted of several stores, numerous saloons, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a butcher shop, a shoemaker, livery stable, law office and a church.
The Garden Valley Post Office was established there on December 16, 1852 with Thomas McConnell as the first postmaster. From that day on, it would have a very interesting history. The post office was closed on December 20, 1853, almost exactly a year after it was opened. It was then re-opened on December 2, 1854 and again closed on June 4, 1862. On January 22, 1872 it was re-opened, but again closed on October 31, 1895. On January 27, 1896 it opened again and stayed open this time. On February 1, 1940 it was moved one-quarter mile to the northwest.
By 1856 there had been added to the business community of Garden Valley a Joss house built by the local Chinese miners and the “Sons of Temperance” hall. This hall later became used as a school house and was ultimately torn down to make way for the Community Hall.
One of the early stores was operated by William Pedrini (often known as “Bill Tell”) and M. Pedrini. In addition to the store, they also owned a large tract of land west of Garden Valley known as the Tell Ranch. There they raised cattle, moving their large herd for summer grazing to a second large tract of land they owned higher in the mountains near Wentworth Springs. Tell’s Peak near their summer grazing land is appropriately named for “Bill Tell.”
In 1857 the scourge of the mining towns arrived when a fire burned the McConnell and Cody saw mill, along with most of the town. The town was rebuilt, but by that time mining in and around Garden Valley was in decline. Some say it didn’t recover for nearly 80 years, when a rich gold strike was made at the site of the Black Oak Mine in 1936.
Although Garden Valley itself was in decline, several communities around it continued to prosper, one being Johntown, which was located at the junction of Manhattan and Empire creeks, where they join to form Johntown Creek.
Through the 1880s, the name of Johntown was often used interchangeably with Garden Valley, yet Johntown was really a suburb of that town. It contained several stores and a hotel known throughout the mining camps as the “What-Cheer” House.
Another community, Empire City, was built on Empire Creek, just above Stranger’s gulch. It survived for a while, but nothing now remains of it but memories.
With most of the stream gold taken, the miners started looking in the veins of exposed quartz. Soon there were a number of hard rock (gold in quartz) mines, among them the Taylor, Rosencranz and Frog Pond.
The Taylor was discovered about 1862 by Thomas Taylor and another miner, known for some reason as “Sardine” Wheeler. By 1892, there was a twenty stamp mill operating at the mine, producing a noise so loud that it could be hear in most of the miner’s homes. Fortunately, to them the sound of the pestles pounding into the mortars, freeing the gold from its confining quartz, was like music. But, by 1899, the mine had closed.
The Rosencranz adjoined the Taylor and operated up until the general closure of most gold mines around the time of World War II. After being mined, the gold was separated from the rock by a 100 ton, electrically powered ball mill – noisy, but somewhat quieter than a stamp mill.
Little is known about the Frog Pond Mine other than it was discovered by John Pingree and John Miller, who found rich pockets of gold at shallow depth. It was still operated in the 1930s by S. W. Collins.
By far the most famous of the mines of the Garden Valley area was the aforementioned Black Oak Mine. First opened in 1936, and operated by Russell Wilson, it was rich in high grade ore and became the model mine for safety and physical comforts for the employees. In addition to the high standards for pay and time-off, Mr. Wilson installed a heated outdoor swimming pool for his employees and hosted many social events. This is the mine that gave its name to one of the main roads in the Garden Valley area and the high school.
There is an oft told story about the Black Oak Mine, regarding some miners who decided to take pieces of the richest ore they found and hide it on the property, where they would pick it up later when nobody was watching.
The story goes on to tell how they quit and took the gold laden quartz with them to another state, where they filed a claim and while working their mine “discovered” it. Unfortunately for them, their scheme had been uncovered and the word was out. When they had their “discovery” assayed, the assayer recognized it as California gold, due to its specific impurities, and had them arrested.
Besides being early miners along the Mother Lode, the pioneers of Garden Valley took advantage of the fertile soil and planted apple, pear and peach orchards. Interestingly, a box of excellent quality Easter Beurre pears, from trees planted on Garden Valley’s Wakefield ranch in the 1860s, was a prized exhibit at the 1937 El Dorado County Fair.
Garden Valley today is not the same as it was in what what the miners sometimes referred to as the “roaring fifties”. With mining now mostly a memory of the past, much of the population is scattered over the area on many ranches and farms, where excellent produce is still grown, some marketed locally at the several “Farmer’s Markets”.
It is a community with a historic past, proud present and excellent future.
Sources for this story include: “History of California,” by Theodore Hittell (1897); “California Gold Camps,” by Erwin Gudde (1975); “California Place Names,” by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976”, researched by H. E. Salley (1976); “Mother Lode of Learning – One Room Schools of El Dorado County,” by Retired Teachers Association of El Dorado County (1990); “I Remember…, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families,” researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “Mines and Mineral Resources of El Dorado County, California,” California Division of Mines (1956); “History of El Dorado County,” by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present); and the wonderful people at the reference desk of the El Dorado County Main Library.