Doug Noble

Placerville’s Living Christmas Tree


Corner of Bedford and Main c. 1925. Tom Moyle’s saloon has become a church.

Each year the City of Placerville installs lights on the tall redwood tree that stands on the northeast corner of Bedford Avenue and Main Streets, next to a building that was the post office and then the the District Attorney’s office. Over the years this tree has been damaged by wind and weather several times and even had its top cut off because the fire department’s equipment could not reach above that height to decorate, but it gallantly survives. It has apparently been at this location for 70 or more years, but how it got there is somewhat a mystery.

The story starts just before Christmas in 1918 when the American Forestry Association began to encourage the use of living trees for community Christmas trees, instead of the normal routine of cutting down a large tree each year for that purpose. Over the next few years the campaign began to gain supporters and in December of 1924 the Association donated a 35-foot, nursery grown Norway Spruce to President Calvin Coolidge.

The donated tree was planted in Sherman Plaza, south of the Treasury Building and close to the east entrance of the White House. On December 24, 1924 President Calvin Coolidge, known to be a man of few words, stood before a microphone and said, “I accept this tree and I will now light it.” He then flipped a switch and 1,200 red, amber and green incandescent lights, installed by the Society for Electrical Development and the Electric League of Washington, brightly lit up the tree. This was the first use of a living tree as our “National Community Christmas Tree.”

In 1926 the late Charles E. Lee, then secretary of the Sanger (CA) Chamber of Commerce, wrote President Calvin Coolidge requesting that the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park be officially designated as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.” Lee had visited the majestic 267 foot tall sequoia in 1924 and when standing in front of it heard a little girl exclaim, “What a wonderful Christmas Tree it would be.”

Remembering the little girl’s comments, the next year he organized a Christmas program in front of the General Grant Tree at noon on Christmas Day.

Excited by the success of the program, he and the president of the Sanger Chamber, Mr. R. J. Senior, came up with the idea of an annual Christmas ceremony at the tree. To give it more significance is why Lee wrote President Coolidge and on April 28, 1926 the General Grant tree was officially designated the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.”

As time went on, more and more places around the nation, and especially in California, began to plant and use living trees as community Christmas trees and in a December 1, 1928 article in the “Placerville Republican and Nugget,” Placerville Fire Chief O. N. Hirst announced his intention to ask the Placerville City Council for permission to plant a living Christmas tree on the Moyle lot, which is where the present tree stands. In the event this permission was granted, he indicated that the Shakespeare Club, Parent Teachers’ Association, Lions’ Club, 20-30 Club, American Legion and other local organizations would be asked to assist in financing the decorations and lighting of the tree.

According to the same article the idea of a living community Christmas tree in Placerville was not new. A similar idea had been rejected by the Lions’ Club the previous year, and the 20-30 Club earlier in 1928, but it was hoped that with community support a living Christmas tree could be planted at this location. After all, it was pointed out, Grace Moyle had transferred this parcel of land to the city specifically for public use and that was exactly what was being proposed.

The City Council agreed to allow Hirst to plant the tree and on December 7, 1928 he announced in the Republican that the State of California had donated a seven foot “Giant of the Forest” to the City and that he would be going to Sacramento to pick it up. At the same time it was announced that the American Legion had endorsed the idea of the tree being planted at the designated site and strung with lights as the Community Christmas tree.

On the same day a story in the “Mountain Democrat” also indicated that a tree had been approved. It was not a redwood, but a 20 foot high fir tree that the volunteer firemen were going into the forest to get and plant in the Moyle lot. “We’ll have to move approximately a ton of dirt with the tree in the transplanting,” Hirst said. “It will take three or four days to get the tree out and it will be a real job to move it.” Apparently there was some confusion between the newspapers as to what tree the fire chief wanted to be the “Community Christmas tree.”

The December 12, 1928 issue of the Republican stated that the sequoia for the Moyle lot had been picked up in Sacramento and brought to Placerville. The details of the planting had not been worked out and would be announced shortly. The same article indicated that the Placerville Lions had pledged aid to the tree and the upcoming Christmas program at the site.

Everything seemed to be in order at this point and the Republican indicated that the sequoia would probably be planted before or during the Christmas program. When the program was held at the court house on December 20, 1928 the 20 foot fir tree was there and decorated, but there is no mention of the sequoia that the state had donated.

The January 9, 1929 edition of the Mountain Democrat adds a bit of clarity to this confusing issue with a story titled, “Sequoia Washingtoniana ‘Resident’ of Placerville.” It then goes on to say, “Miss Sequoia Washingtoniana has been a Placerville resident since Christmas Day. Her presence has been noted but it seemed that other matters assumed greater importance in our memory and Miss Sequoia Washingtoniana arrived unheralded. The redwood, gift of the state, was planted on the Moyle lot by Fire Chief O. N. Hirst.”

Now the story could stop there, but “Sequoia washingtoniana” is an old name for a Giant sequoia and, according to people who should know, the present tree is not a Giant sequoia, but a Coast Redwood “Sequoia sempervirens.”

Possibly earliest picture of the Christmas Tree

Adding new light to the mystery, in 1953 an article appeared in a still unidentified local newspaper. Authored by a Gene Macel, and titled “City Landmark Glows Again with Yule Spirit,” it placed the year of planting as 1926 and said that “the tiny redwood was planted by Mrs. Lena Rantz in memory of her husband, Dr. Stephen H. Rantz, a beloved country doctor…” The story then traces much of the history of the property from its original mining claim up through its purchase by Thomas Moyle.

Moyle owned a saloon on the property for many years and, according to the story, “There was an old wine cellar below where beer was stored and served ice-cold to customers.” The saloon was torn down after a group of citizens raised the money to buy the property with the intention of widening Bedford Avenue. The story then adds, “[Mayor] Albert Simons acquired title to the property for the City of Placerville on April 9, 1926 and the redwood tree was planted in the same year.”

The story then points out that in 1937 one Ernie Oppenheimer decided that the tree had acquired enough stature and beauty to deserve Christmas decorations. “Oppenheimer bought a good supply of lights and Andy Anderson and his helpers from the city hall, strung them that year and every year since.”

This 1953 story seems quite reasonable and confirms another story that appeared in the September 9, 1940 issue of the Mountain Democrat. It states, “[The City] Council voted $50 to be donated to the businessmen for Xmas decorations and voted to place an appropriate marker by the Dr. S. H. Ranzt memorial tree, planted a dozen years ago in the city park at the junction of Main and Bedford.”

As to the “appropriate marker,” there is neither a marker nor any indication there was ever a marker on or near the tree regarding Dr. Ranzt. There are other markers nearby, but nothing makes reference to the tree or Dr. Ranzt.

A few years ago the Placerville Department of Recreation was cleaning up around the tree and uncovered a loose plaque that stated, “Presented by the American Legion Auxiliary, 1934.” There seems to be no connection between this plaque and the tree and nothing in the park seems to be missing a plaque. However, there is the remains of a base of an old flagpole a dozen feet to the east of the tree where the plaque may have been placed.

Probably mid-1940s

If all this isn’t confusing enough, there are other stories around Placerville regarding the tree. One story is that the tree was planted by hotel owner Lloyd Raffetto and local government official John Winkleman in honor of the former Moyle’s saloon. Former El Dorado County Supervisor and county native, Joe Flynn, said that his mother, Alice Flynn, owned the Hangtown Café, near the hotel, and was involved with the planting, but often remarked that she thought it was planted too close to the building.

A second story is that the tree may be one of the small redwood trees that a member of the Blair family brought back from Santa Cruz where he and his new bride had spent their honeymoon. Apparently they were planted not only on the Blair property, but other places around Placerville.

There are no exact dates for the above stories, but they were in the correct era and could both be referring to the “Ranzt” tree, supposedly planted in 1926.

If today’s tree is the 1926 Ranzt Memorial Tree, the tree obtained by Fire Chief Hirst or another tree, nobody seems to know. But, as interesting as it is, it probably doesn’t matter. It is a magnificent tree and when lit each Christmas season, adds even more beauty to the city.

As a final note, if you are wondering what happened to the 20 foot fir tree planted for the 1928 Christmas ceremony and supposedly intended to be the “Community Christmas tree,” the May 21, 1929 issue of the Mountain Democrat clears that up. “Lost! One fir tree, which last Christmas served as a community Christmas tree, has disappeared from the Moyle lot. Who removed it? Nobody knows. However, the tree had died and ceased to be the beautiful city ornament it was intended to be, so that its removal constitutes somewhat the same improvement on the corner that was made when the tree was planted.”

Steppin’ Out – Iron Wok, Placerville

Just a short time ago a new Chinese restaurant called the Iron Wok opened at 545 Main Street in Placerville. But, their history doesn’t start there, it goes back many years.

A family run business, they first opened in San Francisco and then, about ten years ago, moved to Elk Grove. A search of online reviews shows that they were highly rated and very popular. In fact, there are several sad comments about their closing their Elk Grove location and being replaced by a Vietnamese restaurant. After leaving Elk Grove, the family moved to the town of El Dorado.

When the European restaurant between Bagel Works and Town Hall closed, Iron Wok took over that location and from my and my friends observations appears to be doing quite well. There is a good reason for this: the food is really good, as are the portions, and the service is excellent.

I planned to meet a friend there for lunch and arrived a bit early. While I was looking over the menu, a family group came in to eat and it turned out they had driven from Elk Grove just to have the food they loved and renew their friendship with the owners. When people go out of their way to get food that they like, that gives you a really good feeling about a restaurant.

They aren’t the only ones, by the way. Several people have commented on social media that they have made the same trip, just to have the food and reconnect with the owners.

When my friend arrived, we decided to split two of their Special Combinations, which are served all day. Each combination comes with a choice of soup, a veggie egg roll and a choice of steamed or BBQ pork fried rice.

Our selections were Cashew Chicken and Sauteed Prawns with Vegetables. My friend chose egg flower soup, I, hot and sour. We also decided to order both the steamed and pork fried rice.

As expected, the soup arrived first. The egg flower soup was delicate, delicious and fresh. The hot and sour soup was more hardy, but not overpowering in its flavor. It also was very fresh tasting.

When our main dishes arrived, they were both beautiful. Presentation is so important at a restaurant. And, there was so much food, my friend ended up taking almost half of it home.

The cashew chicken was, like the egg flower soup, delicate in its flavor. It was also full of lightly sauteed vegetables with just the right amount of crispness, a crispness also found in the cashews, which can often be soggy. The BBQ pork fried rice was very flavorful without overpowering the rest of the food, albeit a bit dry if eaten by itself, but who does that?

The sauteed shrimp with vegetables was loaded with large shrimp, perfectly cooked. We divided that dish and continued to find more shrimp hidden among the delicious vegetables as we ate. The steamed rice had that slightly sticky texture that helps me keep it together and off my lap.

To top things off, even the veggie egg roll was fresh, light and delicious, and there was that yummy sweet red sauce for dipping.
All in all it was a fantastic lunch, high above my expectations. My friend commented that it was a step above the other local Chinese restaurants.

In addition to the two dishes we ordered the Special Combinations portion of the menu includes nearly a dozen more, made with chicken, pork, beef or just vegetables. Included on this list are numerous favorites such as Beef with Broccoli, Sweet and Sour Pork, Mongolian
Beef, Kung Pao Chicken, General Chicken and more.

The regular part of the menu, which has a greater variety of dishes, starts with half a dozen appetizers and seven kinds of soup to start your meal. These are followed by seven pork dishes, sixteen chicken dishes, fourteen seafood dishes and eleven beef. There are also ten delicious sounding vegetable dishes.

To round out your meal you will find seven different kinds of fried rice, made with barbecued pork, shredded pork, beef, chicken, prawns or a mixture of several. And, if you prefer chow mein or chow fun, there are eight different kinds of those, followed by three kinds of steamed and seasoned vegetable dishes.

Iron Wok, Chinese Cuisine, is located a 545 Main Street in Placerville, and is open six days a week: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. until 8 p.m and on Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Closed on Tuesday.

Oh, they have both inside and outside seating should you wish to enjoy watching the passing crowd.

For more information give them a call at (530) 903-3358. Or, just show up and enjoy.

Steppin’ Out – Grizzly’s Pub & Grub, six miles east of Somerset

Even though I had read a bit about this new restaurant that has only been open since November, I really didn’t know what to expect. Well, I was both surprised and delighted. This place and its owner are treasures.

Grizzly’s Pub and Grub is at 8331 Grizzly Flat Road at its intersection with Sweeney Road. Yes, where Peart’s Place used to be, just six miles east of Somerset.

When we arrived I immediately noticed that a lot of work had been done to the place and it looked good. The owner, Leanne Aalmo, delightfully greeted me and my friend, Mike Long, and then, to our delight, started on a list of what we HAD to try.

Helping her that day was Terri, and in the kitchen, preparing our food, was Amanda.

“You have to try ‘The Baloo,’ as a burger” started Leanne, “it has our homemade balsamic, bacon, onion jam on it that you will love. It takes two hours to make a cup of it. Also, you need to try ‘The Mountain,’ with my house smoked tri-tip. It is very popular, so popular that I used to smoke eight tri-tips a week and now do fifteen.

“Like all our speciality sandwiches, those two come with a choice of side or half an appetizer,” she continued. “I’ll bring you a mixture of fries and onion rings that we call ‘frings,’ some of our red potato salad, a sample of our sweet battered corn nuggets and some Cheddar cheese curds to go with it.”

“Cheese curds?” I asked. “They put those and brown gravy on fries in Canada. They call it ‘Poutain.’ I haven’t seen cheese curds locally. Do you make Poutain with them? ”

“We tried making it,” she said, “but we can only get breaded cheese curds from our supplier.

“Our fish and chips are sensational,” she continued, “ and so are our chicken breasts. I’ll get you a sample of those to try and wait until you taste our homemade tartar sauce on the fish. It is wonderful,” adding with a smile, “Is there anything else you want to try?” first pausing and then adding, “It is taco Tuesday. You probably can’t eat a whole taco, but I will bring you some taco meat to try.” It turned out to be delicious.

First to arrive was “The Baloo.” made with a half pound of Angus beef and the special jam, lots of blue cheese crumbles, fresh lettuce and a nice big tomato slice on an artisan bun. It was fantastic. The combination of good beef, blue cheese and her special jam gave it a delicious taste unlike any burger I had tried before.

“I season the meat with a special seasoning I have a friend bring me from a little store at South Lake Tahoe,” Leanne said. “That’s why the burger tastes so good.”

Next to arrive was our tri-tip “Mountain” sandwich. It came on a Hoagie roll that contained about an inch of meat and lots of grilled mushrooms and onions, all smothered in Swiss cheese. At first I thought it might need something to dress it up a bit, then the wonderful smoky flavor of the meat came through and I decided it was great just the way it was served. Again, a delicious, unique sandwich with an outstanding taste.
While we enjoyed the sandwiches, Mike and I tasted the fries, onion rings, chicken, corn nuggets and fried cheese curds.

With them she had brought us three dipping sauces: Ranch dressing and two homemade ones, chipotle aioli and blue cheese dressing, along with her own tartar sauce.

Mike immediately commented on the fries, onion rings and fish. “These crispy fries are great and the onion rings hold together so you don’t end up with a cooked onion and a hand full of empty breading. And you gotta try this fish. It is fantastic. It has just a thin coating on delicious fish (Alaskan Cod) that is great with or without their tartar sauce.”

As usual, I had to agree with him, adding that the chicken was also moist and tender. The fries and onion rings were hot, crisp and outstanding and the fish just the way I liked it too.

The cheese curds were good, but tasted more like mozzarella than cheddar, but then, I have never had them before. The corn nuggets were like my grandmother’s corn fritters and excellent with all the dipping sauces. Mike liked them so much that he nabbed the last one from in front of me when I turned to talk with Leanne.

While we were really enjoying the food, we asked her about here previous restaurant experience, believing anyone who could produce food this good must have been in the business for some time.

“Nope,” she said. “I drove a tow truck in Tahoe for thirty years. I just love good food and know other people will love it too. I shop around and only buy the best. If my regular suppliers don’t have it, I drive to where I can get it.

I was impressed.

The menu starts with quite a list of appetizers, including what we tried, along with fried zucchini sticks, Jalapeño poppers, mozzarella sticks, deep fried mushrooms, spicy cauliflower florets, salads and soup (seasonal). Specialties include the sandwiches we had along with “The Western” with sweet BBQ sauce, “Blackened” with Cajun seasoning and Chipotle Aioli, and three burgers, including a vegetarian, black bean burger. The sandwiches come with a choice of meat: chicken, Angus beef or tri-tip.

Other Favorites include a Grilled Cheese Basket, Fish and Chips Basket, Chicken Strips Basket, a grilled chicken breast sandwich on grilled Parmesan sourdough called “The Pioneer,” a BLT on the same grilled Parmesan sourdough called “The Big Ben,” “The Gold Rush,” a smoked tri-tip sandwich served cold and “The Miner,” an Alaskan cod fish filet sandwich with all the trimmings.

Yes, they are very family friendly, so there is a “Little Cubs Corner” kids menu.

To accompany your meal, lemon infused water, soda, domestic and import beer and wine by the glass. By the way, if you want to bring your own wine, there is no corkage. And, since the meals are large, no charge for an extra plate to split the meal.

“I hate it when they do that,” Leanne said, “That is why I don’t charge.”

Hours are from 11 until 9, Sunday through Thursday and 11 until ? on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call (530) 303-2136. You can also get more information on their Facebook page.

“There are several thousand people living near and beyond here,” said Leanne. “Call in an order and pick up you food on your way home on a snowy, wet day or a day you just don’t feel like cooking. To-go orders are our specialty.”

Steppin’ Out – Take a Bite Deli, Lotus

So, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a great lunch at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Placerville, and talking restaurants with Troy Duncan, who with his wife and parents own the place. I don’t know how it came up, but he asked me it I had ever been to “Take a Bite.” I looked at him and said, “If that is a restaurant, No.”

“It’s in Coloma,” he said, “in the Chevron Station just beyond the bridge. It’s a deli, but they serve fantastic cheesesteak sandwiches and burgers. The lady who owns it is named Lindsey and I think they have been there for ten years.”

I love cheesesteak sandwiches and burgers, so I looked the place up online and asked my friend, Mike Long, if he was interested in lunch. He had a lot of other things going on, so I figured I might just go by myself.

I happen to have a friend named Larry Stiles, who used to walk with us, but is now recovering from a work related injury. For several weeks he hasn’t been able to drive and he just happened to call me, asking if I could take him to the store, adding, maybe we could have lunch at the same time. The following day we were on our way to run some errands and have lunch at Take a Bite.

Take a Bite is actually in Lotus, even though it is sometimes known as “Take a Bite of Coloma,” and very easy to find. If you are heading towards Cool from Placerville, drive across the bridge, go a few hundred feet and there it is in the Chevron Station on your right, just before the Coloma Club.

Find a place to park. Then go in the main door of the service station and turn to your left. You can’t miss it.

We walked in and were greeted by three lovely smiling ladies, the lady who runs the station, deli owner Lindsey and her helper and friend, Chevon, who is also a nurse at a local school.

We ordered a Cheese Steak sandwich, a Pastrami Burger, a couple of drinks and an order of fries. When I started to orders more fries, Lindsey immediately replied, “One order is enough for two people.”

When I mentioned who I was, she said that another paper had written a story about her place some time ago.

“They never really mentioned my food,” she said, “It was all about me.”

“People want to know about you,” I told her. “Everyone wants to know how it is you have a restaurant. A lot of people want to own a restaurant.”

While she lovingly fixed our food, she told me her story, which I shortened.

“Well,” she said, “I’m from New York. I met someone right here at the gas station who I would soon date and later marry. I told him I was looking for a job. He had a friend who had this place and was looking for help. He asked where I was from and when I told him New York, he said, “You’re hired. I’m looking for someone who doesn’t have a lot of local friends who will give away sandwiches.”

“In 2005 my in-laws opened ‘Take a Bite.’ she continued, “and since we got along great, my mother-in-law and I ran the place. When she retired, she gave it to me and here I am. Now I run it and hire my good friends to help me. I love what I do.”

There is no inside seating, so when our food was ready, we took everything, including a number of napkins, outside to some picnic tables they have under an oak tree, a place where we could eat and watch the “passing parade.”

Larry started with the Cheese Steak which, along with a lot of meat, included sauteed mushrooms, onions, jalapenos, seasoning, melted cheese and mayo.

“This is great,” Larry told me. “The meat is really tender and good.”

I started with my half of the Pastrami Burger, which had lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo and mustard on it. From the first bite I was entranced. It was one of those burgers cooked on a flat-top grill that is juicy, runny and absolutely full of flavor. Every bite was as good as the first. I hated to have it end.

I turned to Larry and said, “This immediately reminded me of one of those burgers I used to get from a diner at the end of a fishing pier and is just outstanding.”

As Larry started on the burger his first remark was, “This is a great burger.” I nodded in agreement.

Part of the secret, Lindsey tole me is that she hand forms the one-third pound plus patties herself.

As I started on the Cheese Steak, I made a similar remark to Larry’s. I like cheesesteak sandwiches in the “Philly” style, with lots of sauteed peppers, but even without them, it was really, really good.

The fries were well done, crunchy and delicious. Again, like those from an “end of the pier” diner.

The menu also includes a number of other delicious items, including the Coloma Taco, a BLT, Cheeseburger, “Best Burger (thick bacon, onion ring, BBQ sauce and American cheese), Mushroom Burger, “Burger By the Bay” (your choice of cheese and the works) and a Spicy Black Bean Burger. You can also get meat and/or cheese sandwiches.

They also have specials and you can get the Cheese Steak made with chicken or “veggie.”

“I have a family,” Lindsey said, so we are only open from 10 until 3, weekdays and we are closed on the weekends.”

For more information you can call (530) 642-8482. Or, just stop by during business hours. You will love the food and the people.