Gold Country History

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.”

Gekkeikan Sake – they tested the water

Over the past centuries California has lured people to it for its many assets: its climate, its farm lands and, most of all its gold. Today the gold is still here, not only in the ground but also in the water.

In 1989 Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom, California, the first Gekkeikan sake brewing facility outside of Japan. And what would bring them here, two things, the first being obvious since Folsom is near a major rice growing area and rice is needed to make sake . The second and most important to them was the water.

The company had been looking at a location in Louisiana, but Folsom won out because of the water. Remove the chemicals and minerals from the public water, put back everything but the chlorine and you have water with many of the qualities of the water found in Fushimi, Japan, where Gekkeikan originated, just what they were looking to find.

Japan’s tradition of sake brewing began more than 2,000 years ago shortly after rice cultivation was introduced from China. Though the first few centuries yielded a beverage quite unlike that of today, years of experience perfected brewing techniques and increased sake’s overall appeal and popularity.

In 1637, Gekkeikan’s founder, Jiemon Okura established his sake brewery in the town of Fushimi, a location well-known for its high quality of water. Access to the ideal ingredients combined with a convenient location enabled Okura and his successors’ business to thrive in the years that followed.

In 1905, the brand name Gekkeikan (meaning “crown of laurel”) was adopted as the company’s formal pledge to excellence. Through this commitment, the company became a true leader in the industry and pioneered a number of research and development efforts. The successful results of these endeavors have enabled Gekkeikan to become their nation’s most popular brand in 1953.

With a greater world wide appreciation of Japanese cuisine over the last decades, Gekkeikan sake has been experiencing a tremendous growth in popularity. To meet this increase in demand is why Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom. And, in reply to the increased demand for their product, the Folsom facility is in the process of expanding.

Sake is a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage classified in the same general category with wine and beer. Made from the simple ingredients of rice and water, it goes through a fermentation process which, essentially converts starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol through the work of koji (a fungi enzyme) and yeast.

To start the process, the rice, short-grained Japonica, is first polished to remove the outer layers. The starch in rice in in the middle, so the amount of polishing determines the quality of the sake. Depending upon the type of sake being made, 30 or 40 percent of the outer layer is removed and two either used independently or blended.

The Folsom plant makes only five of Gekkeikan’s many types of sake: Haiku (premium), Silver, Black and Gold, Traditional, which is also available in in Traditional Light and Draft, a sake that is not pasteurized, but cold filtered and meant to be served cold.

Using simple terms to describe this 2000 year old process, the polished rice, which arrives in one-ton bags, is cleaned, steeped and steamed. To a portion of the rice is then added the koji enzyme and to the other portion, the yeast and water. Then everything is combined in a fermentation tank where the starch is ultimately converted to alcohol. After 30 days, the fermented mixture, now called Moromi, is pressed through filters to remove the liquid which is then pasturized. The Draft Sake is not pasteurized, but instead undergoes ultra filtration to achieve this same result, protecting its smooth, fresh flavor. The remaining solids, or sake cake, are recycled as cattle food.
Then the sake is transferred to aging tanks where it rests for several months and acquires its mild and smooth taste. Finally, about a year after starting, the sake is bottled.

The sterile bottles are filled on a bottling line similar to one used to bottle wine. While rapidly moving through the line the bottles are filled, capped and labeled, after which they are boxed for shipment. A bottle from each batch is kept for testing purposes should there be a comment or complaint from a consumer.

Although most is, not all sake is bottled. Some is put into 18 liter cubes for restaurant use and even a1000 liter “tote” for shipment to other places, such as Brazil, where it will be later bottled.

Not all sake that leaves the Folsom facility is the same. Sake can have an alcohol content of from five to 20 percent and certain countries and even states have regulations on the maximum amount of alcohol it can legally contain. To insure that the sake meets the high standards of Gekkeikan and any government regulations, all batches of sake made are tested for quality and alcohol content at a lab in the facility.

To Gekkeikan, consistency in all the aspects of the process is most important. That is why Gekkeikan sake is the number one selling sake in the world.

In addition to sake, the Folsom facility also makes a Kobai Plum wine, which is California white wine to which the essence of the Sonoma plums is added.

At the tasting room you can taste Gekkeikan sake and plum wine and purchase them. All are available in bottles of different sizes, while the Traditional sake is also available in the 1.8 liter “taru,” a smaller version of the large ceremonial Japanese barrel, which makes an excellent gift. In addition to the sake made at the Folsom facility, they also have other Gekkeikan sakes, imported from Japan to taste and for sale.

The pleasant tasting room personnel are delighted to teach you about sake, the proper serving containers (porcelain for warm sake, glass for cold sake and bamboo or lacquer boxes for either) and the proper temperature at which it should be served, depending upon the type. This is especially important as the present trend is to drink sake at colder temperatures, rather than as traditionally warmed. They will also explain to you that each kind of sake, like different kinds of wine, has a slightly different aroma and taste. To complete your education on sake they will also tell you how sake can be used to prepare unique and delicious mixed drinks and will even provide you with a brochure of delicious recipes. And, don’t miss the beautiful shirts, hats and accessories for sale in the tasting room.

The tasting room also periodically hosts informative hands-on introductory sushi making classes taught by local sushi chefs as they share inside secrets and techniques from the exotic world of Japanese cuisine. Called Simply Sushi the classes focus on three specific elements of sushi making: preparing sushi rice, selecting fish and making California and hand rolls.

Classes are held on three levels: Children, adults and advanced. the next series of classes starts in February. Call for more information.

The tasting room at Gekkeikan Sake in Folsom is in a beautiful building with a large Koi pond on three sides. It is open from10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. In addition, self guided tours of the facility can be enjoyed by groups of less than eight, while guided tours are available for larger groups by appointment.

Gekkeikan Sake is located at 1136 Sibley St., in Folsom. For more information, call (916) 985-3111.

Criminal Annals, Part 25 – The Placer Times: Missing Deeds

vol1no42p1 head 3 2Continuing with the March 2, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” we find a notice in the advertising section of the paper regarding a problem with some missing deeds.

As a bit of background, the town of Nicolaus wasn’t much more than an idea at the start of 1850. On February 16, the Placer Times noted that “The public spirited proprietor of the tract of land heretofore know as “Nicolaus Ranche ’[also Nicolaus’ Ranch and Nicolaus Ferry] has responded to the repeated requests of the people, and has caused one mile square [640 acres] of it to be laid off into a town, to which he has given the name of the ranche.”

An advertisement later in the same newspaper notes that the owner, Nicolaus Allgeier, has appointed one Charles Berghoff as his agent and that Mr. Joseph Grant, in Sacramento, is authorized to sell the lots of this new town.

In the aforementioned article, Mr. Grant is described thusly: “His temperament is more sanguine than ours – for he boldly asserts that ‘Nicolaus’ will not only outstrip all the towns above, but will at not distant day rival both this city and San Francisco.”

The town of Nicolaus never reached the level Mr. Grant thought it would, but someone immediately thought the lots were very valuable.
“Notice. Stolen from the office of Charles Berghoff in the town of ‘Nicolaus,’ seven deeds bearing date 26th February, 1850, drawn by the above-named gentleman in my favor, conveying the following described property, to wit: Lot No. 1 of block No. 31, Lot No. 6 of block No. 91. Lot No 7 of block 7, Lot No. 7 of block No. 22, East half of Lot No. 4 of block No. 2 Lot No. 5 of block No. 18, Lot No. 1 of block No. 20

“I hereby caution the public against the purchase of the above unacknowledged and unrecorded papers, which have been cancelled and declared null and void; and notice is hereby given that I shall make application to the agent of Nicolaus Allgeier for new deeds conveying the property herein described. JOSEPH GRAF. Nicolaus, 27th Feb. 1850.”

The March 9 issue of the Placer Times has a number of interesting articles on Page 2, starting with one regarding the removal of squatters from the levee, where they had set up camp to get above the flood.

“Clearing the Levee. – The work of removing the obstructions upon the Levee commenced on Tuesday morning. With but few exceptions, all who had ‘squatted’ on the Landing left without resistance. One or two made a warlike demonstration, but were soon satisfied that the best thing they could do was to vamoose. Every shanty, we believe, is now removed, and we presume all other obstructions will be cleared of today, the five day’s notice having expired.”

The second article regards continuing crime in San Francisco.

“Another Murder at San Francisco. – On Sunday evening last two Frenchmen visited a house of ill-fame at San Francisco, and upon leaving, met three Chilenos at the door, who asked them ‘what they were doing there?’ One of the Frenchmen replied that ‘it was none of their business.’ Some angry words followed, when one of the Frenchmen, named Plantier, made an attempt to get past the Chilenos, whereupon one of the latter drew a Bowie knife and stabbed the Frenchman a number of times. – Plantier died of his wounds on Monday evening. The police arrested the murderer soon afterward and it is thought he will not escape without meeting the punishment he so richly merits.”
The third article regards a inquest into a death.

“Inquest. – An inquest was held at Sutter on the 3d inst. upon the body of a man found upon the bank of the Sacramento at that place. No marks of violence having been found upon the body, the jury returned a verdict of ‘death by drowning.’ The body was not recognized by any one before it was buried.”

Several weeks ago was mentioned the following article in the February 2 edition of the Placer Times: “Unlucky. – A man by the name of Parker, who came down in the steamer Lawrence from the Yuba, as he was getting off the boat, dropped a tin box, containing $4,900 in dust, into the river. A reward of $500 has been offered for its recovery.”

This is followed in the March 9 edition with this story:

“The tin box containing $4000 in dust, which was dropped overboard from the steamer Lawrence, was recovered on Sunday last. A man went down in sub-marine armor, and was gone about ten minutes. He took half of the pile for his trouble. A very good job for one of the parties at least.”

Finally, there is a short “filler” included only for its humor:

“A correspondent in a ‘Frisco paper, writing from this city, says he saw ‘a female pedestrian galloping through our streets.’ Hope she had a good time.”


Criminal Annals, Part 24 – The Placer Times: Problems with the Legislature

vol1no40p1 head 2 16With most of the flooding from the heavy rains of the winter of 1849-1850 having subsided, a lot of the space in the “Placer Times,” Sacramento’s major newspaper, is devoted to articles regarding the improving the levee system. Additional space is devoted to continuing problems with the squatters on land to which someone holds a Spanish or Mexican land grant, along with questions and letters concerning what they are calling the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. There is also an interesting issue that the people of Sacramento are having with the new legislature which is meeting in San Jose.

In late 1849 the voters of Sacramento approved a charter for the city and forwarded it to the state legislature for their approval. The legislature, which was only elected in November of 1849, took it upon themselves to make revisions to the charter which the voters believe they cannot do. Already the voters are questioning California’s new constitution and wondering about the people they elected.

In the February 16 issue of the Placer Times is an article regarding some difficulties in San Francisco as reported in the “Alta California.”

“Attempt to Shoot an Officer. – Yesterday morning an altercation took place in Pacific street between two men, one named John S. Banks, and the other Oliver H. Dewey, barkeeper of the El Dorado. The latter knocked Banks down with a billy, whereupon officer Bachman interfered and arrested Dewey; but on his way to the Police office, he made his escape from the officer, who pursued him into the El Dorado, when Dewey procured a pistol and fired it at the officer, somewhat injuring him in the face. The doors of the house were immediately closed. The officer, in consequence of the injury he had received, finding it impossible to proceed farther alone, immediately proceeded to the Police office for assistance, and when he again returned was refused admission. Here the affair rested until about 8 o’clock, when the officer again proceeded to the house, but Dewey was not to be found. The whole transaction was laid before his Honor Judge Geary, who immediately summoned the proprietors of the El Dorado to appear before him, and upon examination they denied all knowledge of the affair. It was finally ascertained that Dewey had secreted himself in a room in a house in Washington street, whereupon the officers proceeded to search of him; and when they asked if such a person was there, were told that ‘a lady slept in the room.’ The officers, not satisfied, proceeded to the room and burst open the door, and found Dewey quietly reposing in bed. He made no resistance, but proceeded with the officers to the Police office. After an examination before Judge Geary, he was admitted to bail in the sum of $10,000. The proprietors of the El Dorado were also held to bail to keep the peace, in the sum of $5,000 each. [Alta California]”

For the rest of February the Placer Times focused on the aforementioned problems with levees, squatters, railroads and the legislature.
In the March 2, 1850 issue there are a few notes taken from papers arriving from the “States” under the heading, “Interesting Items:”

“We find the following ‘news’ paragraphs in papers just received from the States. We will venture to say that California correspondents can ‘lie’ with greater ‘Volubility,’ than any set of men in existence.

“Chinese Slaves in California. – The Baltimore Sun asserts, on the authority of its private correspondent, that the number of Chinese arriving in California is enormous. They are brought in cargoes by English vessels, and sold as servants to the highest bidder, on the Cooley system, a shade less than absolute slavery. This is a species of trade that will soon get its quietus from the State government.

“The Temperance Test in California. – The New York Tribune, in speaking of the late election in California, says that Capt. Sutter, one of the candidates for Governor, was effectively opposed because he was a ‘drinking’ man. If this be so, it speaks well for California, and places her considerably in advance of some of the older states.”

This item is followed by a note that could easily be found it any of today’s newspapers:

“The Streets. – Efforts are being made to improve the streets, all necessary improvements in which could be made in a few days, were not certain gentlemen very fearful of its costing them a few paltry dollars.”

Among the notices and advertisements, which usually appear on pages three and four is one regarding the crime of cattle rustling and the how it is being handled:

“Criminal Court of Sacramento District.

“At a term of this court held for the District of Sacramento, at Marysville, upon the Yuba, this twenty-eighth day of January, 1850 – present, R.A. Wilson, Judge of the Criminal Court of said District:

“It having been made to appear to this court that there was a combination of cattle thieves, with extensive ramifications through this District; and it farther appearing to this Court that certain evil-disposed persons have industriously circulated the report that it is lawful to kill unmarked cattle upon the ranches, as well as upon the public lands, and that thereby many misguided persons have been led to the commission of a felony; and that the Grand Jury of said District having upon their oaths found true bills for grand larceny against Samuel Hicks, Michael Watson, Nelson Gill and James Nicholson for cattle stealing: It is ordered by the Court, that the Clerk give public notice warning all persons that may have been misled by such misrepresentations, of the consequence of farther commission of such crime – that the stealing of beef cattle, whether branded or unbranded, is an infamous offense, within the meaning of the Constitution, and any person convicted of said offense is deprived of all the rights of citizenship in California, and liable to be sentenced to two years’ confinement in the chain gang; and that in conducting the administration of justice, when necessary, the Court is authorized to call upon the Commandant of the United States troops stationed at Johnson’s ranch.

“STEPHEN J. FIELD, Clerk of said Court and Alcalde of Marysville.”