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Taking You Back in History: Big Oak Flat Fire of 1863, Part 2

By Scott Belser, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

The fire of October 1863 was an apocalyptic event for Big Oak Flat. The only surviving structures were two stone buildings still standing today: the “International Order of Odd Fellows Hall” (IOOF) and the Gamble Wells Fargo building.

The “IOOF” building was a one-story, two-section building built in 1853 from local schist and lime from Sonora. The two separate sections were owned by local merchants: Philander Grant (mercantile) and Michael Gilbert (grocery). Shortly after the fire, the IOOF bought the Grant store to replace their hall lost in the conflagration and, 20 years later, the Gilbert grocery. They added a second story in 1924. The IOOF sold the entire property in 2018.

The Wells Fargo Gamble building was built in 1852 for Alexander Gamble, a prominent local businessman, of native slate and lime mortar and comprised three separate sections, each with 2 large metal doors easily visible from the adjoining highway. The most notable tenant was the Wells Fargo Company who provided critical financial and assaying services for the mining community. Despite the fire and the unrelenting decline in local mining, it remained in Big Oak Flat until 1893. The building itself saw a series of tenants (including a post office) through the early 1900s until it was essentially left empty by the mid-20th century. In 2007 it was donated by family members to the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society who are now charged with its preservation and maintenance.

The community also began a long process of re-building to replace the businesses, homes, and other wooden structures destroyed in the fire. The Kenny Hotel referred to by Ellen May was rebuilt. In fact, she took a job in the new hotel, where she met her husband. Another hotel named Yo Semite was also constructed by a new proprietor, Thomas Barnes. The Golden Rock Water Company needed a headquarters for its continuing operations and built its own office in Big Oak Flat opposite the Gamble building.

A rough map drawn for Ms. Schlichtmann’s book (The Big Oak Flat Road, 1955) reveals the variety of businesses and homes that were rebuilt in the aftermath of the Great Fire: Betzer smithy, Hoffer’s bakery, Fisher home, Longfellow stable and livery, Harper carpenter shop, Judge Murrow’s home, Marconi bakery, Maccabee’s dance hall, Cavagnaro general store, Nozilgia bakery and orchard. Life in Big Oak Flat had taken a severe blow from the Fire, but it hadn’t stopped completely.

Big Oak Flat, 1911

One Big Oak Flat business and family are prominently shown on the Schlichtmann map and are of particular note. James Mecartea moved to Big Oak Flat with his wife Elvira in 1872 to found a blacksmithing and livery business. The Mecarteas had 13 children, and one son Austin continued the business through the 1920s. Their stone building was located on the Divide between Big Oak Flat and Groveland, a local landmark until its collapse and final demolition in the 1980s.

Thanks to its location at the top of the Grade, Big Oak Flat continued its prominent role in transportation and communication between the Central Valley (and beyond) and the communities further up the hill. Charles Baird ran a livery business carrying goods from the Valley to the mines with long horse-drawn stage coaches (as well as the Baird Hotel in Groveland) In addition, the town was the location for a succession of telegraph offices connecting with Yosemi