Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Serving the Public Since the 1850s
By Kathy Brown
Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society / Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum
Atop the “Grade” sits the popular Priest Station Cafe and the surrounding Priest/Anker ranch. The pioneer history of this area reaches back to the earliest years of the Gold Rush when argonauts spread throughout the Motherlode in an attempt to strike it rich. A mule trail to the top, created by early Me-Wuk inhabitants, ended at John Wooten's Rattlesnake Store. It offered supplies, food, and drink to the earliest prospectors. Thus began a stopping place which has served the public for most of the intervening years.
In 1853 Alexander Kirkwood purchased John Wooten's small trading post. He returned to his native Scotland to marry Margaret Dick and brought her back to his post at the top of hill. Together they ran the little store for 13 years, adding more buildings and developing it into a stage stop which provided room and board to miners, local teachers and travelers. In 1870 Alexander died of a fever contracted on a trip through the Isthmus of Panama, leaving Margaret to run their stage stop alone.
As one of the few women in the area, Margaret received numerous proposals of marriage. Within months she wed William Priest, a mining and road engineer. Priest was very busy with his engineering projects. He was instrumental in developing the Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Toll Road, and the Sierra Wagon Road to the mining areas at Tioga Pass. He was also one of Yosemite's first Commissioners. The stage stop served as the administrative headquarters for the Big Oak Flat Road when it opened in 1874. One of Margaret's tasks was to ride its length to collect the tolls paid to the gate keepers along the way.
The stage stop, which became known as Priest Station, was left to the very capable management of Margaret. The hotel was enlarged and amenities were added in order to serve an increasing number of travelers. At its zenith the station had 22 buildings, including a two-story hotel, blacksmith, a separate Lady’s Parlor, carriage houses, stables and barns. Their surrounding ranch, gardens, and fruit trees provided most of the establishment's needs.
Priest Station was well known for its hospitality and delicious food. John Smedley, an 1874 traveler to Yosemite, wrote about reaching the Station in his journal:
“Around and around, thinking every turn would be the last. Coats and hats off by 11:00 PM. Finally, we heard the bark of a dog, knowing a house was near. In a few minutes we reached Priest's, the best place and table in the whole land, and a pretty girl to attend to the table. They were all snug in bed, but when we called they got up and in 20 minutes, had a steaming hot dinner of fricasseed chicken, fried ham, beefsteak, good coffee and tea and milk, pie and cake and strawberries. Such a luscious supper! May Priest's shadow never grow less! …We enjoyed our supper and did not tarry long before retiring where we had good beds and slept sounder than ever. “