By Karen Davis, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society
In our world today “laying in supplies” is a simple matter of shopping for groceries and other household essentials either on-line or in local stores. It hasn’t always been that easy.
Trading posts were an integral part of California life prior to the gold rush. These posts were stores, owned mostly by Anglos, where Native Americans exchanged woven rugs, jewelry, baskets, wool and nuts for food and other necessities. One or more of those trading posts were here in “Savage’s Diggings” (what is now Big Oak Flat, Garrote/Groveland and 2nd Garrote).
Between 1849 and 1850 nearly 200,000 people from around the world arrived in California hoping to “strike it rich”. Many of these prospectors arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a lack of basic supplies. Merchants quickly realized they could profit by selling goods to miners. Typically a miner needed a mining pan, shovel, and pickaxe. He also needed living supplies such as food, clothing, bedding, shelter, lamp, cooking/eating utensils and a kettle.
At that time a majority of food in California had to be imported and became notoriously expensive. Forty-niners also hated to tear themselves away from their search for gold and turned to quick meals that could be cooked over hot ashes. His dietary staples might include coffee, bacon, sugar, beans, cornmeal and flour. The flour could be stretched by combining it with sour milk and cornmeal to be eaten as mush. Flapjacks were also a quick and easy meal.
One of the earliest merchants in the immediate area of Savage’s Diggings (Big Oak Flat) was John Wootten, an immigrant from England. Wootten operated “The Rattlesnake Store”, a small miners' supply situated at the top of Rattlesnake Creek Canyon. In the mid-1850s he sold the establishment to Alexander Kirkwood (founder of Priest’s Station) and moved into Big Oak Flat where he owned and operated a saloon in the west half what is now known as the IOOF Building.
John Cavagnaro, a naturalized citizen from Sardinia, operated the Cavagnaro General Store in Big Oak Flat from the late 1850s through the 1880’s. The store was in what had been the original adobe trading post located at the west end of town where the post office is now located.
Two other of Big Oak Flat’s pioneer businessmen were Thomas Kent and Philander Grant. Their mercantile was established in the early 1850’s and conducted in the temporary shelter of a cloth tent. It is understood that they built the stone structure that is now the main portion of the Odd Fellows’ Hall in 1854. A short time later, Kent sold his share of the business to Grant who subsequently partnered with James Boulton.
It was at about this same time (1854) that Michael Gilbert constructed a second stone building flush against the west wall of Grant’s store and operated the Gilbert & Joseph grocery store for several years. The IOOF Lodge bought this building in the 1880’s.
At the height of the gold rush (1850) the Chinese accounted for nearly 30% of all immigrants. Big Oak Flat, with its own influx of Chinese, had a designated “China Town” and this is where Chong Kee’s store was located.
Interested in other business interests in Big Oak Flat? Watch for Part 2.
Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p