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Taking You Back in History: Strong Women of Tuolumne County in the Gold Rush (and Beyond) - Part II

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

Historical Society

Charlotte DeFerrari

A short-lived revival in gold mining starting in the 1890s centered on a new technology of “hardrock” mining, Deep shafts were dug into the earth, ore extracted via small carts, and gold transformed into usable form in mills. Both Groveland and Big Oak Flat had several mines and mills. New capital and new people came to the area.

Among these new immigrants was Charlotte DeFerrari who came to America from Genoa, Italy, about 1900 at age 16 to join members of her family who were already in Tuolumne County. Tragically, Charlotte’s father died in a mining accident at roughly the same time. Charlotte was left to help support her family by working for her uncle Giacomo in his Groveland area saloon (now known as The Iron Door). She became well known for her cooking and hospitality.

In 1913 Groveland and Charlotte DeFerrari were forever changed by the arrival of the Hetch Hetchy project. Groveland was named the “mountain headquarters” for the construction of the new Hetch Hetchy dam and supporting infrastructure. Hundreds of workers streamed into Groveland, new buildings were built, and new businesses flourished. Charlotte recognized a business opportunity and opened the “Hetch Hetchy Restaurant” in 1916. It was a great success catering to the workers and managers of the HH project as well as the supporting enterprises.

By 1921 Charlotte was so successful that she opened the “Hotel Charlotte” on Main Street. Building on her gourmet reputation, the hotel was also very successful. U.S. Prohibition, which came into place in 1919, posed a challenge, but like many businesses across the nation, Charlotte seemed to “find a way,” one that perhaps included providing a special beverage served in “tea cups” to patrons. In December 1921, the hotel was fined $400 for serving alcohol. Notwithstanding, Charlotte added a separate restaurant with a suggestive name, “The Gem Saloon,” in 1927.

Unfortunately, Groveland’s Hetch Hetchy boom disappeared with the completion of the project in the 1930s. Unlike many other establishments in the town that were forced to close, Charlotte was able to continue the hotel business until her retirement I 1948. The Hotel Charlotte is still a well-known and successful fixture in Groveland to this day.

Mary Webb Wilson Laveroni was another member of the local Italian community (by marriage) who contributed enormously to her area. From Southern California, Mary Webb first came to Groveland in the 1930s with her first husband, Robert Wilson. She divorced Wilson thereafter, and married George Laveroni in 1941. George Laveroni was well-known local citizen as the son of the prominent Laveroni family who owned several local businesses. George himself had founded and was involved in several businesses, including the Laveroni Ice Cream Store, which used milk from the family dairy and closed in 1941.

Mary and George were well-known members of the Groveland community. Mary worked on the administrative staff on the National Forest Service for nearly 20 years. During that time George founded and operated lumber-related businesses and a hardware and general merchandise store. George died in 1981 at age 87.

For 70 years until her death in 2011 Mary Laveroni pursued an extremely active community life. She was passionate about education and medical care for her community. She was on the School Board for both Groveland – Big Oak Flat as well as Tuolumne County. She also served on the Columbia College Advisory Board. She gave money and land to establish a local medical center.

Perhaps most significantly, Mary was instrumental in the community effort to provide a reliable supply of high-quality water to Groveland. For many years, Groveland had struggled to provide good water to its residents and businesses. Small water companies had come and gone, and the community resorted to using mine from abandoned mines. Water from the mines was so iron-laden that locals complained that it turned sheep’s wool red. The town and its people didn’t have the income to finance obtaining water from the major Hetch Hetchy project that had water infrastructure (tunnels, pipes) just several miles from town.

Gradually starting in the 1940s and 1950s, community leaders began an awareness campaign to gain approval for a public financing to tap into Hetch Hetchy water. Mary Laveroni was a key figure in that effort, along with Judge Millard Merrell and others. In 1944 a local “sanitation district” was authorized, and it 1953 a “community services district” was formed to pursue a water solution. Mary Laveroni was elected (as the leading vote-getter and President) to the District Board. Finally, in 1964 a contract between the Groveland Community Service District (GCSD) and the City of San Francisco was signed to provide water from Hetch Hetchy to the town and the area. In 1965 the first water flowed.

In addition to her substantial role in health, education, and water, Mary was also active in local history preservation. She was a founder of the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS). After years of private fundraising STCHS inaugurated the Groveland Museum in 2001.

In honor of all Mary’s contributions to the area, GCSD opened Groveland’s first and only public park in downtown in 2005 and named it Mary Laveroni Park. It was fitting legacy for a woman who gave so much to her community.

Of course, these four stories do not portray the strength of the many other Tuolumne women who contributed much to the area. Women such as Elvira Smith Mecartea (1833 – 1903) who had 13 children and whose family went on to run a prominent blacksmith shop in Big Oak Flat until the 1930s. Or Sophie Thompson of the Me-Wuk band of Indians, who became “chieftainess” of the local band upon the death of her father, Nomasu, the last of the original Indian chiefs after the arrival of Europeans. She is proof that the “strength” of women in Tuolumne County isn’t limited to those who came here but also is a quality of those who were here before.

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


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