Graniteville, California

A historic mining town in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Bill Jopes – The Summer of 1935

SUMMER IN GRANITEVILLE – courtesy of Bill Jopes

In the spring of 1935, just before I turned twelve years of age, an old friend of Dad’s by the name of Ed Lewis from San Francisco dropped by our home in Willows to visit with us. He had a girl with him who was not his wife but we didn’t talk about that.  Her name was Joanna and she was about 30 years old.  They stayed.  He was really down on his luck, out of work, and no place to go.  There was an old shed on our property that was pretty well built and he offered to fix it up if Dad would let him live in it.  We agreed and Dad also got him a job as a timekeeper with the WPA.

Ed Lewis was a WW I vet and I think had a small pension.  He was from Illinois and was a true sportsman.  In better days he had fine hunting and fishing equipment and was very experienced at handling both.  He was truly an outdoorsman.  During the late 1920’s he had discovered a Shangri-La hideout in the Sierras about 35 miles of dirt road east of Grass Valley on the Middle Fork of the Yuba River.  The trout fishing was unbelievably good and the hunting was the greatest.  It was also in the old Mother Lode country and there was still gold to be panned if you knew how to find it.

About the end of May Ed’s wanderlust and desire to return to his Shangri-La became more than he could contain.  Ed was only 43 years old but he had heart trouble and had to be careful not to overexert himself.  He wanted to go back up there to a very little place called Graniteville and try some sluice box mining as well as enjoying the good fishing and hunting.  After all, these were times of survival but if you were eating regularly things weren’t all that bad.    Ed had taken a liking to me and felt that perhaps he could make something out of me if he had me for a few months.  He also needed a swamper to shovel dirt into his sluice box.  He asked Dad if he could borrow me for the summer.  That was fine with him, just one less mouth to feed.

As soon as school was out and the snow quit flying in the Sierras Ed, Joanna and I packed up.  Ed had a 1928 Essex automobile and we loaded that car down to the overloads with a three-room tent and all the camping gear to make a home.  We also took groceries because there weren’t many supplies to be had in Graniteville.  There was just enough room for me to sit in the corner in the back seat.  We also had freight on the running boards and tied on the back.  Dad gave me a five dollar bill when we left which was to last me for the summer.  I could see things were really tight later on so I threw it into the kitty for our supplies.

The next couple of months were really a formative time of my life.  Ed was not a religious man but he certainly was a man of high morals and character.   As far as I was concerned his arraignment with Joanna was his business.  It seems I was his student and he was shaping me into becoming a decent and respectable person as well as being self sufficient and to stand up for my own rights.  I know this sounds corny but he had sort of a John Wayne type philosophy.  I learned to have a very high respect for him during that summer though I only turned 12 years of age while under his keeping.

We built a sluice box from material we had brought from home.  For those who don’t know, a sluice box (this one, anyway) was about eight feet long and a foot wide.  It is shaped like a flat bottomed trough.  An old piece of rug was cut to fit and nailed to the bottom.  Then we nailed 1” x 1” slats on the rug crossways like a ladder about 4” apart. The sluice was placed in a small stream with a slight angle downward so the water would run through it.  We shoveled dirt obtained in the area into the upper part of the box, then the water would carry it down over the crossbars and create a sort of ripple as the dirt was being washed down and out the lower end.  The theory is that the heavy rocks stay at the top and as the lighter dirt washes down, the heavy gold gets trapped in the rug or up against the cross bars.  The rocks are thrown away and the material that sticks is transferred to the gold pan where it is “washed for color” in the nearby stream.  The final act, before abandoning this operation is to remove the rug, burn it and pan the ashes.  This produces gold dust.

Not all the material that might contain gold was gathered around the sluice box.  There were a couple of old horizontal mine shafts close by large enough for a man to walk into.  In there we would gather buckets of dirt and bring out to the sluice.  That was usually my job and I must say that after several yards back into the tunnel the visibility would be similar to the inside of a cow.

Our routine was to go to the mine each morning after eating Joanna’s breakfast, shovel and pan until about noon, then return for lunch.  The rest of the day was spent trout fishing or squirrel hunting or just exploring.  Sometimes we would do early morning fishing and not mine at all.

We had set up our permanent three-room tent just on the north end of town.  Town consisted of a store (basic staples) with a gas pump.  Across the street was the old hotel from the old days.  They still kept a few rooms available and you could get a meal there.  It was all done in white lace curtains and dark wood.  There was a post office window there.  It was run by an old man named William McLean.  Other than that, there were 3 or 4 houses and that was it.  There was almost no traffic, just a few trucks and pick-ups from the sawmill up the road a few miles.

The store was owned and operated by John and Tillie. John had been a government ranger there in the old days but he killed a man in a fight and was terminated.  He and Tillie then opened the store and lived up there year around.  Graniteville is high in the Sierras and the winters are severe with deep snowfall. One winter, years earlier, Tillie broke her leg and John put her on a sled and pulled her all the way to Nevada City for medical help, a distance of about 30 miles. They also skied out together in the old days.

We established our campsite just off the road running east on the way up to the saw mill and Bowman Lake. Dead Man’s Creek was about 50 yards to the other side of us.  Dead Man’s Creek was a full stream of white water and boulders and was a great source for trout fishing.   A small ditch that came from Dead Man’s Creek just above our campsite ran right by our camp.  That gave us our water supply right at hand.  Other folks below us drank from this also so we took our wash water from there but washed in a tub.

Ed and I were together most of the time although sometimes I would wonder off for half a day or so while he rested.  He had a bad heart and some days he wouldn’t do anything or talk much either.  His heart killed him about 6 years later.  With the many hours I spent with him he taught me how not to get lost in the mountains.  He taught how to always keep my directions, how best to travel cross country, how to pace yourself so you could walk all day, how to listen to the animals and birds for danger, where to find water and how to eat off the land, how to tell time without a watch, and to tell what month it was.  He also taught me how to identify different trees.  Imagine having a mentor like that at 12 years of age and spending a whole summer in the high Sierras.  What made it so rewarding and memorable was that I loved it; I soaked it all up like a sponge.  It was this experience that gave me the desire to become a U.S. forest ranger and after I started high school I started taking classes to prepare for it.

Later in the summer we had a neighbor move in over by the creek some 50 yards away.  His set up was much the same as ours, tent living but sort of a permanent arraignment.  He was the new sawyer at the lumber mill.  He had a son about my age and it didn’t take long for us to buddy up.  He was from Oregon but I think he had lived in the woods a lot because he seemed just as comfortable in the wild as I.  One day we decided to hike down the bottom of the canyon to the Middle Fork of the Yuba River.  It was about seven miles down there and a very deep canyon.  I guess Ed had confidence in me and felt I had been a good student because he let me go.  Imagine a 12 year old kid (two 12 year old kids) walking without a trail to the bottom of a canyon like that.  We marked our tail as we went down.  By the time we got to the Yuba we had dropped several thousand feet and it was warm, however, there was still some snow in the shade along the banks.  We decided to cool off and take a dip.  There was a deep pool which was perfectly clear and a large flat rock on the other side about 20 feet away.  We stripped to the skinny and without testing the water dove in to go to the other side.  It was so cold, it literally took our breath away but we were soon on the other side and up on that warm flat rock.  We stayed a long time getting up the courage to go back to the other side and get dressed.  That day lasted from about sunup to sundown; we got back to camp for dinner dead tired and very hungry.

Our work with the sluice box was paying off and supporting us.  Gold was $32 an ounce in those days and we were getting a little color each day.  We would pan out the tailings, then separate the gold with mercury and a chamois and place it in vials.  We had several good sized nuggets, larger than the phosphorous end of a kitchen match.  We made two trips to Grass Valley/Nevada City to sell our gold to the assay office.  The money was supporting us for the summer, which I guess was the plan in the first place.  During the depression if you could support yourself you felt rather successful.

In 1941, when we lived in Sacramento and I was going to Sacramento Jr. College, I drove over to Napa to the VA Hospital to visit with Ed who was critically ill with his heart.  That was the last time I saw him.  Over forty years later Phyllis and I were visiting Napa Valley in the late 1980’s so I drove over to the V.A cemetery and got the location of his grave.  We drove to it and I was pleasantly pleased to see that his site was at the very top of a hill overlooking the Napa Valley.

Bill Jopes
Tucson, AZ
December, 2004

One Response to “Bill Jopes – The Summer of 1935”

  1. Jane Milne says:

    I would like to know if you are the author of Voyage to Abadan? I became interested in Abadan because of a very interesting letter in my late father-in-law’s effects. His name was Jim Milne and he was in the merchant marines in World War 2. The letter is to Jim from a John (R. J.) Banks, who is writing from Abadan after visiting several ports. It is obvious from the letter that John is also in the merchant marine. The interesting point of the letter is John’s description of waking up to find a 5 month old leapord in bed with him.

    I have not read Voyage to Abadan yet, but this letter seems to contain the same touch of renegade as the book reviews. I’m thinking of writing Jim Milne’s story, as he spent 14 days in a lifeboat after the Ft. Lee was torpedoed.

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