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Rebuild Kennedy Meadows Lodge in old likeness

More than a high-country resort burned to the ground early Monday morning.

Lost to the devastating flames was part of Tuolumne County's heritage. The Kennedy Meadows lodge, cabins and outbuildings that fell victim to fire were part of a bygone era that had somehow prospered into the 21st century.

That they did so without big screen TVs, hot tubs, pay-per-view movies or even decent cell phone service is testimony to the efforts of resort owner Matt Bloom and committed predecessors that included Willie Ritts and the late Reno Sardella.

News of the fire no doubt brought a tear to the eye or a lump to the throat to anyone who has camped at, packed out of or enjoyed a crystal clear afternoon at the glorious Kennedy Meadows. For those who have swapped yarns with old friends over rounds of drinks at the resort tavern, the regret may run a degree deeper.

"This is one of the treasures of the Sierra," Sonoran Robert Pacelli told a reporter doing a story on springtime at Kennedy more than a dozen years ago. "When this is gone, it's the end of an era. It's the end of the West."

Well, many of Kennedy Meadows' trademark buildings are indeed lost. But the resort has come back from flames before — the first lodge burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1941 — and we hope it does again.

Joining in that effort is the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, which has established a volunteer database to help Bloom and his family in the days to come. And the Tuolumne County Sheriff"s Posse, whose members have for decades enjoyed an annual August campout at Kennedy, met this week to discuss the resort's future and what role it can play.

Kennedy Meadows has too much history behind it to die. And its many friends aren't about to settle for a highway marker commemorating what once was.

According to the Tuolumne County Historical Society, brothers Andrew and J.F. Kennedy of Knights Ferry claimed the Meadows, Kennedy Lake and about 3,000 acres of nearby mountain pasture for grazing in the late 1880s. The oldest buildings at the resort dated back to those days.

With the turn-of-the-century construction of Relief Reservoir, the Tuolumne County Water and Electrical Power Co. took over Kennedy Meadows. A series of buyouts over the years eventually brought the 240-acre meadow property to PG&E, which has leased it out to various resort and pack station operators over the years.

In 1917, a gas station, store and packing business were established. The first lodge was built in the 1930s, burned down, and was rebuilt in 1941 under operators Frank and Lurene Kurzi.

Reno and Geraldine Sardella took over in 1963 and sold to Willie Ritts seven years later. Ritts became partners with Bloom, one of his longtime cowboys, in 1998, and later sold out to him altogether.

As Monday's flames tragically ended another chapter of Kennedy Meadows' colorful history, its future was under consideration by an 18-member state panel charged with handling 140,000 acres PG&E agreed to liquidate as part of a bankruptcy settlement.

Bloom wants PG&E to keep the land, or perhaps have the new Tuolumne County Resource Conservation District take over. Others favor entrusting the resort grounds to the Stanislaus National Forest, whose land surrounds it.

Because of the fire, much of the resort itself will not be part of this debate. But what was lost should be a template for a future free of the big screens, spas, wet bars and air conditioned cookie-cutter rooms that are all too common today.

Instead, the new Kennedy Meadows should be much as it was until just days ago — a vibrant, living and thriving part of Tuolumne County's history.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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