By LENORE RUTHERFORD
"Old Ben" Fullingim, who with his long beard and mule was mascot of the Mother Lode Fair, a regular in the Mother Lode Roundup Parade and a well-known Tuolumne County character, died Sunday at a care center near Fresno. He was 99.
For many years, he lived alone in a sagging shack he hand-built in the early 1950s on gold claims atop Mt. Eaton Road behind Tuolumne.
His cabin was a popular haunt for children and their parents, who accompanied Ben on hikes and gold-panning trips.
Former county Supervisor Laurie Sylwester of Tuolumne said she remembers taking Old Ben baked chickens, listening to his stories about the old days and being shown Indian artifacts and other relics in his shack, which he called a museum.
"Of course, most things were pilfered off in his later years," she said, "but I still have a couple of rocks he gave me. They sit on my fireplace."
Sylwester was one of many Tuolumne residents who frequently made an extra plate of dinner and delivered it to Old Ben.
His reputation as a kind old miner with a love for children helped rally community support for Mr. Fullingim when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management challenged his right to live on its land and when neighbors complained he was illegally using an access road over their property.
Thousands of supporters signed petitions when the BLM tried to evict him as an illegal squatter in the early 1980s.
He eventually was given a lifelong lease to his home site.