A new map sign that stands at the northwest corner of Fir Avenue and Pine Street in Tuolumne helps guide people to present-day businesses and attractions in the town of about 1,630, while also celebrating its rich history that dates back to the 1800s.
Funding for the sign came mostly from a $1,000 grant given to the Tuolumne Park and Recreation District through the “Trail Me About It” fund at the Sonora Area Foundation in collaboration with the Tuolumne County Transportation Council.
“If I were visiting Tuolumne, this is something that would interest me,” said James Wood, the district’s general manager, explaining why he wanted to pursue the project.
The sign is the latest example of how the district and community find relatively inexpensive, simple and collaborative ways to maintain and even improve upon the considerable community-oriented infrastructure in the heart of the town.
More than third of the district’s roughly $260,000 annual budget comes from a $100,000 per year agreement with the county for maintenance of the Tuolumne Veteran’s Memorial Hall, West Side Memorial Park, Jerry Whitehead Sr. Field, Tuolumne Youth Center, and Tuolumne City branch library, all of which are owned by the county.
Other funding for the district comes from a small portion of property taxes, facility rentals, donations and money raised from concession sales at the ballfield.
The district is staffed by two full-time employees, Wood and a maintenance supervisor, two part-time office assistants, and part-time housekeeper for the youth center and library branch building.
The district owns and maintains Reid Park, Willow Street Ball Field, the Tuolumne Community Garden on Carter Street, the Bay Street Tot Lot playground for young children, horseshoe pits, Depot Trails, and Depot Park.
In addition, the district has maintained the popular Westside Trail just outside of town for the past 26 years through an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.
“Other than the churches, we’re one of the longest running community organizations in town,” Wood said of the district established in the early 1950s. “We’ve always been goal oriented, community oriented, and kind of held things together.”
The new map sign, which was commissioned from the Sign Store Plus in East Sonora, includes pictures that Wood obtained from Tuolumne City Memorial Museum and TPRD board member Steve Artzer’s private collection.
Among the photos are one of the Summerville High School class of 1914 in front of the old school building on Pine Street where Mother Lode Christian School is now located, the Turnback Inn circa 1905 that was located near where the Memorial Hall now stands, and the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Gardner Avenue that was featured in the classic 1952 western film “High Noon.”
There’s also a photo of “Old Ben” Fullingim, a former gold miner who became a well known and liked character in the town up to his death in 2003 at 99 years old.
Fullingim lived alone for many years in a sagging shack he hand-built in the early 1950s on gold claims atop Mt. Eaton Road behind Tuolumne, according to his obituary published in The Union Democrat.
The sign also features, of course, a photo of the West Side Lumber Co.’s mill operation circa 1930, which served as the primary economic reason for the town’s existence from the early 1900s until it shut down in 1962.
The Westside property is owned by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, whose Black Oak Casino Resort on the Tuolumne Rancheria just outside of town has driven the area’s economy since opening in 2001.
The tribe lived in the area long before the earliest known white settlers, Franklin and Elizabeth Summers, built a log cabin near Turnback Creek in 1854.
In the spring of 1856, the creek and its tributaries became the scene of wild gold rush. The town of Summersville, named in honor of the widowed Elizabeth Summers, sprang up around one of the mines.
An article published by The Union Democrat in 2004 for Tuolumne’s 150th anniversary stated the town’s name was changed in the late 1890s from Summersville to Carters, after prominent local businessman Charles H. Carter.
A Sierra Railroad depot and new post office were later called Tuolumne. The 2004 article stated that the Carters post office was abolished after much of the original town was destroyed by fire in November 1905, and the town gradually became known as Tuolumne.
Wood said he believes there’s long been a perception of Tuolumne as the county’s “red-headed stepchild” because of its location farther away from the main thoroughfares than places like Sonora, Jamestown, Columbia, Groveland, or Twain Harte.
“I think part of the problem is it’s at the end of the road,” Wood said. “You have to want to come to Tuolumne.”
Like the county as a whole, the town’s population has declined over the past decade. The town’s estimated population was about 1,630 based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year estimates between 2012 and 2016. That was down from about 1,780 in the 2010 Census.
There are hopeful signs of progress, however.
The West Side Memorial Park is a hub for activities throughout the year, which includes weekly farmers markets and concerts during the summer, the annual Tuolumne Lumber Jubilee that attracts thousands of visitors, and seasonal events like Easter egg hunts and a recent Halloween parade.
Community members also pitch in to make the town more attractive and family-friendly, like the recent donation of an electronic scoreboard for Whitehead Field and a private group’s fundraising efforts for a new universally accessible playground that’s under construction.
Since 2015, the tribe’s Westside property has also been home to the Strawberry Music Festival each fall that attracts thousands of folk-music enthusiasts. The tribe started hosting big-name music and comedy acts at the newly created Westside Pavilion this summer and plans to do the same next year.
Wood, who has worked for TPRD since 1992, said he’s seen more people walking around outside for exercise or just a stroll. He’s also recently encountered tourists from as far away as Portugal who were staying in an Airbnb while in the area to visit Yosemite National Park.
“It seems to me that for whatever reason I’ve seen more people walking around outside, young mothers pushing strollers, people exercising,” he said. “I’d like to say some of the improvements we’ve made played a role.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.