Leanna Donner was 12 when her parents died in 1846 after becoming stranded in a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada.
Hers was a story most every American child learned in school. The 87 members of the Donner Party suffered conditions so cruel, some resorted to eating the ones who had died.
Leanna was among those who lived and as a bride of 18 came to Tuolumne County to live out the rest of her life in a simple farmhouse on Highway 108 in Jamestown.
“Everybody knows that house,” Christina Whitcomb, who lived in the house for several years in the early 2000s, long after the App family sold it and just before it was left vacant for more than a decade.
The house was destroyed in a fire Friday night. Investigators have not released any information on what could have caused it.
Mike Holland, owner of Granite Land Holdings, bought the house and about an acre of land in December for $145,000. He had hoped to remodel it for a rental.
Firefighters responded someone after 9 p.m. on Friday, according to CalFire. It took about five hours to put it out. The fire did not spread. The ground was so moist that not even the grass surrounding the house was touched.
On Monday, Holland said it looked like the fire started at the back of the house, on the opposite end from the chimney. He could not tell what could have caused it. The fire was so hot it melted a water tank.
“It looked like a puddle of plastic on the ground,” he said.
Power had not been turned on.
The backside and roof sustained most of the damage. The walls on the front and the side that faces the highway are still standing, clothed in faded siding painted white. The posts and tin topped porch roof remain as well.
Holland said he had been inside the house once — sometime last fall — and saw the leavings of squatters, a soda can and lots of stuff. A neighbor told him he had recently seen people going in the detached garage with backpacks.
John App was 31 when he married Leanna Donner in 1852 at Fort Sutter in Sacramento.
Real estate records on file at the Tuolumne County Recorders Department show he bought the Jamestown property in 1853. He built a simple farm house that was added onto as the family grew.
They had four children. One son died when he was a child.
In 1856, App bought a gold mine, which proved as dangerous as it was lucrative.
He died in 1898 and Leanna stayed on the homeplace. Family members described her as reserved, a woman who rarely smiled, which they attributed to the suffering she endured. She and her sister were in the third group rescued and her mother, who chose to stay with her dying husband, told Leanna never to talk about what happened on that mountain.
Leanna’s mother died shortly after her father.
In the last years of her life, App talked to the author of “History of the Donner Party.”
“The snow came so suddenly we barely had time to pitch our tent, and put up a brush shed, as it were, one side of it was open,” she was quoted as saying.
When she was rescued four months later, she said, she was emaciated and could barely walk. Often, she sat down and cried and waited to die. Twenty-five days later, the group reached Sutter's Fort in Sacramento.
Louise Garrison, who was 8 when her great-grandmother Leanna died, on Saturday remembered visiting her there and often saw her sitting quietly on the front porch watching cars go by.
Leanna App remained in the home with her son John and his family.
"We were never allowed to run around in that house, and we were never ever allowed upstairs,” Garrison said. “When we were there with Grandma and Grandpa, there was a long room on the side, where the kitchen was later moved to... that was Leanna's room. She died in that room."
Leanna App was 95 when she died in 1930. She had lived in the house for 78 years.
Kim Helmbold, Garrison’s granddaughter, said the house was passed down to John App, then his son.
"The family sold it after that," she said.
The house was bought by a series of family trusts and for many years was a rental.
Whitcomb said when her family lived there from 2011-2006, the original wood floors remained and the kitchen was vintage 1950s.
“They just don’t make houses like that anymore,” she said. “They did it to where it was unique and it fit the character of the person that built it.”
She said she has many fond memories of their life there. They raised pigs and horses and once during a bad storm her mother brought in their fledgling turkeys to stay in a closet.
Holland said he bought the house as an investment and because it is surrounded on three sides by other property he owns. He is not sure what he’ll do with the 35-acre tract, perhaps construct buildings for a health-related manufacturing company or affordable housing.
He said he was surprised the App house was in as good a condition as it was considering how long it had been vacant.
“The bones of it, I was shocked,” he said.
He’s dismayed he won’t get the change to restore it.
“You can’t rebuild it. It’s gone forever,” she said. “It would be like Old Town Columbia burning up.”