Mike Avey returned to his parents’ house in Sonora early Wednesday morning after spending most of the night working on a restored 1964 Chevrolet pickup truck.

He passed through the darkness and snow on the 200-foot driveway from Phoenix Lake Road and thought something seemed off.

“I didn't really pay much attention to it,” Mike Avey, 51, said. “I didn't really notice until the next morning, but the mining cart was gone.”

Mike’s father, Craig Avey, said the old-fashioned mining cart — complete with a heap of quartz rocks, a pick, an axe, a lantern and tracks — adorned the driveway as yard art for approximately 20 years.

About five years ago, someone dragged the 150-pound steel and iron cart 100 feet uphill from the home to Phoenix Lake Road, where it was abandoned.

“They left it sitting there. I found it in the morning when I was going up to work and brought it back,” Craig Avey, 71, said.

He decided to chain the mining cart to a tree, but the tree died two years ago and was removed. Mike said they went out Wednesday morning at about 7 a.m. and confirmed his suspicions. The mining cart was gone.

“You feel violated when somebody comes and takes your property. I honestly feel that somebody who tried to take it the first time probably got it this time,” Mike Avey said.

Craig Avey, a Tuolumne County resident since 1967, said he was upset and bewildered by the theft.

“People will steal anything today. I don’t know why they’d want my yard art,” he said. “Maybe they’ll sell it for drug money or use it for yard art in their backyard. They would have to use it in the back because it would be too easy to recognize.”

Craig Avey said the cart was worth up to $2,000, but the value he held for it wasn’t monetary. He gave the cart to his wife as a gift, he said.

“It's got a lot of sentimental value, so it's pretty ballsy they did that,” he said. “They even had to push it uphill. You can see the tracks where they shoved it all the way up the road.”

Other yard art at the home includes water pumps and other old items, but if the thieves thought they made off with a historical artifact, they were for the most part mistaken, Craig Avey added.

The wheels and bottom came from an original mining cart, he said, and were given to him by a friend.

“I have no idea how old they might have been. They were old and rusty,” he said.

Craig said he built the box portion of the cart out of square tubing and sheet metal. He welded and bolted the body down to the cast iron bottom.

In all, the mining cart was 2.5 feet by 2 feet, and stood about 4 feet tall while sitting on homemade tracks outside the house. Craig Avey added the tools and rocks for the appearance of authenticity, and stenciled in Avey Mining Company on the side.

“I wanted to make it look like it came out of a mine,” he said.

The thieves left all the tools and rocks behind.

Craig Avey graduated from Sonora High School in 1960. He has operated G&H Service, an auto repair company on Hess Avenue, for 50 years.

“I’ve always been a car guy,” he said.

Despite the moniker etched into the side of the mining cart, Avey said he had no known mining history in his family. He opted to construct the cart as an homage to the mining tradition of Tuolumne County.

“It just seemed appropriate because of the area. There's always been mining going on here,” he said.

Craig Avey estimated that the theft occurred between 12 a.m. at 2 a.m., around the time when Mike left and returned from the shop.

“It was pretty late so I was just think about going in and going to bed,” Mike Avey said. “I think I realized it wasn't there.”

They reported the theft at 8:10 a.m.

Craig Avey said for the time being he is leaving the rocks, tools and track exactly where they are so the Sheriff’s Office can come and take pictures. He was contacted by the Sheriff’s Office, but did not believe they visited his home yet, he said.

“We just want it back,” Mike Avey said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.