As an artist and a painter, 73-year-old Cate Culver said she notices everything about an image — the good and the bad.
Two years ago when Culver moved to Tuolumne from Mountain Ranch with her husband, she saw a beautiful town with century-old sycamore trees along the neighborhood avenues withering in disrepair.
“The paint was peeling. Some had paint in places and others didn't. It made the town look shabby. You could see they were in no way cared for,” Culver said.
Culver sought out James Woods, general manager of the Tuolumne Park and Recreation District, to ask why.
Culver learned the sycamore trees were painted with a wide strip of white in the summer months to protect them from the sun. Without attention, they can build up a protective crust of bark which is susceptible to bug infestation.
Woods told Culver the district could no longer shoulder the expense of maintaining the sycamores — scraping off old bark and painting the trunk — for the entire town.
Culver sought out The Women’s Improvement Society of Tuolumne (TWIST) to join her on a crusade to beautify and refurbish the historic sycamores.
“They were all excited about the project,” Culver said. “I think it gives you satisfaction and pride when you participate in something like that. It's nice to take on a project that's bigger than yourself. Something you work on as a team.”
In October 2018, with the support of TWIST in tow, Culver asked Lowe’s Home Improvement in Sonora for material donations. They provided 25 gallons of paint, 10 brushes, 10 buckets and 10 scrapers, valued at approximately $750.
Culver and a few volunteers worked about twice a week for two to three hours a day to complete the project. It took an average of 45 minutes to scrape away the flaking bark, and flush out the earwigs, ants, pests living underneath it.
Once the bark and weeds were removed, the sycamores were painted with a latex white paint four feet from the ground to reflect the sunlight and protect the tree from generating the protective bark.
On June 1, members of TWIST joined Culver and scraped and painted 18 trees. Culver painted the final tree on June 24.
She estimated at least 180 trees were scraped and painted throughout the eight-month restoration project, but Culver hopes the trees will be protected for years to come.
“I think it's huge. We’ve had a lot of nice compliments and a lot of thank yous. And there’s just the satisfaction of driving up and down the streets myself and seeing how nice it looks,” Culver said.
Culver recognized the sycamore rehabilitation as a crucial public service because of the historical character they lent to the town.
TWIST originated as a group called the Village Improvement Club in 1911 and planted many sycamores in Tuolumne before and after a 1918 fire decimated the town, Tuolumne County Historical Society curator Billie Lyons said.
According to online records, 90 buildings were lost in the fire, Lyons added.
“The fire burned much of the town to the ground. There was just nothing,” Culver said.
Culver said it felt as if TWIST had a responsibility to the sycamores due to their original contribution.
“They wanted some show of life after the fire, green trees at least,” Culver said.
Cindy Rhorer, TWIST publicity chairperson, said the group was re-founded in 2005 and gives scholarships to local students. The group also conducts annual cleanups in Tuolumne, and assists with yard work or junk hauling, she said.
“When Cate brought up this sycamore trees project, we said, ‘that’s perfect.’ We kind of went away from cleaning up peoples’ yard. It will be very interesting to see what we do next year,” Rhorer said.
TWIST has a membership of between 20 and 30 people, Rhorer said.
“It kind of gives you a sense that you belong, you help clean up the town. It makes you feel a part of the town you live in,” she said.
Culver said the group painted trees in neighborhoods throughout Tuolumne, including Main Street, Pine Street, Carter Street, Elm Street, Laurel Street and Bay Street.
They did not scrape or paint about 80 sycamores at Westside Memorial Park, the Tuolumne Veteran’s Memorial Hall, near the Tuolumne Pool and Reid Park, Woods said, which are still the responsibility of the recreation district.
Woods said the Tuolumne Parks and Recreation District has an annual budget of about $250,000. The budget primarily consists of property taxes within the designated boundaries of the district and an approximately $100,000 maintenance agreement with Tuolumne County for the Westside Memorial Park, the Tuolumne Veteran’s Memorial Hall and other county-owned properties in the town.
Woods said a few years ago, the district could no longer afford to maintain the sycamores outside of the ones funded by the county maintenance agreement.
Woods said the district began the maintenance on county property in 1992, but took on additional work on private property at the behest of community members.
“Next thing you know we’re painting all the trees around town,” he said.
Over the years the district transitioned to free prison crews and later to Baseline Camp fire crews which cost about $200 a day. The crews were hired about every other year and the total cost amounted to about $4,000 to service the entire town.
“We recently quit doing all of it because the parks budget is getting tighter,” Woods said.
Woods said inmates are now hired to complete the tree work and other maintenance duties on the district-maintained properties.
TWIST is seeking new members and invited prospective members to visit them on their website, Rhorer said.