By Carrie Carter

For The Union Democrat

The next time you are traveling from Groveland toward Yosemite, be sure to take a good look at the historic barn just east of Smith Station Road (J 132) on the south side of Highway 120.

The enormous structure is over 5,000 square feet and was built in the 1870s. It served as a relay barn with ramps at the front and rear doors so that fatigued stagecoach teams could be driven into the barn, replaced with fresh horses, and driven out the other side to continue on their journey.

Careful restoration, using mortise and tenon construction techniques from the 1800s, has been done to preserve the structure’s hand-hewn integrity.

In 1854, John B. Smith traveled from Maine to the picturesque meadow about six miles east of Garrote (Groveland) known as Sprague’s Ranch. Twenty-year old George E. Sprague had arrived earlier from Massachusetts and already had a homestead there and the two men began a partnership which lasted over the next two decades.

By 1868 the Big Oak Flat Road Company had begun operation and reached all the way to Crane Flat. Due to a persuasive letter writing campaign led by John Smith and George Sprague, it had been widened to accommodate heavier freight wagons.

Working together, Smith, Sprague, and L.E. Stuart then requested permission from the Yosemite Valley Commissioners to extend the road into Yosemite Valley from the north. After being granted approval in 1869, the Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Turnpike Road Company was started and the race was on against Coulterville to complete a road and reap the economic and tourism benefits.

Sprague and others, including Daniel Newhall and Andrew Rocca (of the Golden Rock Water Company fame), backed the venture with time and considerable cash. Finally, in July 1874, the first riders traversed their completed road to the Yosemite Valley, down the treacherous descent known as the ‘zigzag’.

In 1871, John Smith’s wife Charlotte arrived from Maine with their 17-year old son, Albert who had grown up back East having never laid eyes on his father.

During this time, Smith and Sprague built the barn, one of the largest in Tuolumne County. They also built a large two-story frame house (as seen in the archive photo) next to the barn and the Smiths offered lodging and meals to weary travelers, teamsters, hostlers, miners, and trappers. The fare included venison, mountain trout, or beef raised on the Smith ranch with vegetables from the garden. Meals cost 25 cents and a bed for the night was 75 cents.

Stagecoaches and freight wagons found John Smith’s ranch on the Big Oak Flat Wagon Road to be a convenient stopping place and Smith’s Station was born.

George sold his interest in the property to John Smith and deeded an extra 160 acres to Charlotte Smith. The meadow bordered by pines and cedars then became known as Smith’s Flat.

A daughter, Mary Amelia was born at the Station in 1875 to John and Charlotte. The isolated ranch could be a very lonely place during the winter months, when snow prohibited travel and the family was shut in for weeks at a time. One highlight of the year was the semi-annual arrival of the 10-horse freight wagon from Stockton bringing supplies for the family.

Due to the isolation, daughter Mary was homeschooled until the age of 10. When the Gravel Range School was built east of the ranch on the Watson property, Mary was able to spend her days with the children from neighboring ranches.

Mary was only 13 when her father died in 1889 at the age of 58. He and his family are interred at the Oak Grove (Divide) Cemetery. Eventually Smith’s 320-acre meadow was sold to the Cassaretto family and others.

When Warren Burch later acquired the property it was referred to as Burch’s Meadow. The original ranch house is gone, replaced by the working-ranch bed and breakfast called Big Creek Meadow Ranch but the preserved relay barn remains as a testament to its builders and its place in our area’s history.

George Sprague was described as “a man with his finger in everything.” After completion of his surveying and engineering for the Big Oak Flat Road, he ran a small store at Colfax Springs when he wasn’t handling the toll gate there.

In 1895 he owned a mine near Crocker Station and also the Groveland newspaper called the Prospector. George served on the Board of Directors of the Tuolumne County Bank, organized in 1899.

He didn’t slow down until the 1915 Union Democrat reported of his medical treatment at the Bromley Sanitarium in Sonora. He died that year at the age of 81 and was laid to rest at the Oak Grove (Divide) Cemetery.

Traveling the Big Oak Flat Road, or Highway 120 as it’s known today, is certainly not the arduous trip of yesteryear. The Groveland Museum is an inviting stopover on the historic byway with educational and entertaining displays. The museum gift shop offers unique books, décor items, toys, jewelry, and much more for your holiday gift giving and is open daily.

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