A nonfatal shooting Saturday night outside the old Iron Door Saloon on Highway 120-Main Street in Groveland reminds some people of this Gold Rush town’s rowdy and sometimes violent past, but it doesn’t reflect where the town is today, some old-timers say.
So-called wild west, frontier days of lawlessness from the 1850s to 1890s have been celebrated here to entertain tourists, visitors and long-time residents, including mock shootouts and mock hangings on Main Street.
Local historians remember Groveland as a wild town in the 1920s when Hetch Hetchy workers brought drinking, gambling and prostitution back with a boom. Another boom period with rowdy out-of-towners took place in the late 1960s and 1970s when Boise Cascade came to develop Pine Mountain Lake.
But the shooting reported by the Sheriff’s Office about 8:40 p.m. Saturday outside the Iron Door, which is billed as one of the oldest saloons in the Golden State and has a tribute to Black Bart, the “gentleman stagecoach robber” inside, was a rarity, a woman who works at a store across Highway 120 from the Iron Door said Monday.
An eyewitness to the shooting, who requested anonymity, said he was out back of a business across from the Iron Door around 8:15 p.m. and he heard fighting in the street. He stepped up to Main Street and the fight was over, people were in the middle of the street, and two men who knew those fighting started jawing at each other.
One man said something racist or complaining about racist talk and slapped the other man. The man who got slapped pulled a handgun, a semiautomatic pistol. He fired one shot, the gun jammed, he adjusted the clip and fired again. The gun jammed again and people started running.
The eyewitness said he had emergency medical technician training, so he went to get some rubber gloves and a towel, and helped keep pressure on the wounded man’s through-and-through gunshot wound on one hip for about 30 minutes until an ambulance crew arrived.
The entire incident occurred outside the Iron Door, the witness said. The shooting suspect, Juan Banuelos, 29, of Coulterville, ran away before law enforcement arrived. The gunshot victim was airlifted by a helicopter medic team to a hospital in the Modesto area, and he remained hospitalized Monday.
Deputies said Banuelos came back Saturday night or early Sunday to turn himself in and he was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. Banuelos remained locked up Monday at Tuolumne County and his bail was $500,000.
The Iron Door Saloon, which dates to 1852, was packed before the shooting took place. It’s still tourist season so there was a mix of locals and visitors inside. The business closed for the night shortly after the shooting but it was open and busy again Monday.
Chris Loh, owner of the Iron Door Saloon, was not around and could not be reached for comment Monday.
A few hundred yards east of the Iron Door, over at Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum next to Mary Laveroni Community Park, history books and pamhlets handed out to tourists still tout Groveland’s Gold Rush origins in shorthand: From 1848-49 the town was known as Savage’s Diggings, then in 1850 a dispute among miners resulted in a lynching and people started calling it Garrote, the Spanish word for hanging by strangulation. The town became Groveland in 1875, renamed for a town in Massachusetts.
Local historian Dave Gookin, born and raised in Groveland, author of multiple Groveland history books, former director of the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society, and still with the Groveland Visitors Bureau, says it’s easy to overstate and understate how violent Groveland used to be.
A handout at Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum says, “A few miners did strike it rich from gold findings. However, for many life in the gold camps was very hard. The early gold discoveries were quickly exhausted. There was never enough water to mine effectively. Disease, mine accidents, disappoint, and violence were common.”
It’s not clear if the outlaw Black Bart, active in Northern California in the 1870s and 1880s, ever robbed stagecoaches up in Groveland, but plenty of Mother Lode Gold Rush towns claim connections to Black Bart and the days of hangings and frontier justice.
More recently, Gookin remembers the Iron Door and Groveland being a wide-open place in the late 1960s and 1970s when Boise Cascade hired out-of-town work crews from Haight-Ashbury and elsewhere in the Bay Area, and they brought skinny-dipping, drug use and other practices unknown to many Groveland locals at the time.
“The Iron Door and other places in town got a reputation back then,” Gookin said Monday outside Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum. “I was a stringer for the Stockton Record back then and one night an editor called and asked me to check out a murder in Groveland the sheriff was responding to.
“I walked down to Main Street and a guy was lying dead on the sidewalk outside Garrote Saloon,” Gookin said, referring to a former business that is now an optometrist storefront. “There had been a conflict at Iron Door. He stepped outside and got shot outside. That was about drugs.”
These days, Groveland is a sleepy town on a mountain highway, that celebrates its rowdy past. In the 1970s and 1980s, Groveland used to have Old West Days with mock hangings and mock shootouts, and cowboys on horseback would ride straight into the Iron Door, Gookin said.
Mock shootouts have also been staged more recently on Main Street in front of the Iron Door during 49er Festivals in Groveland.
“We’re 30 minutes from the nearest sheriff,” Gookin said. “We have a substation but it’s never manned. That adds to the notion that we’re isolated, or the response to violence might take some time to get out here.”
The president of the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society, Harriet Codeglia, said Monday that Groveland was violent and it was lawless in days gone by, like any other Gold Rush town, but it’s not that way any more and those chapters of Groveland’s past do not reflect what the town is today.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.