Fiddletown strikes a chord with history seekers

The Chew Kee Store in Fiddletown sheds light on the lives of Chinese immigrants to the Mother Lode during the Gold Rush.

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series on the history of Fiddletown.

No one knows for sure how Fiddletown got its name. According to one story, during a dry spell the early miners prayed for rain so that they could continue prospecting. When that didn’t work, they decided to fiddle for it. The rain finally fell, and they were able to return to their claims.

Another story has it that during a meeting to officially name the town, an older member of the group opined of the youngsters around him: “They are always fiddling. Call it Fiddletown!”

The early prospectors were drawn to Fiddletown by the rich gold deposits along the North Fork of Dry Creek. While the early records have yet to be uncovered, it is said that the town was settled by a party of Missourians in 1849.

The town grew slowly at first, but then boomed after the discovery of gold in ancient riverbeds in American Hill, American Flat and French Flat.

The first hotel was constructed in 1852. By the end of the decade, three more hotels opened their doors to the growing population.

The first house of worship, a Methodist-Episcopal church, was completed in 1853. In 1855, the first schoolhouse was constructed on Church Street (now American Flat). It was replaced by a new school in 1862, which served the community for almost a century.

When county boundaries were established by the California State Legislature in 1850, Fiddletown was included in El Dorado County. As neutral territory, the town hosted a convention on Dec. 13, 1853, to decide whether or not to divide Calaveras County into northern and southern halves.

At its creation in 1850, Calaveras County included almost all of what is now Amador County, as well as large portions of Alpine and Mono Counties.

Amador County was formed on July 3, 1854, by dividing Calaveras County along the North Fork of the Mokelumne River. Fiddletown joined Amador County in 1855 after another minor border modification.

In the early 1850s, James McLeod decided to take advantage of Fiddletown’s abundant forest lands by establishing the town’s first sawmill. He borrowed money from Hiram C. Farnham, who was working as a blacksmith in Placerville with John M. Studebaker, who himself would go on to play a key role in the Studebaker automobile company.

When McLeod defaulted on his loan, Farnham relocated to Fiddletown and became a partner in the mill in 1853. Unfortunately, McLeod was killed in April of that year after a crew member tied down the pressure release valve on the mill’s boiler to increase the power of the circular saw.

The resulting explosion propelled the boiler into McLeod and across the mill into an office in which Farnham and another man were sitting. McLeod and the other worker were killed, and Farnham suffered serious injuries.

Farnham would go on to play a leading role in developing the timber industry of the area. His steam sawmill on Jibboom Street produced 8,000 board feet of lumber per day by 1857. He later partnered with Irving F. Ostrom, who himself would play an important part in developing the town’s viticulture industry.

As the mines continued to produce in abundance, businesses popped up on both sides of Main Street. General stores, saloons, doctors, lawyers – all opened their doors to the growing population. A soda factory was established in 1857, producing 300 dozen beverages each week. A brewery followed suit in the early 1860s.

By 1854, the residents of Fiddletown numbered two thousand, mostly American but with an increasing Chinese population.

At the height of the town’s prosperity, five different stagecoaches left Fiddletown daily. The service to Sacramento cost $8 and 12 hours each way.

While placer mining gave way to quartz mining in many Mother Lode towns during the 1860s, Fiddletown never developed any important hard rock mines. Many miners left the area completely when silver was discovered at the Comstock Lode in Nevada in the late 1850s.

As the overall population of the town fell, the percentage of its Chinese inhabitants increased. In 1860, Chinese accounted for 29% of the town’s 1,000 residents. By 1880, 134 Chinese inhabitants made up 45% of Fiddletown’s population.

Beginning in 1852, a large Chinatown arose along the western end of Fiddletown’s Main Street. On the north side of the street, Dr. Yee Fan Chung ran an herb shop known as the Chew Kee Store. The store sold hundreds of herbs that were often brewed into bitter teas, and was an important gathering place for the town’s Chinese population.

While the Chinese faced rampant discrimination through a variety of taxes and legislation during the Gold Rush, one early resident of Fiddletown worked to protect the Chinese population.

Constable Stephen Davis, a speaker of many languages, served as a translator and authored claims for the town’s Chinese residents. Tragically, Davis was killed in 1868 when the gun tucked into his waist discharged as he was reaching into a wooden barrel.

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