Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series on the history of Fiddletown.
In 1878, Columbus A. Purinton petitioned the state legislature to change the town’s name from Fiddletown to Oleta. A prominent early resident and owner of the Cosumnes Mining and Ditching Company, Purinton was embarrassed of being known as “the man from Fiddletown” on his trips to Sacramento and San Francisco.
A bill was passed and Fiddletown became known as Oleta for the next 54 years.
As the town’s placer gold played out, agriculture and logging became increasingly important industries.
Beginning in the early 1850s, staple crops like wheat and potatoes were grown and livestock was raised to meet the needs of the town as well as surrounding communities. Soon after, orchards and small vineyards were established.
August Legendre became the first large wine producer in Fiddletown in the 1870s. By 1879, he was producing 1,000 gallons of wine a year from his four-acre vineyard. In the following years, Irving F. Ostrom, the lumberman Farnham’s partner, purchased 120 acres next to Legendre and began his own vineyard.
These two vineyards, on what is now called Ostrom Road, formed the foundation of Fiddletown’s viticulture industry.
Ostrom’s son, Irving Pierce Ostrom, inherited his father’s vineyard and expanded his holdings. Engaging in both lumber and agriculture, he became the town’s largest employer in the 1920s and 1930s. He was eventually elected as a county supervisor.
In the early decades of the 20th century, many Fiddletown residents worked during the summers in sawmills that sprang up in surrounding towns, making enough money to get by in Fiddletown during the off-season.
Logs were hauled in large wagons pulled by 10 to 12 horses or mules. The lumber was transported to Plymouth, Jackson, Sutter Creek and other towns to timber mine shafts, among other purposes.
On May 7, 1932, a large celebration was held on Main Street to commemorate the town’s 83rd anniversary. It featured displays of historical items, food, dancing and several large bonfires. A truckload of gravel was hauled into town from a nearby drift mine, and visitors were encouraged to try their luck with a gold pan.
Now proud of their Gold Rush past, Fiddletown’s residents circulated a petition to change the town’s name from Oleta back to Fiddletown. The name was officially changed on July 1 of 1932.
The town held another celebration two years later to celebrate the belated arrival of electricity. A dance was held in a brand new dance pavilion, built to be the largest in the county.
While small-scale mining continued sporadically in the first half of the twentieth century, the few remaining mines were finally shut down by executive order in 1942, when the federal government redirected resources to war-related industries.
The school closed in 1955, after serving the community for over 90 years. Afterwards, students were bussed to a new school in Plymouth, six miles away.
In 1964, the town held a fiddler contest to raise money for the restoration of the 1862 schoolhouse. It became an annual event, drawing several thousand people a year. It is now known as the Fiddlers’ Jam and is held on the second Saturday in September.
In the 1970s, a company made plans to develop a limestone quarry three miles southeast of Fiddletown. The plan involved a fleet of 36-ton trucks passing through Main Street, once every six minutes during some periods.
Opposition to the project was led by the Fiddletown Preservation Society, which argued that the trucks would damage the town’s historic buildings. An environmental impact report confirmed this concern, and the project was called off after an acrimonious four year battle.
In 1978, Fiddletown was recognized as a historic district, and 18 structures in the town were deemed historically significant. Many of these buildings have now been restored.
The rammed-earth adobe Chew Kee Store is the crown jewel of Fiddletown’s historic structures. Fong Chow Yow, who lived in Fiddletown all his life, inherited the herb shop and ran it until he passed away in 1965. In the 1980s, the building was restored and thousands of its artifacts were catalogued and displayed. The store now serves as a museum that offers a rare glimpse into the lives of Chinese immigrants to the Mother Lode.
Across the street, the brick and stone gambling house and the brick general store, both built in the early 1850s, are another reminder of Fiddletown’s once bustling Chinatown.
The Old Forge Blacksmith Shop still stands further down the street. Across from it by Dry Creek, the Schallhorn Blacksmith and Wagon Shop, built of local rhyolite tuff, is the largest and most impressive historic building in town.
The general store still serves Fiddletown residents, having operated continuously since the 1850s.
The former dance pavilion, where residents celebrated the arrival of electricity in 1934, is now adorned with a giant fiddle and serves as the town’s community center.
Driving down Main Street today, Fiddletown can seem deserted. But the historic buildings on either side of the street point to a time when people from all walks of life poured into the area to seek their fortunes.
And once a year, several thousand people again flock to Main Street for the annual Fiddlers’ Jam. On that Saturday in September, amid food, drinks and dancing, the sleepy town of 235 people more than lives up to its colorful moniker.
For more information, read Fiddletown: From Gold Rush to Rediscovery by Elaine Zorbas.