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Shuttered History

New art project in Mokelumne Hill honors town’s history

  • 3 min to read
22 Shutter Tree photo 6.tif

The iron shutter from Chung Kee’s store sits in its new place of honor in Mokelumne Hill in the park.

While Shutter Tree Park’s namesake has long been absent from the park, a project organized by local artist Anne Cook has put the shutter tree back in its rightful place.

Under Cook’s leadership, sculptor Scott Greer recently completed a plaster tree, complete with original shutter, as the centerpiece for a new art project—dubbed the Shutter Tree Wall Project—on the wall of the library facing the park.

“I’ve been wanting to do something with this wall,” Cook said, standing in front of the newly completed tree on Dec. 18. “We’ve now given the park’s namesake it’s due here, and I just couldn’t be more pleased.”

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Artist Anne Cook, center, and Julia Costello, third from right, stand with other Mokelumne Hill residents in front of the new art project on Dec. 18.

When the park was established in the late-1970s, it was named after a cluster of old ailanthus trees then growing together in the park near the corner of Center and Main streets.

At some point in the 1920s or 1930s, an iron shutter from the ruins of the stone store of Chung Kee, once a prosperous merchant in the community’s Chinatown, became embedded within the cluster of trees, serving as a prominent landmark for decades.

Unfortunately, grading and leveling to create the park’s lawn added several feet of earth around the base of the tree and partially buried the shutter, and years of watering the lawn caused the roots to rot and the tree to die.

In 1995, a fire almost consumed the tree, and the following year it was cut down to a seven-foot stump.

Though the tree had become an eyesore and a safety hazard, many locals recognized the historical importance of the shutter.

In 1998, archaeologists Julia Costello, Tim Kennedy and Alice Olmstead led a group of volunteers in an archaeological excavation to rescue and preserve the shutter.

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The ruins of Chung Kee’s store are seen in a photo taken by Edith Irvine around 1910.

The shutter sat in front of the Mokelumne Hill Library for many years, until recently returning to its rightful place in the park as a part of the new art project.

Mokelumne Hill residents Bob and Paula Leitzell stopped by to have a look at the new addition to the park.

“When we first came here in 1980, the shutter was actually still in the tree,” Bob Leitzell said.

“We’re really excited (about the project),” Paula Leitzell said. “We’ve had the shutter for a long time just sitting on the porch, and people were concerned about it possibly disappearing, although it was heavy enough that that never happened.”

As part of the excavation project, longtime residents had been asked about the history of the tree. Ivy Dahl, who was born in Mokelumne Hill in 1921 and delivered the mail for many years, remembered the shutter being placed between two small ailanthus trees in 1929 or 1930. When asked what should be done with the shutter, he suggested erecting an artificial trunk in the park and placing the shutter within it.

While this vision has come to fruition, the Shutter Tree Wall Project is still in its early stages. Cook plans on filling in the lower portion of the wall with mosaics, the first of which was proposed by Costello and includes the depiction of a traditional Chinese dragon flying over the town’s Chinese Gardens.

The mosaic will be made up mostly of Chinese sherds—broken pieces of ceramic material—many of which were collected by Costello herself during projects in Mokelumne Hill’s former Chinatown.

Costello drew the initial design, and with input from Chinese historical societies and scholars, Cook translated the image into a mosaic.

“She’s done such a good job,” Costello said. “And then there’s more to come. We have to come up with other ideas.”

Cook is a retired graphic designer who moved to Mokelumne Hill with her husband five years ago. She and Robin Modlin are responsible for the “Pieces” mosaic in Mountain Ranch, which was unveiled in 2016 and incorporated donated items from homes lost in the Butte Fire.

“I’ve done a lot of mosaics, but I haven’t done them to this scale,” she said. “Generally, I’m covering much smaller objects, so this has been a challenge.”

Cook said that she is seeking input from the community in choosing the next images that will fill the wall, and can be contacted through the Mokelumne Hill Library. She also hopes to get the public to participate in the actual mosaicing.

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Chinese scholars and historical societies were consulted in the design of the dragon.

“The rest of the mural, once we get the Chinatown scene up, will be determined with input from the town,” she said. “Each of the next panels will reflect what the town wants to see.”

Costello said that she was happy that the Chinese sherds are going to be on public display, instead of hidden away in storage.

“They just don’t have any more research potential, and the public needs to enjoy them,” she said. “We can’t just grab everything and put it in boxes. … I have some archaeologist friends who all thought it was a great idea.”

Though Cook is a relative newcomer to Mokelumne Hill, she is already making an important contribution to the town.

“I just love this place, and I feel like I was born to be here, to do art here,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting that it’s coming together in the way that it is because we’re relative newcomers to the area, and this town is so open to art.”

The first part of the mosaic, featuring a dragon and a cloud, was installed on Dec. 24.

For more information on the history of the park, click here to read Costello’s article “The Shutter Tree and Chung Kee’s Shutter" on calaverashistory.org.

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Reporter

Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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