The story begins in 1846, when American Council General Thomas Larkin, stationed in Monterey, California, a province of Mexico, was given $3,000 by Col. John C. Fremont, to acquire farm land for him. Fremont had in mind the fertile lands to the south or east of the San Francisco Bay area. But Larkin became aware of a Floating Agricultural Land Grant that was recently acquired by Juan Bautista Alvarado, departing governor of the Mexican state. Alvarado sold the 44,386 acre Grant to Fremont through Larkin for the $3,000. However since the Grant had no fixed location but only described as being east of the San Joaquin River, north of the Chowchilla River, south of the Merced River and west of the Sierra, Fremont at first was concerned about the purchase. Upon hearing of the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra during January 1848, he perhaps having some knowledge of the existence of the mineral on the Grant, decided to follow the dictates of the Mexican Land Grant and begin perfecting the title to the property.
The Perfection of the Los Mariposas Land Grant
By 1849 Fremont came to the area of Mariposa and “floated” his grant into the gold region by setting the corners of his claim. In March of 1848, California had become property of the United States so Fremont began the process of not only developing his Grant but also the acquiring of legal title under American Law. The treaty with Mexico agreed that those Land Grants distributed by the Spanish and Mexican government over the past 200 years, be respected by the American Government. Fremont entered his claim as California Land Case #1. His position as a husband of Jessie who’s father was the Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, was not a handicap. In the meantime California became a state of the United States in September of 1850. Fremont was one of the two Federal Senators although his term was short.
The Gold Rush Begins
While waiting for clear title, Fremont began granting leases to mining property as well as for commercial and residential uses within the boundaries of his claim. Gold had been discovered in the Agua Fria and Mariposa Creeks by a group of Mexican miners sent to the area by Fremont. In the process of gathering and processing the gold containing quartz, the miners discovered the formation containing the gold which became the Mariposa Mine. The Mexicans finished their initial work and returned to Mexico. By 1850 Fremont had leased the lode claim to the San Francisco development and banking firm of Palmer, Cooke and Co.
The Company arrived in the Mariposa Valley with surveyors, engineers, carpenters, miners, cooks, hotel keepers and faro dealers. They laid out the town of Mariposa starting at Quartz (1st) Street running east and west, through 8th Street, having a right of way of 50 feet, and three north and south Streets with 60 foot easements, named Jessie (for his wife), Charles (for John Charles Fremont) (also Main St.), and Bullion St., (after his father-in-law). A fourth street was soon created named Jones St., for Benton’s brother-in-law William Carey Jones, a lawyer. With Thomas Hart Benton, Jones unsuccessfully defended Fremont in a Court Martial Trial. The basis of which was a conflict between two superior officers during the California war. Fremont had chosen to support the wrong officer, thus the Court Martial.
The Fremont Adobe
At the north-west corner of 5th Street and Charles Street, Fremont constructed an adobe building in 1850 for the purposes of providing office and living spaces for his and Palmer, Cooke and Companies agents. The “adobe” structure was the first building in a building “complex” that evolved over the years as dictated by need and funds.
The original structure, constructed in the early 1850s, consisted of the main building that contained two spaces and a three story adobe addition to the back of the north half. This addition contained living quarters, storage and a kitchen. The south half of the building became office space. The entire adobe structure remained intact until the town fire of 1866. Damage to the adobe walls required brick to be placed on the north, south and east faces of the building. The west side, and the three story section, were left intact.
Under each half of the building is a basement carved out of the rock and dirt, the walls of which are still solid more than 150 years after construction. An example of the west adobe walls can be seen in the exposed sections near the portals leading into the new restrooms. On the other walls, brick was placed on top of the stable adobe foundation and added to the outside as a “veneer” which essentially “weather-proofed” the original adobe and protected it from the elements.
By 1856, the title to the Grant is presented to Fremont but the development by others on the Grant occupied Fremont legally in 1859 when all legal actions were completed. At that point, with his finances depleted, Fremont was ready to sell the Grant and no he longer needed the adobe building.
He sold the building to Victorio Ablies who held title until 1863 when jeweler Louis Feibush acquired the property. He operated a jewelry and clock shop for about one year when he sold the property to the Stahl Brothers. At first the new owners operated a bakery but soon added a Dry Goods store and thus began a long line of succession of owners and occupants down to the present Bett’s Gold Coin.
Succession and Fire
In 1856, Frank Williams built another building behind the Fremont Adobe and opened the Union Hotel. This building, owned by Frank Mello, was destroyed in the 1866 fire, according to the records. Another or perhaps a restored building was constructed providing rooms for the hotel. This addition was destroyed in the fire of 1949.
The great 1866 fire, which destroyed 63 structures in the Mariposa mining town, damaged the original adobe building. The owners of the building, the Stahl Brothers, rebuilt the damaged sections with fire proof brick, which is the primary support of the old adobe building today. By the 1880’s the Stahl Brothers leased the adobe to John Higman who operated a General Store for at least two years before he moved to 7th and Charles Streets. By 1888, Peter Gordon and his wife Margaret, acquired the adobe and operated the attached hotel and restaurant until 1898, thereafter leasing the business to Pat Stanton,
In 1909 John Trabucco, a Mariposa merchant, acquired the property from the Margaret Gordon Estate. It was held by the Trabucco family for three generations until being sold to Wilfred Von der Ahe in 1988. During the Trabucco ownership, George Bertkin operated a butcher shop from 1921 until 1937.
The Famous Wall Murals
During the period of ownership by Peter and Margaret Gordon, 1888 to 1898, the walls of the saloon were covered with paintings in oil. Cornelius J. (or Cornelious) Vejer painted a series of scenes which depict naval engagements. Other scenes, which are no longer exist, depicted mountains, valleys, waterfalls and big trees. A total of seven scenes were on the walls, four of which were destroyed either by fire or remodeling. It is said that the mountain scenes were selected because Peter Gordon could no longer visit the high country and these murals would remind him of earlier times.
Vejer also drew inspiration from paintings he had seen in museums in Washington D.C. Vejer would sign his work as ‘Con Vega’, although that name doesn’t appear on the remaining murals. The three painting left in the north half of the building are all that is left of a number paintings of his in this and other buildings in Mariposa. Vejer often was paid with meals and lodging. Over the years attempts to restore the paintings were made, the first in the late 1940’s when Gill Haney, a house painter and his daughter Barbara, undertook the effort. Other attempts at restoration included only one oil painter, Harold Gabrielson, who worked on the paintings in the early 1970’s. No further serious attempts has been made until artist, Marsha Crawford, “Yeshe“, repaired and restored the three remaining paintings as part of the building’s recent restoration by Helen Kwalwasser.
by Leroy Radanovich