The Story Behind the Story

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 12:00

At the age of 89, Sandy Grover developed a passion that would consume the next three years of his life.

It started when he read a story in the Tuolumne City Memorial Museum newsletter paying tribute to the late Ross Baker, member of a pioneer ranching family woven into the fabric of the community’s history.

“I was so touched by the tributes that had been written that I says to myself, ‘This needs a larger audience,” recalls Grover, who set aside his own family history to research the Bakers’ past. “This family has come such a long way in the same town, 126 years of consecutive farming … They were so industrious and so determined to make things work, so intent on creating something. I really admire that.”

That work ethic mirrors Grover’s own. An Air Force veteran of World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State – where he met his future wife, Jane – and after working in Madera schools for many years, a master’s from Stanford University in secondary education administration.

Grover, son of an English professor, became fascinated with history after moving to Madera in 1945 and joining its historical society, helping to save the county’s old granite courthouse, now a thriving museum.

The Grovers bought their first home in Madera for $4,500, and a few years later, a larger  home that they began to “Victorianize” while raising their children, Doug, Susan and Don. On weekends they pursued their interests in antique autos and all things Victorian, trekking to remodeling sites to salvage bits of history.

On a 1950s vacation to Sonora, Sandy and Jane happened upon the filming of an Alan Ladd Western, and were so captivated they went home “convinced that this is where we needed to come some day.” That day came in 1970 when the new retirees bought the old Hillcrest Ranch on 16 acres outside Tuolumne, and started to plan and build Oak Hill Bed and Breakfast, which they operated together for 16 years.

The house has new owners but remains a great example of the Victorian-era trim and flourish that Grover has always seen as “miraculous” – turned posts, decorative balustrades, ornate mantles, artful railings and corbels.

It’s easy to imagine how someone who finds miracles in old-time woodworking might appreciate the history of an entire town and one of its founding families.

Known variously as Summersville, Summerville, Carters and, since 1901, Tuolumne, the tight-knit community has been driven by various economic engines over the years: mining, farming, lumber, and most recently, Indian gaming.

In the late 1940s, Patsy McMahon and Marie Rozier began to collect community artifacts and founded the first museum. Their efforts gained support from the Tuolumne Women’s Improvement Club and the Tuolumne City Progressive Association, and donated items were housed in various locations over the years. In 1976 a new group, the Tuolumne City Memorial Museum, Inc. was formed to find a new home for the ever-growing collection.

Two years later, Sandy and Jane Grover joined the all-volunteer effort. In the early 1980s the Women’s Improvement Club deeded their clubhouse, at the corner of Carter and Bay, to the museum group. Sandy’s son, Don, a Sonora architect, donated the plans. With building contractor John Feriani volunteering to oversee the work, major renovations began. After what Grover notes was “an enormous community effort,” with major fundraising and many dozens of volunteers donating labor, the museum opened in 1984.

Walking through it, you get a clear sense of life in Tuolumne at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, in the items on display, all donated by locals: household decorations, furniture and clothing, photos, documents and more. Here you can learn about the 1918 fire that destroyed 90 buildings in two hours, West Side Lumber’s rise and fall, Dr. Reid’s Sanitarium. And the contributions of immigrants like Frank and Delia Baker, whose portraits oversee the main room.

Frank Baker emigrated from Canada in the early 1870s. After he and Delia married, they set up a ranch on Turnback Creek, becoming successful ranchers, large landholders, and community supporters – of public education, in particular – through the generations that followed. Grover’s work is a tribute to the late Perry and Ross Baker, third-generation descendants of the original homesteaders, but it reports on previous generations in meticulous detail, spiced with interviews that shed light on the family’s past and present roles within the community.

Tracing the Baker history – births, deaths, marriages, careers, land purchases, community involvement and more – involved numerous interviews, plus countless trips to libraries, archives, title companies and other sites housing everything from genealogical records to land deeds and court filings.

It was familiar ground for Grover, who was president of the Tuolumne County Historical Society in 2000, and remains on its publications committee.

In writing the Baker epic Grover had help from friend Joan Bergsund, another member of the historical society, who prepped his typed pages for computer use. Grover “just about wore out” his 1960 Remington typewriter and used dozens of bottles of Wite-out to complete 44 typed pages capturing the lives of five generations of Bakers for posterity.

His efforts are much appreciated by Ross Baker’s widow, Mary, a longtime Tuolumne resident whom Grover interviewed numerous times. “It’s a special record that we’re so happy to have,” says Mary Baker, 95, from her home a short distance from the museum. “He put so much work into this.”

In the three years since he started the Baker project, Grover’s own life story has changed.

His wife of 64 years, Jane, with whom he shared so many volunteer jobs linked to their shared love of history, died in 2006 after a stroke several years earlier.

For Sandy, the project became a bit of a physical struggle by the end, when he found it harder to climb the steps to the various archives. And while the effort may have left him a bit winded, it was worth it.

“I feel greatly rewarded,” he says. “It feels like I’ve possibly left a legacy in terms of this county.”

Sharon Marovich, the historical society’s publication’s chairman, has no doubt. She calls Grover’s scholarly work “an absolutely incredible history of the family and their relationship to local history.”

“CHISPA is a unique publication in that each issue is totally devoted to Tuolumne County history, with information you can’t find anywhere else,” says Marovich. “It has been a major contributor to the preservation of local history, and a great resource for researchers and history buffs.

“So, when a writer like Sandy wants to do an article about a pioneering family and their part in local history, he is preserving some of our history, especially agriculture, which continues to be an important part of the local economy.”

For Grover, now 92, the next big project is waiting patiently in stacks of cardboard boxes near that well-worn Remington. It’s finally time to turn his knowledge and appreciation for history, those finely honed research skills, and some new bottles of Wite-out, to the Grover family history.

CHISPA has been published by the Tuolumne County Historical Society for the past 47 years. Grover’s story, A Tribute to the ‘Baker Brothers,’ Perry and Ross and Their Ancestry, was printed in two parts, starting with the January-March 2008 edition. Copies are available at the Tuolumne County Museum, 158 West Bradford Ave., Sonora, for $3 each, or as a benefit of membership in the historical society. The society also publishes books on local history, available at the museum and several local stores. For information, call President Joe Celentano, 928-3034. Website: www.tchistory.org

Tuolumne City Memorial Museum, 18663 Carter Street, is open from 1-4 pm each Saturday and Sunday. The museum is staffed by volunteers, and admission is free. Website: www.TuolumneMuseum.org

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2008 12:00
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