Finding Your Roots: ‘The Hunter’s Dream’

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2011 17:30

The Hunter's Dream

Returning from my 18-month Family History mission in Utah, I walked into the Carlo M. DeFerrari Archive in Sonora wondering, “What’s new?”  Directly in front of me was a huge painting called “The Hunter’s Dream.” To my left were several more paintings and artifacts, and to my right sat County Historian Carlo De Ferrari and archivist Charlie Dyer.

I knew I was about to hear a good story, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The artist who painted “The Hunter’s Dream” was Benjamin Willard Sears (1846-1906), son of William and Jane Sears. Ben was born in Connecticut in 1846, joining his father in 1862 in gold mines near Sonora. He came via Panama, which must have been a story in itself! Ben moved to San Francisco where he learned the “Black Art” – photography – but soon was intrigued by oil painting. Unable to afford proper canvases, he painted on anything he could find – pie tins, wood, saws, plaster walls, canvas from old buggies … even rocks.

Ben was one of Sonora’s early and very prolific painters, the proverbial starving artist trying to support his family. In archived journals you will find fond references to the curtain in Turn Verein Hall (at the site of today’s Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora), which was an oasis of culture in the mid-1850s. On the stage curtain, Sears painted a scene of a campfire with smoke lazily rising through pine trees, which fascinated our early residents as they waited for plays to start.

But back to “The Hunter’s Dream.” It was painted on buggy canvas, and the clock hanging on a tent in the scene points to 11 o’clock. “What is the significance of 11 o’clock?” I asked. Carlo told me it’s customary for Elks Lodge members to raise their glasses at 11pm to toast deceased members.

In this 36-by-55-inch painting, a small deer hangs in front of another tent while a huge elk – their dream elk – dominates the camp scene. This is a must-see. Did the Elks Lodge commission Sears to paint this? I didn’t get a definitive answer.

When Sonora’s City Hotel was taken down, a great effort was made to save the mural Sears painted on the wall, but it was impossible to keep the plaster wall in one piece.

Back to the archives: The paintings to my left are El Capitan, Upper Yosemite Falls and High Sierra Lake, also painted by Ben Sears. Until now, these have never been on public display: Give yourself a treat by taking a peek at them.

I want to point out that the painting called “High Sierra Lake” was damaged beyond repair – at least, that is what owners Carlo and Harriet De Ferrari thought. They had loaned it out for a public event and when returned, it was torn in four places with a piece missing from the center. Charlie showed me pictures of the damage, complete with attempted scotch-tape repairs. What a mess!

To the rescue: Dennis Garcia of Gemini Restorations. Just as we had great artists in the past, we have great artisans in the present. This craftsman took the painting to his Sonora shop and performed magic. If I hadn’t seen the “before” pictures and the finished product, I would not have believed it. Thank you, Dennis, for restoring a beautiful painting to us.

Ben Sears became good friends with William Hartvig, who was Harriet Hartvig De Ferrari’s uncle (Harriet is Carlo’s late wife).

Because of that friendship, we now have several of Sears’ paintings – referred to as the De Ferrari/Hartvig collection – in the De Ferrari Archive. The archive is behind the Tuolumne County Library, 480 Greenley Road. Hours are weekdays by appointment; call 536-1163.

One painting by William Hartvig, which Dyer calls “Golden Trees along the River,” is particularly intriguing. Born in 1846 in Louisiana, Hartvig married Louise Keefe. In Sonora, he was a Justice of the Peace and a city councilman, but he earned his living painting houses. The business shingle that hung in front of his shop is now on display in the archive.

Hartvig and Sears were often found painting on the rocks in Yosemite – that is, until the Army, then in charge of keeping order for the Park Service, caught them and made them scrub the rocks clean. (Does it hurt you as much as it hurts me to know how much we lost because of that order?)

Sharon Marovich gave us further insight into Sears not just as a painter, but as a poet, in a 1976 article in CHISPA, the county historical society’s quarterly publication. Sears’ poem reflecting his and our love for Tuolumne ends with these lines:

There is something nearer, dearer,
Than her mines of precious gold,
Something that we cannot tell you
And that never will be told.

It’s good to be home again! Until next time, good luck with your research.

Isabelle Drown

Included in the De Ferrari/Hartvig collection is a small, beautifully presented painting of what some believe to be Bret Harte’s cabin by Otheto Weston (1895-1990), a well-known Columbia artist and writer. The archive holds her “Portfolio of Sketches,” including those of historic buildings throughout the foothills. She was born in 1895 to Evelyn McCormick, a very well-known artist whose works now hang in the Monterey City Hall and other public offices.


During one of her entertaining performances, Linda (Hardluck Lin) Clark was entrusted with an old diary for further research. She asked me for help finding its back-story. The diary covers the early history of James B. Sanford and the love he left behind when he came out West. Her name was Effie. He did marry someone else here in the West, but it is evident he always held a place in his heart for Effie. (Oh, I do love a good love story!).

Sanford worked in these places: Wisconsin Bar (there were two, one in El Dorado County and one in Amador) where he joined his cousins; Hangtown (Placerville), Wise Bar, Jimtown (Jamestown) and Strawberry Ease. Other names mentioned are Heriford, McColley, John and Jim Dallery, Ida Shirley, Sarrah Vamp and Emma Parker. Dates range from late 1854 through 1884. If anyone can help solve this mystery, contact Linda at

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors



Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2011 17:30