Mall Makers Lose Historic Fight in Yreka

Times Staff Writer

When Bernice and Fred Meamber got wind of plans to bulldoze three blocks of historic buildings to create a modern mall in the heart of this old gold mining town, they said: "No way!"

The City Council of Yreka was considering the demolition of Miner Street to create the mall. That was in 1972.

But C. Peter's 1856 Brewery building, the 1861 DeWitt drugstore, the 1854 City Meat Market, the 1859 I.O.O.F. building, the 1855 Franco American Hotel with its stately old wooden balcony, and the 1880 Redman Hall are still here.

So are the other downtown landmarks along Miner Street, dating back to the 1850s. The mall was never built.

Siskiyou County historian Fred Meamber, 73, and his wife, Bernice, 72, lifelong residents of this Northern California county seat of 6,000 people on Interstate 5 about 25 miles south of the Oregon border, led the successful drive to save Old Yreka.

A Place in History

The Meambers were founders of the Siskiyou County Historical Society in 1945. They played leading roles in organizing the Yreka Historic Preservation Corp. in 1972 which blocked the mall and led to the establishment of Yreka's historic district and an entry on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Fred and I made out the applications to get each of the business buildings and homes in the historic district on to the National Register," Bernice said. "We contacted John Frisbee III, the western representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and got him to come up here to speak to the community and advise us on the best way of going about saving our cherished heritage--these wonderful old buildings."

The old structures downtown needed paint and renovation. Many were empty. Through the efforts of the Meambers and other townspeople whose concerns were aroused by them, Old Yreka was revitalized.

Local residents and out-of-town people poured money into the old business section. Some of the restoration was accomplished through grants.

Along both sides of 3rd Street, for four blocks, the old Queen Anne, Gothic and Italianate-style cottages with high-pitched roofs, central towers, board and batten and fish-scaled shingles are spic and span, much like they were when first constructed from the mid-1850s to the turn-of-the-century.

On the exterior of each of the 22 homes is a plaque listing the year the house was built and names of the original owners.

To repair, restore, paint or alter the exterior of any structure in the historic district either on Miner Street or 3rd Street requires permission from the city's Historic District and Landmarks Commission.

In his Queen Anne home, Mike McKey, 39, a U.S. Forest Service engineer, tells how everyone who has purchased the historic houses "shares the interest of restoration and furnishes them with period furniture, wallpaper and fixtures. We're all on the same wavelength."

Anyone seeking historic information about Siskyou County is referred to Bernice and Fred Meamber. A retired soft-drink bottler, Meamber spent 10 years reading every available copy of every newspaper published in Siskiyou County from the 1850s to the 1920s. His study is filled with files about the county's history.

Talking and Remembering

The couple have written numerous historical articles and recently published a book, "Houses That Talk," a history of the 3rd Street homes.

"Some of the early families were very distinguished, some were scandalous," notes Meamber. The book covers both in great detail. It is filled with stories and photographs of the homes down through the decades and of the people who lived in them.

It tells the story of the prominent doctor-politician who built one of the houses in 1855. While his wife was in Ohio visiting her dying father, the doctor romanced another woman. The wife divorced the doctor, remarried only to learn that her second husband was a bigamist. She divorced him and operated a millinery shop in her home the rest of her life.

A well-known courtesan lived in another of the houses. She presided at local gaming tables and always carried a pistol. The book is filled with anecdotes and stories about the lawyers, merchants, doctors, politicians and their families who lived in the homes.

Thanks to Bernice and Fred Meamber, history is alive in Yreka.

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