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GOLDEN OLDIE - Nevada City’s citizens restored their mining town for themselves, and the tourists followed

ROBERT SCHEER, TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Scheer is a national correspondent for The Times. </i>

A visitor should slip into this former gold-mining town nestled amid ponderosa pines in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, breathe deeply of the clear air, discover the fine shops, restaurants and music pubs, but also relax and embrace what is definitely a Nevada City state of mind.

This mental attitude is the true treasure of a town whose inhabitants have more or less consciously dropped back into a carefully preserved piece of California history, not as nostalgia shtick but rather in search of an alternative pace of life. For that reason I hesitate to write about this unique community lest an influx of Southern Californians tips the balance and ruins the place I have been escaping to for almost 30 years.

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That’s not likely, however, because Nevada City has its own leveling effect. In fact, it is quite common to find among its citizens a number of mellow former Southern Californians who forgot to return home.

One, 63-year-old Dorothy McMaster, moved here from Anaheim “to escape the asphalt jungle.” She and her husband were passing through town 14 years ago in their mobile home and “just fell in love with the place.” McMaster now volunteers three days a week at the Searls Historical Library, but still likes to get away to Reno, an hour and a half away.

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Another escapee is Geraldyn Bergman, who after eight years of visiting the town moved to Nevada City from her Benedict Canyon home in Beverly Hills. “It reminds me of Carmel many, many years ago, before it became so commercialized,” said Bergman, a sculptor who was attracted by the community’s working artist colony.

But most visits are temporary. Tourism is--regrettably, to my mind--now the town’s major industry, replacing mining, art- and craft-making and other creative endeavors. Thanks to careful planning, however, Nevada City has not been overwhelmed.

The first time I visited in 1963, it was a down-at-the-heels hamlet with a confusing name--people tend to associate it with the state of Nevada, whose border is 64 miles away. I have returned many times over the years, during which the town has been remarkably spruced up as a showcase of gold-rush Victorian architecture, most of it built in the 1880s by those who owned the mines. Besides being home to a solid colony of writers, painters and musicians, it now features fine restaurants, charming B&Bs and pleasantly raucous taverns.

ll of this has been accomplished without undermining the feeling I first had of stepping back into one of California’s most fascinating eras, when the lure of gold brought together the nation’s most adventurous men and women. Restoration, begun in the 1960s, has been accomplished without exploitation, meaning that Nevada City has shunned the cutesy remake of other old California towns (such as obsessively commercial Old Sacramento), which exist solely for tourism and as a result are, after a matter of hours, boring.

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Nevada City, on the other hand, was redesigned first for its inhabitants. Tourism aside, it is culturally alive and productive. Its more Bohemian population is balanced by older folk, some of whom have attended the tiny Methodist church--built in 1864--for most of this century. And there are people of every other stripe. Tourists are welcome too, although they rarely come in overwhelming numbers, except perhaps on a holiday weekend such as July 4th, or for the spring bicycle race.

As its historical record--preserved in the Searls Historical Library on Church Street--and architecture will attest, Nevada City was once a thriving center of theater, whoring, drinking and gold mining. There is a fitting plaque in back of the 135-year-old National Hotel, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rocky Mountains, paying tribute to the “Ladies of the Evening” who made the hotel saloon their headquarters. This fact did not stop PG&E from holding its founding meetings in Suite 74 and situating its first corporate headquarters in the same building.

The discovery of gold in 1849 in Deer Creek, which meanders through town, had left Nevada City at one point the third largest city in California. Indeed, a 31-year-old Mark Twain, who was staying at the National Hotel, lectured in the still-functioning Nevada Theatre on Broad Street in 1866, when Los Angeles wasn’t much more than a squalid cow town.

Years ago I had to pick my way through dusty relics at the National Hotel and the Assayer’s office and talk to some local in-laws that I had acquired in order to get a sense of that rich past. Now, however, Nevada City’s history of mining deals and labor battles (including the bloody beating in the 1930s of CIO labor organizers on Red Dog Road), as well as its colorful characters--it was inhabited by three early U.S. senators (including a Hearst), temperance ladies and touring theater folk--speaks to you from virtually every one of the dozens of restored storefront shops and splendid Victorian houses. The downtown business district is deservedly listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Fortunately, local historians haven’t been overly eager to romanticize the past. Thanks to the Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, one can learn that in 1851, Col. William English brought up to 100 black slaves into Nevada County to work the mines. Happily for the slaves, English was shot to death a year later while riding a horse carrying saddlebags filled with gold, and his widow had the good sense to set them free.

There were black cowboys and miners, and Nevada City even hosted services of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The “colored” church and segregated school were established a few miles away in Grass Valley, which has its own rich history and is definitely worth a side trip.

Schools were integrated in 1876 and “coloreds,” including freemen from the East who augmented the ex-slave population, entered the commercial and social life of an area that had been strongly pro-Union. Dennis Drummond Carter, for example, was a distinguished musician who was the leader of the military band of Nevada City during the 1850s.

The Chinese were present in far larger numbers, primarily as the work force building the narrow-gauge railway, and were treated more harshly. Between 1860 and 1880, the Chinese made up about 14% of the population of Nevada County, a 978-square-mile area 64 miles northeast of Sacramento. But then they were brutally victimized after 1882 by the passage of discriminatory federal immigration legislation and by a local racist boycott of Chinese labor. Most of the population was forced out, but a handful of descendants of the first migrants still live in the area. The Bonanza market on downtown’s Broad Street, for example, has been run by a Chinese family since I first came to town, and you can check with proprietor Jack Yock as to memories of his family’s history there.

Sadly, the Bonanza is one of the few stores servicing local inhabitants that hasn’t been replaced by specialty stores catering to tourists. The only thing that I fault in the re-creation of this town is that residents are forced to do most of their shopping in ghastly malls alongside the scar of a freeway connecting Nevada City with Grass Valley.

The good thing about the weird patch of freeway--which serves no useful purpose and was built in 1965 solely because highway funds were available--is that it galvanized locals into saving their town. The result has been a sensitive and creative no-growth strategy that should make Nevada City a case study for the state’s environmentalists.

While Nevada County has almost quadrupled in size since 1950, the city has crept up from 2,505 souls to its current 2,858 because of severe building restrictions. And while it has been spared fast-food outlets, home-grown businesses--a winery, a brewery and an astonishing number of restaurants--have sprouted up.

There are about 25 eateries, plus four bookstores, at least 10 hotels and B&Bs and a potpourri of small specialty shops, from antiques to jewelry, crafts to clothing. Nevada City is a rural culinary gold mine, featuring everything from “gourmet” vegetarian and Greek pizza at Cowboy Pizza to haute cuisine at Peter Selaya’s, which could more than hold its own in West L.A.

The best way to explore Nevada City is by foot over the hilly (but not too steep) square-mile-and-a-half area. I recommend first purchasing local historian Robert Wycoff’s excellent “Complete Pedestrians Partially Illustrated Guide” ($5.95), which is available all over town.

The walks all start at the National Hotel. Even without the book, you can improvise by just heading up different spokes of the city’s streets and reading the various historical signs that have been placed along the way.

For example, the Miner’s Foundry Cultural Center on Spring Street, now home to the Nevada City Winery and the local radio station, was built in 1856 and is the site where the famous Pelton water wheel was invented. Until 1974, the foundry produced much of the mining equipment used throughout the country. On Broad Street, the Nevada Theatre is the oldest theater building in the state, built in 1865. It is still very much alive, featuring first-run movies and foreign films as well as stage plays.

Before beginning your walking tour, fuel up on what may be the West’s best old-fashioned breakfast at the Apple Fare on Broad Street. It features terrific homemade pies and muffins and lots of fresh fruit in addition to pancakes, egg dishes and waffles. My ex-brother-in-law and sometime-mayor, Paul Matson, a Wisconsin farm boy who settled in Nevada City after a tour in Vietnam, also recommends Moore’s Cafe across the street.

Paul also knows a lot about fishing, so check with him at the Nevada Theatre, which he manages, for free advice on the dozens of trout streams and excellent fishing holes where he spends much of his time.

If you’re like me, you’ll make a brave show of taking on one of the many hiking trails around the town. Or, if it strikes your fancy, you can swim nude at the South Fork of the Yuba River, not an example of exhibitionism since you can usually find a deserted spot. Or take a lazier, if more romantic, tour of the city by hiring the horse-drawn buggy that leaves regularly from the front of the National Hotel.

After checking out the town’s sights, eventually you’ll come to your senses and settle into what Nevada City has always been known for: eating, drinking and listening to great local music.

For lunch, settle in at either the Country Rose or Creekside cafes for light entrees served on outdoor patios. The Creekside overlooks the bubbling Deer Creek.

I have yet to have a bad meal in Nevada City. There are a few places that make sense more as a means of holding costs down; in this category, I would put the adequate Italian food of Cirino’s, or Citizen’s Restaurant, which features pizza and steak. Friar Tuck’s has been consistently good for fondue or steak. Vlado’s Ristorante has a homey Italian feeling. But if you can afford it, then Peter Selaya’s, which is only open for dinner, is a must.

Selaya’s is housed in the old Kopp’s Bakery, built about 1880, and like every business in town has had to follow strict preservation codes. For example, they were not allowed to tear down the old baker’s oven that once provided the town its morning bread.

Preservation has been the byword in Nevada City, and the town’s commitment to it began as a happy alternative to a threatening civil war between hippies from the Bay Area and the more settled, conservative locals. Within a few years of my first visit, the electric street lights were ripped out and, under an exemption from the Public Utilities Commission, residents installed 76 gaslights that were cast from the original molds, the only such municipal lighting system operating in California.

In the restoration process, both the long-hairs and the locals also discovered that they shared a cranky frontier individualism and a common hostility to the pace and rules of urban life. Which is why this is the one town in California where you can legally walk the street with an open container of alcohol, so long as you’re of age and you don’t disturb the peace. Boozing is simply a part of mining-town tradition. But for those who like to do their drinking indoors, there are plenty of bars--mostly featuring great live bluegrass and jazz.

Among the many to choose from: the Coach House, with rock and country music on weekends; Mad Dog’s Englishmen’s Pub, which has a good selection of English ales; the Northridge Inn, featuring bluegrass music, and McGee’s and Wiley’s, both of which feature mellow rock music on weekends.

Despite the alcohol, the town feels very safe and visitors are not hassled.

Nevada City draws its most visitors during several special events throughout the year. The Tour of Nevada City bicycle race, which has gained national recognition, takes place in the spring. A less strenuous spring event is the International Bear Convention, symbolic of the town’s offbeat and even self-deprecating humor. Run by longtime city residents David Osborn and Charles Woods, the event each year draws teddy-bear delegates from around the world. Their Bear Museum on Broad Street (open by appointment only) features delightful “bear houses,” intricate doll-house-like constructions decorated in different historical periods. Osborn and Woods are two transplanted San Francisco designers who helped shape Nevada City over the past 25 years and are great historical resources.

And in the fall, when the trees turn rusty red and yellow, Nevada City is a beautiful place to witness the changing seasons without having to travel all the way to Vermont.

But my favorite weekends are the ones where nothing is going on. And my favorite place to stay is the 43-room National Hotel. Admittedly, room quality can be somewhat uneven, but it is being slowly upgraded. There are some huge, comfortable suites--some furnished with antiques from the gold-rush days--that are reminiscent of the era when the hotel was used as a stagecoach stop. Other rooms don’t have private baths, or have lumpy beds or lights too dim to read by. Such deprivations aside, there is nothing that beats sitting on the veranda of the hotel with afternoon tea and checking out the sights on the main drag, Broad Street. Which is probably why some of the town’s most illustrious visitors, from Black Bart to Herbert Hoover to former California Gov. Jerry Brown, have stayed there.

My wife and our two sons, ages 10 and 12, prefer the more comfortable charm of one of the B&Bs that are now the city’s main growth industry. One of those places is Grandmere’s, a tastefully renovated 1856 Victorian with six rooms that is in the National Register of Historic Places. The inn is not particularly family-friendly. It restricts those with children to one large room-with-kitchenette, downstairs in the back of the house, with a private entrance. The intimacy of the B&B experience may be lacking for guests staying in this room, although it does open onto gorgeous lawns and a garden that has been the site of weddings.

More conducive to families are the private cottages at Piety Hill Inn or a room at Downey House, a converted 1860s Victorian within an easy walk from town. Another worth mentioning is the Red Castle Inn, celebrated in a national magazine as setting the standard for B&Bs. It is an 1860 Gothic Revival building, surrounded by footpaths and terraced gardens, that overlooks the town from Prospect Hill.

For those on a tighter budget, the Northern Queen Motel near the freeway provides all of the expected amenities in its 75 rooms, chalets and cottages, some of which overlook Gold Run Creek or a trout pond. Not my cup of tea, but to be fair, the Queen has a pool and reasonably priced, kid-friendly restaurant, as well as an exhibition of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge trains that once connected the town with Sacramento.

But aside from Nevada City’s amenities for tourists--incredibly clear air, fabulous scenery, good food and lively music bars--what stimulates me is being in a town that supports a very different state of mind. It’s a real place where people of different lifestyles manage to coexist successfully. Refreshingly, there is a there there.

GUIDEBOOK

Everything About Nevada City

Getting there: Nevada City is 64 miles northeast of Sacramento, about eight hours by car on Interstate 5 from downtown Los Angeles. Bypass Sacramento and take Interstate 80 to the Grass Valley turnoff at Auburn, following California 49 north to Nevada City. The town is also a 1 1/2-hour drive southwest of Reno.

For two- or three-day weekend visits, I recommend flying into Sacramento (or Oakland or San Francisco, since air fares there are generally cheaper) and renting a car.

Where to stay: The National Hotel, 211 Broad St., Nevada City, Calif. 95959, (916) 265-4551. Forty-three rooms, $42-$105 for a double.

Grandmere’s Inn, 449 Broad St., (916) 265-4660. Six rooms, $95-$145.

Piety Hill Inn, 523 Sacramento St., (916) 265-2245. Eight cottages, $65-$100.

Downey House, 517 W. Broad St., (916) 265-2815. Six rooms, $70-$90.

The Red Castle Inn, 109 Prospect St., (916) 265-5135. Eight rooms, $70-$110.

Northern Queen Inn, 400 Railroad Ave., (916) 265-5824. Seventy-five rooms, $54-$108.

Where to eat: Peter Selaya’s (265-5697); dinner for two without wine, about $50. For about the same price, with romantic dining patio dining, try Michael’s Garden Restaurant (265-6660).

National Hotel (265-4551); about $25.

Citizen’s Restaurant (265-5837); about $15.

Cowboy Pizza (265-2334); about $13.

Cirino’s Restaurant (265-2246); lunch for one, from $8 to $15.

Creekside Cafe (265-3445); lunch, about $6.

Country Rose (265-6248); lunch, $5 to $8.

Moore’s Cafe (265-9440); breakfast, $2 to $7.

Apple Fare (265-5458); breakfast, $4 to $7.

For more information: Contact the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, 32 Main St., Nevada City, Calif. 95959, (916) 265-2692. They’ll send a visitor’s information packet--which lists all hotels, restaurants, sights and events--free for the asking.


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