Where in the world is Narbo?
The question has been asked numerous times over the past 100 years, and its answer is to be found in the foothills of Madera County.
Records of the Madera County Historical Society are replete with references to the "French Occupation" of the Picayune area of the county in the early 1880's, and scores of legends abound concerning the development of that gold country about three miles from Coarsegold and almost two miles east of Highway 41. One of these stories concerns a man by the last name of DeFries.
As the story goes, DeFries was part owner in a nearby mine. Not having an inordinate amount of luck in his operation, De Fries "salted" his claim by taking a shotgun, loading it with placer gold, and shooting it in the mouth of the mine shaft. On the strength of this, the claim and much of the surrounding land was sold to a Frenchman named Marcellin Fache.
The Frenchman and his staff had big plans. They built a huge "chateau" on top of the highest peak around. It was a twenty-four foot tall mansion appropriately dubbed the "House of Glass," from the many windows the building contained. The house was square, two-story, and constructed from clear Sugar Pine lumber. It had a tower made primarily of glass, which could be reached by climbing from the second floor.
Old timers remembered the view as one of grandeur. The Chateau was beautifully furnished and well supplied with silver, china and fine linens, most of which had made their way from France via San Francisco.
There were fireplaces in the bedrooms and a huge one in the living room and dining area. Clearly the Frenchmen expected to be in the mountains of Madera County for awhile, and they intended to enjoy their stay.
Soon the expected mining activity attracted a lively community. It was called Narbo and quickly boasted the existence of three saloons, a French bakery, and several stores selling the frontier variety of goods. In 1884, a post office was established, obviating the necessity of 16-year-old Henry Krohn delivering the mail which had been delivered to Coarsegold by stage.
Narbo's chief activity was represented in the giant stamp mill, which was built to crush the gold-bearing quartz being dug from the supposedly rich veins of the region. The place was also known for the long canal that was hacked out by the Chinese with pick and shovel. This waterway extended from Crane Valley (present day Bass Lake) to Narbo in order to wash the quartz that would be extracted from the mine.
Everything looked great; the French investors were told that the Narbo operation would be an unmitigated success. The ditch was dug, the mill was up, and the miners were in place. Then someone decided to check on the water rights. The plan called for the stamp mill to be water driven, and many of the settlers, objected, but it was the powerful Henry Miller of Miller and Lux fame who finally denied the Narbo operation the water it needed and thereby doomed the enterprise.
While the water fight went on, the "reckless" owners found a temporary answer to their power problems. They purchased a marine engine for $15,000 hoping this would do until the water wheel could begin to turn legally.
When the mill was eventually set into motion, the amount of gold was so trifling that only 10 out of 60 stamps were used. After a run of six days -- just long enough to determine that the machinery was in good working order -- the engines were shut down, never to résumé operation. Everything had been perfect but the output of gold.
During these frantic times, other investors and their wives arrived from France. They brought with them their Old World ways and made a lasting impression upon the mountain folks of what was to become Madera County. Their cultured manners were foreign to a rough mining camp existence, and their way of living was as extravagant as that of their mining operation.
The old chateau burned down years ago, the victim of a forest fire. Little is left of the townsite to indicate that it was ever much of a place. But the stories are plentiful.
By driving down Highway 41 to Picayune Road (417) and turning left, one will enter the area of the "French Occupation." Narbo was a noble experiment, but as with so many other aspects in the economic life of Madera County, it depended upon a good, healthy supply of water. When that failed to materialize, the French settlement rotted away to ultimate decay. Now it exists only in history, as a piece of Madera County's past.