Where there was once a thriving, rowdy gold mining town named Hildreth in the 1880s, near O'Neals, there are now only hillsides of dry grass, a few trees and an old schoolhouse.
The town once boasted around 3,000 people, 2,000 Chinese (which were counted separately), an Indian encampment, some say 14 saloons, a millinery, post office, general store, hotel all doing well thanks to the five surrounding mines that produced millions of dollars worth of gold.
Today, there are a few that have lived it through the tales of family and friends that remembered the town as it once was, but a group of Minarets High School English Communication students hope to keep that history alive. Under the direction of English/Communications teacher David Cicoletti, a small group of students recently rode their bicycles back in time -- from the high school, down Road 200, a right turn on Road 211, then a left on Road 210 for about seven miles -- until they came upon the land that once was the foundation for the gold mining town of Hildreth. There they met with three residents of the area -- Pat Ryan Washburn, Jane Topping and Suzie Hickman -- that tell those tales of an era gone forever -- an era Minarets students are doing their best to record so that those stories will never be lost. They documented their adventure into the past through interviews, photography, and video.
"It was really cool talking to them," said Destany Morgan, 16, a junior at Minarets. "They made up a map and it showed all the things that used to be there, so that was pretty neat."
Neither Morgan, or freshman Ealish Ellis, 15, knew that the town of Hildreth even existed before Cicoletti informed them about it. Morgan said she was surprised to learn of it. Both Morgan and Ellis laughed as they recalled stories that were told to them on their visit.
"It makes everything so much more interesting and important," Morgan said. "It brings old things from the past back to life."
"I think it's important to keep in touch with the way life used to be," Ellis said. "We're moving forward technologically ... but need to remember where we came from."
Cicoletti said this is a great opportunity for students because instead of doing lessons, they are actively learning and doing a project themselves instead of just sitting in a classroom.
"Education has been a big part of this area for a long time," Cicoletti said. "This is the newest school in the area and that's the oldest school in the area and we want to make that connection."
Both Washburn and Topping attended the one-room Hildreth School as children, the first school in the O'Neals area. It now stands across the road from Washburn's home, which is located where the town of Hildreth used to stand.
Washburn's grandparents were James William and Annie Ryan. William took passage on a ship from Ireland to New York, liked what he saw, turned around and went back to Ireland, married Annie, then took a ship around Chile's Cape Horn to San Francisco, then to Bodie, then on to Hildreth around 1881 or 1882 where he heard they were in need of a blacksmith.
According to Washburn, William went into a mine shaft once, fell through it, got stuck, and by the time he barely managed to get himself out, swore he would never go in a mine again -- which he did not.
The goldmines in the Hildreth area were active until 1893 when the government began charging stumpage fees for all the wood used to power the the water pumps for the mines. The goldminers decided they weren't making enough money so they shut off the pumps, the mines filled up with water, and the residents of the Hildreth area began to trickle away.
While at Hildreth, James and Annie had a son in 1894 that they named William Henry Ryan -- Washburn's father. Years later, Faustina Mae Wren came to Hanover, a mile away from Hildreth, to teach school. Hildreth school teachers always stayed with Annie Ryan and that is how William Henry and Faustina met and a few years later they were married.
Washburn now owns the old schoolhouse. The rest of the town's buildings were destroyed by fires. Washburn was 5 years old when the last fire came through and took out the last building.
Ellis said she would like to help restore the old Hildreth school for her Senior Legacy Project and Morgan said she wants to help document the local history for her Senior Legacy Project.
Cicoletti said he hopes to one day see the historical information digitized and to have Minarets media, history, and English departments all work together to make a book on the area, showcasing student writing and photography to compile a coffee table book. He said he hopes to start on the project with students next school year by setting monthly goals. Then students will be able to leave a legacy behind through the book.
"There are so many little details that people don't know that can change an entire area," Ellis said. "To publish a book would be such a success."
Editor's Note: Information was gathered through interviews and from the "As We Were Told" books, Volumes 1 and 2.