Old Town welcomes new owner

Alan WilemanJanuary 14, 2014 

For those who missed visiting one of North Fork’s most historical land marks, Old Town, before its closure in 1991, you may have your chance in the coming future.

As of Dec. 18, Jen McMillan of Watsonville, is the new owner of the 11.5-acre property, purchased from long-time Bass Lake resident Beverly Stern. McMillan’s hope is to recreate the once popular Old Town Restaurant and Saloon, once again hosting weddings, concerts, rodeos and other outdoor events.

McMillan bought the three parcels of land which includes a house, bar/restaurant, Chapel, one of Madera County’s original jails, horse arena, barn and five other buildings all inclusive to the Old Town style theme, in hopes of creating a successful business.

The 41-year-old entrepreneur spent much of her time, prior to the purchase, marketing and selling her Bandit Brand clothing line and said she came across the property while thumbing through a copy of the Yosemite Gateway Real Estate Guide during the filming of a Shooter Jennings music video in Bodie.

McMillan says it was exactly what she was looking for and the thought of buying the property was somewhat of a dream until she received the call telling her that her bid was approved and the purchase was going through. “I took it (the listing) home and stuck it to my bulletin board and dreamed of ways I could make it happen ... I still carry it around in my purse,” McMillan said.

According to McMillan there is a lot of work to be done in order to restore the property to a full-time usable establishment but she hopes to have the place initially available for weddings and smaller events this spring.

“We are hoping to be ready by March for weddings and events ... the rest will have to come later, McMillan said. “We have some people interested in filming and other exciting things in the works.”

McMillan, who was raised in Colorado, says she hopes to eventually turn a few of the buildings into small guest rooms and be able to run the property as a bed and breakfast when there are no events or weddings planned.

Some other ideas include leasing the bar/restaurant to anyone interested and sharing similar ambitions, but with her goals set for her clothing brand, McMillan says she has very little time to invest in running a full-time bar and restaurant.

“I have a clothing brand I need to work on for the rest of the year and I am a little too old and tired to run a bar or restaurant, but renting it out to the right people with similar ideas is not out of the question,” McMillan said. “We are working on raising funds for roofs and repairs and expect it will take us a good year or so to get things in good shape. In the meantime the venue is still great for weddings and small events.”

McMillan also hopes to host a movie nights, similar to the ones known to draw large crowds at Woodward Park in Fresno, as well as craft fairs and other entertainment.

According to McMillan the realization that she is the owner and operator of such a historical and unique venue is a dream come true and she couldn’t imagine herself being anywhere else.

“I couldn’t be more excited. I was raised in a small town in Colorado called Estates Park, located at the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, so I am no stranger to this type of economy and schedule. I absolutely love it here,” McMillan said. “I literally cried when I saw the place the first time and walked around in a state of disbelief that it exists at all.”

McMillan made it clear that her mission is not to steal business from the community or surrounding areas but rather bring in outside communities and expose them to everything North Fork, and the surrounding areas, have to offer.

“My goal is not to take business from anyone or compete, but to help get us all some business from Los Angeles and San Francisco on a regular basis,” McMillan said. “There is a similar place in Joshua Tree called Pioneer Town that I love, and I would love to get something like that going here.”

Open house Saturday

McMillan said she will be hosting a private party for her semi-grand opening Friday night — exclusive for her Bandit Brand customers, music, film and fashion industry friends. The Friday night party is by invite only, however she will be hosting a public open-house noon - 6 p.m., Saturday. Jan. 18, from 12-6 p.m.

The open house will host a variety of vendors including Wild crafted perfumes by Juniper Ridge, Idylwild and Midnight Rider hand made leather jewelry, handbags, belts, cuffs, and guitar straps by Heyoka Leather, Oli Rose and Crazyheart leather, jewelry by Ghostdance and Sweetbird, stained glass art by Halona Glass, and art by Alison Casson, Chris Rhodes and Bailey Robinson.

Food will be available through local eateries and include, BBQ by Papa Frank, fry bread tacos, Pizza Factory, coffee from Mariposa Roasting Co., and treats by Wildflour Cottage Bakery.

Realtor Donna Pride, who works for London Properties, represented the seller and the buyer.

“I’d love to see Old Town come back to life,” Pride said.

“Old Town featured a beautiful restaurant with exceptional food, and provided a place for many social events for all to enjoy,” said Beverley Stern. “The western way of life was incorporated throughout Old Town. That was our aim and it is my desire and wish to see similar events continue at Old Town and I wish the new owner the best of luck.” Details: brandibrand.com, ladiesloveoutlaws@mac.com

Old Town History

Old Town was developed by Bud and Gayle Klette in the late 1970s with a motif of Virginia City, the Nevada western town they both loved.

At the time, Old Town consisted of six buildings including antique and gift shops, a candy store, a lamp making business, and a small restaurant. The retail shops were open five days a week and Donna Pride opened her first Land Office at the front of Old Town in 1979. Her husband Tommy built the wood and rock pillar fences across the front of Old Town and also did the custom tile work in the restaurant and bar.

Old Town also featured the original 10 X 12 foot City of Madera Jail dating to the late 1800s. Visitors to Old Town could have their photos taken dressed in authentic western attire, or purchase a one page Old Town newspaper printed with their name in the headline, ‘Hanged in Old Town.

In 1983, Bob and Beverly Stern acquired ownership of Old Town as part of a business settlemen of peoperties included in the Pines Resort. Tommy and Donna Pride later became partners with the Sterns. In 1985 the couples made a major addition to the property with the construction of the Old Town Saloon and Restaurant, including a new, expanded kitchen, dining room and bar. The saloon featured a 35-foot long custom Oak bar and large dance floor — both the largest in the county to this day.

The restaurant and bar were open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for dinner and Sundays for brunch. Sunday brunch was routinely served to 350 plus people from throughout the Mountain Area and the Valley between 1985 and 1991. Entertainment was provided most Sundays by the Old Town Gunfighters (mostly actors from Oakhurst’s Golden Chain Theatre) and can can dancers.

Numerous weddings, receptions and children’s parties took place on the property. The first wedding reception held after the construction of the new restaurant and bar was that of Blaine and Cheryl Wilhite (Bob and Beverly Stern’s daughter) in May 1986.

In the late 80s, a large barn was built that stored an antique hearse, wagons, and buggies, which were all included in the recent sale. The barn was finished on the inside and used as a sound stage. Further additions to the property included a gold mining building, a church built in part from a building in Fish Camp, and a competition horse arena.

A cabin built for the 1992 movie “The Giant of Thunder Mountain,” produced by and starring Coarsegold resident Richard Kiel, was dismantled in the high country and reconstructed on the property. Another made-for-television movie filmed in part at Old Town was “The Legend of Jake Kincaid,” produced, directed, and starring former Fresno mayor Alan Autry in 2002. Both movies used many area residents as extras and horseman.

Many commercials were also filmed on the property including a cigarette commercial featuring “The Marlboro Man.” Old Town was used for many community fundraisers over the years. Beverly Stern contributed to creating Boo Night, a Halloween costume party that raised funds to purchase two jet skies for the sheriff’s department lake patrol, and an event to support the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central California. Other special events at Old Town included car shows, equestrian events, Civil War enactments, and art shows.

In 1990, the Sterns/Pride partnership dissolved, with the Sterns retaining ownership of the property. At that time, Beverly Stern continued to make the property available for special events, weddings and parties.

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