A CHP H-40 helicopter landed in Beasore Meadow on Saturday, surprising Vern Black as he visited with friends at the Jones Store, the business he and his late wife, Lois, owned and ran for 30 years. He was taken aloft flying over the property and Bass Lake. “The helicopter is important because you can be promptly available to take action to help people and save lives,” Black said.
This was the first time in two years that 96-year-old Black again stood behind the counter of the store. “She (Lois) and my dad ran the place,” said daughter Dee Dee Ortmann. “It’s taking four of us to do it now.”
The couple’s three children: Ortmann of North Fork, Jim and John Black, both Coarsegold residents and, for the last three years, Bob Jarrett are now in charge of the mountain store and cafe and manage 13 rustic cabins at the site.
“Everybody keeps coming up (to the store) asking for Vern and he hasn’t been up since my mom died Sept. 5, two years ago,” Ortmann said. Vern and Lois had been married for almost 60 years.
Arrangements were made for Black’s friend, Dave Boggs, to pick him up from his home in Pismo Beach at 6:30 a.m. The two have a CHP career in common. Black served for over 32 years wearing badge number 83. Today the badge numbers are in the 23,000 range, Black explained, his head covered by a cap with “California Highway Patrol” embroidered on it. Black was a former CHP assistant commissioner. “When you have any position, you’ve got to recognize you don’t know everything and surround yourself with experts who can help make positive change,” Black said.
Prior to his CHP career, Black served his country as a P-38 pilot in World War II, flying with the Flying Tigers. “In my day, I could fly any plane including the P-51,” Black said. He spoke of missions over the Suez Canal, the Indian Ocean and into China. It was while flying a P-38 over the Yangtze River that one of his engines was hit by enemy fire. He flew some 400 miles back to base making a single-engine landing.
He speaks of making adjusts and finding better ways to do things more efficiently and safely, a philosophy that seems to have guided his life. “Life in the old days, when flying with the Air Force, you used the American parachute and you sat on it.” His height made that uncomfortable as his head brushed the top of the cockpit. When sent to England training to fly a British Supermarine Spitfire, among other planes, he found the back-mounted British-style parachute made sitting in the pilot’s seat much more comfortable.
Oakhurst’s CHP Commander, Lt. Craig Hinch and Sgt. Chris Finnegan were two of the first to greet Black after making the 14-mile drive up Beasore Road past patches of snow from a storm earlier in the week.
Some of Black’s friends sat inside on the bar stools and leaned on the countertop all made from cedars cut down on the property.
Burgers, pies, and history
Cash is the only form of payment accepted as there is no electricity, there are no landline phones and cell phone reception is non-existent. “And we don’t want any,” said John Wall, a high school friend of Jim’s who has had a cabin on the property for 14 years. The two attended Millikan High School in Long Beach together.
A disconnected electrical box is mounted on a tree where a large generator used to stand, providing power for some lighting. Today, solar and propane supply power. A water pump runs on solar power and propane keeps the refrigerators holding beer, soda and water running. Two of those refrigerators have been keeping beverages cold for 90 years.
“We are popular for our pies and our burgers and our tri-tips,” Ortman said. She is the one now making the pies, taking over from her mother. She makes 30 pies a week in combinations of flavors: apricot/peach, cherry/berry and pineapple/pumpkin/pear. People are reluctant to try the latter but once they do, they really love it, she said. Slices of pie at $8 are heaped with three scoops of vanilla ice cream and a cloud of whipping cream.
She makes the pies in the evenings at home or during a break in the day at Sand Castles Preschool & Day Care in Yosemite Lakes Park. She has owned the business for 14 years.
A stop at Jones Store is mandatory for many hikers, backpackers, hunters, campers and Beasore subdivision residents. For others, the store and its menu are a reason for a drive up the mountain. The $12 tri-tip cheeseburger topper is served in a Dutch crust roll with a hand-formed 1/3 pound grilled top sirloin hamburger topped with melted cheddar cheese, home-grown tomatoes, grilled onions, a dill pickle and slices of tri-tip that have been smoked by Jarrett.
Vern and Lois’s friends and family grilled, chopped, wiped tables down and served food as warmth from the sun was welcomed after a nighttime low of 22 degrees. Wall was joined by his wife, Linda, who took orders at the counter and rang them up on a hand crank cash register that dates back to at least 1936. Elissa Faysal, 9, served baskets of burgers accompanied by chips while her “Nana,” Cindy Quigley of North Fork, helped in the kitchen.
A tour of the grounds is a step back in time. There is a 1920s manual gas pump where customers filled the globe with the number of gallons of gas they desired and then pressed a handle allowing gravity to feed the gas to their tanks.
A friendly atmosphere
As the season winds down, with the store closing the second weekend in October, there are days when only a couple of candy bars are sold but not today. Visitors keep arriving, ordering food and greeting their old friend, Vern.
For more than 50 years, Ray, 78, and Monika Cox, 72, have driven from Oakhurst to the Jones Store. There was no hesitation when they ordered a hamburger and slice of pie each. “You’ve got some meat in here,” Ray said pointing to an almost empty basket.“They don’t skimp on the patty.”
Janice and Werner Bambl came from Clovis to stay at the Bass Lake Recreational Resort and continued on to the Jones Store to “get some of the good pies,” Werner said.
Bill and Nanette Ritchey traveled from Raymond to honor their friend, Vern. Bill camped as a teenager at Upper Chiquito Campground with his Boy Scout troop. The troop would load up in the scout master’s borrowed two-ton flatbed truck and drive to Jones Store for a soda or ice cream treat.
Seven members of the Fresno Guardians Motorcycle Club made the trip up the mountain including Cassandra Gordon and Josh Pritchard.
Bill and Shirley Schlichting came to the celebration from the Beasore subdivision where they summer, and Don and Marie Lewis who have known Black for 20 years came up the mountain to see him.
“Around Memorial Day, she [Lois] would start getting itchy feet,” Marie said. She was ready to return to Jones Store for the summer. There were repairs to be done from damage caused by winter snows and there were pies to be made.
Even though he had not been to the store in two years, “I get three calls or more every day,” Black said. Callers want to know if the store is open. “Is it smokey,” they ask. “Are there any fires?”
As the operation of the store is taken over by others, Black can concentrate on personal matters. Arriving with a walker, he explains that he has been working with the Veterans Administration to get help to have better balance. With the last election, he was hopeful that the government would make it easier for veterans to get the care they need.
A wall hanging with, “Thou shalt not whine,” Ortmann explained, was a reminder to her and her brothers who were expected to help out with the business and not whine about it from the time that their grandmother Hilda Jones owned the store.
The original Jones Store was built in 1936, serving the needs of Sierra cattle ranchers in the area. But snow caused extensive roof damage and a new store with a second floor was built between 1942 and 1945, according to Black even though the plaque in front of the store says 1956. Black inherited the store from his mother under one condition - try not to change a thing. She had operated the store for a number of decades after her husband, Tom Jones, died.
The family has honored that wish but a new generation is learning of the nostalgic Jones Store through Facebook. “The Facebook thing took off and there we went,” said Shirley Schlichting.
Jones Store is open seven days a week, usually 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It opens in the spring when the road can be cleared of snow and this year the store will close October 15. If it is pie you are anticipating, arrival early in the day is advised.