Large crowds are expected at Saturday’s 16th Annual Oakhurst Rib Fest, which will serve as the 50th Anniversary party for the Oakhurst Community Center.
The community center was the vision of a group of Oakhurst residents in the early 60s who felt strongly that the town of 1,850 men, women, and children, was in need of a central location to hold a variety of meetings and social events.
The closest place to hold a big event was the Coarsegold Community Center, built several years earlier, and the residents of Oakhurst felt it was time their growing community had its own center.
Led by the only two service clubs in the area at the time, Lions and Kiwanis, a building committee, chaired by electrician Scotty Brooks, was formed to plan for the construction of the center, and fundraisers to help pay for building materials. In addition to Brooks, committee members were George Woodward (Kiwanins), Gudger, and Wade Allen (Lions Club), and Carl Porter, and Carl Arfwedson (Chamber of Commerce).
Among many others involved with the project from the beginning were Tommie Underwood, Elbert and Mildred Guyette, Tom Barnett, Jack Gyer, Betty Benoy, Ed Bailey, and Bill Fulton.
The community center, on Fresno Flats Road (425B), was built by a team of more than 100 volunteers on land donated by Mary (Hall) Owens in 1962. The plans for the center were drawn by Vern Stewart.
A list of needed building supplies (nails, lumber, windows, trusses) was posted at area hardware stores, lumber yards, and around town so members of the community could donate for specific items.
Even before one shovel of dirt was turned at the location, a fundraising fashion show was held in April, 1962, at the Coarsegold Community Center. The show was organized by Sierra Kiwanis Wives and Lady Lions, in a time women when women were not members of the organizations, but functioned as auxiliaries.
Ida B. Baker was chairperson for the event with Mary Owens in charge of the models, including Barbara Norberg, 1961 Miss Madera County. More than 250 people attended the event, paying $1.50 each, to see clothing from Double Dare Gift and Dress shop, Village Department Store, and Bass Lake’s Pine Tree House. The event raised $450.
According to a Sierra Star story, the Fashion show funds were going to be used to help pay the costs of moving a building from the Ahwahnee TB Sanitarium that would be used for the community center. The building never made it to the site, as the truck transporting the building broke down on Highway 49, in the vicinity of what is now the Enterprise Center.
The building stayed there, and eventually became home of the Oakhurst Volunteer Fire Department.
The first volunteer work party was held on Saturday, March 16, 1963, clearing brush from the 2 1/2 acres. As construction progressed, including site preparation, foundation, floor framing, rough plumbing, and drilling a well, additional funds were required. An “anonymous donor” came forward in December, 1963, and pledged $1,500 if matching funds could be generated. The building committee got to work and put on a fundraising dance on Jan. 11, 1964, at The Falls in Bass Lake, and the matching funds were secured. Many years later the anonymous donor was identified as Don Ely, who was owner of the Sierra Sky Ranch at the time.
According to the Sept, 12, 1963, Sierra Star, a milestone in the construction of the 6,000 square-foot building took place on Saturday, Sept. 7, 1963, with a work party finishing pouring cement for the foundation footings. The encouraging aspect of the day was, due to donated material and labor, only one third of the estimated cost was spent by the committee.
Permanente Cement Co. of Fresno donated 500 sacks of cement, and Ralph Gordon Sr., owner of Redi-Mix of Oakhurst (now Outback Materials), also donated cement, and Gordon and Al Merkle (Old Corral Redi-Mix) delivered the cement to the construction site and provided labor to help pour it. Aggregate for the 18-inch wide by 16-inch deep footing was donated by by the San Joaquin Rock Co., and steel reinforcing was provided at below cost by by the Drake Steel Co.
September, 1964, brought what as then called the “big eight-day wonder” as volunteers flocked to the site and installed the roof, just before the rains came.
It was in late July, 1965, two years after the 1963 groundbreaking, a community barbecue, with two beef donated by Lester Bissett, and Mary Owens, was held at the site to celebrate the completion of the building.
Merkle, who tuns 90 on Jan. 5, remembers how the community came together in 1963 to start building the Oakhurst Community Center.
Merkle, and his wife of 68-years, Helen, moved to Oakhurst in 1960.
“There wasn’t much up here then ... no banks, two or three gas stations, two or three bars, and a couple markets ... we were all trying to run a business, and most of us were starving, but we would all try to find some time to work on the community center,” Merkle said. “The town needed a place for people to come together for an event. It was a big effort and took quite some time because all the labor was volunteer, most of the workers could only work on the building on weekends.”
Ken and Barbara Kirby spent as many hours as anyone on the project.
Ken, an active Lions Club member, and other volunteers installed the heating system, fabricated the kitchen vent hood, and made stainless steel sinks. Barbara pounded plenty of nails on the center’s subfloor.
“I remember it well, because I smashed my thumb more than once,” Barbara said.
Not long after the building was completed in the summer of 1965, the Mountain Community Women formed with the mandate to raise funds for the operation and maintenance of the center. That organization, now more than 75 members strong, is still working to benefit the community center.
The community center received a major renovation in 1996, due to a generous $325,000 bequeathed by Jo Arfwedson, who served as the executive assistant for the chamber of commerce, and was active in the community for many years.
Those funds financed the building of a new courtyard, a porch cover connecting the center’s main building to the adjacent pavilion, newly paved parking lot, improved lighting, a new entry-way, landscaping, and refurbishing the bathrooms, hardwood floors, and stage.
In addition to the exterior and interior of the building, two Little League baseball fields were developed behind the center, where an old horse arena once stood. The fields were ready for play in 1998.
In more recent years, new roofs were placed on the main building and pavilion, along with a new air conditioner and refurbished kitchen in the pavilion.
First event at the Community Center was a fashion show on June 5, 1965
Although the hardwood floor was yet to be installed, the first event held at the center, “Symphony in Fashion,” was held on June 5, 1965, and was attended by nearly 300 people. According to the June 10, 1965, edition of the Sierra Star, the event, sponsored by service organizations wives, grossed about $900.
Co-chairs of the event were Mary Porter, and Sybil Underwood, with Mary Williams serving as commentator for the fashion show.
Models wore the latest styles in clothing from The Pink Penny, Village Department Store, Mar-Nel’s Sewing Center, Stuart’s Tack and Saddlery, and The Men’s Den. Models included Doll Reed, Susan Peters, Gloria Sullivan, Steve Smithy, and Dave Steele.
A hat contest was held that day with Jo Arfwedson winning for funniest hat (rosebud and lace decorated toilet seat), Jane Wiliams for most imaginative (gilded wicker violin), and Mary Williams for most beautiful.
Rib Fest Saturday
Doors open for the all-you-can-eat Oakhurst Rib Fest at 5:30 p.m., Saturday, June 20.
This is the 16th Annual Rib Fest, which pits service clubs against one another for the title of “Best Ribs in the Mountain,” and is the sole annual fundraiser for the upkeep and improvements of the community center.
The current title holder is the Rotary Club of Oakhurst Sierra (noon). Other clubs vying for “Best Ribs” bragging rights are Oakhurst Kiwanis, Oakhurst Sierra Sunrise Rotary, Elks Lodge, and the Sierra Lions Club.
In addition to ticket sales, a 50/50 raffle, and a live and silent auction offering a variety of goods and services for attendees to bid on to raise funds. Live auction items will include four tickets to Disneyland, a digital electric smoker, a half day party barge on Bass Lake from Miller’s Landing Resort, and a field trimmer/mower.
During the evening, the Oakhurst Sierra Sunrise Rotary Club will draw the name of the lucky person who will go home from the Rib Fest in a 1982 Porsche 928S. The club has been selling $20 raffle tickets for the sports car, donated by an anonymous donor, with proceeds going to the community center, Oakhurst Senior Center, and the library. For tickets, call Tim Madden, (559) 283-4731.
The Rib Fest menu will also include baked beans and coleslaw provided by the Soroptimist International of the Sierras, garlic French bread prepared by Nora Hunting, and cookies and ice cream provided by Mountain Community Women.
Dale Miller, a resident of the Oakhurst area for more than 20 years and active member of the Sunrise Rotary club, is a big supporter of the center. Several years ago, he worked closely with John Hilborn who “did a great job providing landscaping for the facility.”
“The community center is owned by everyone in the community, and I sincerely hope that the community will show strong support for our only fundraiser of the year, this Saturday’s Oakhurst Community Center Rib Fest,” Miller said.
In addition to countless private events (birthday, anniversary, and graduation parties, weddings, family reunions, memorial services), regular public events that have been held at the center over the years include job fairs, chamber events, jazzercize, and square dance classes, church services, weight watchers, Kiwanis’ bi-monthly pancake breakfasts, quilt shows, woodcarvers rendezvous, crab and cajun feeds, St. Patrick’s Day luncheons, hobo stew nights, bingo nights, and last, but certainly not least, the center’s Rib Fest.
The community centers board of directors is made up of representatives from many area service clubs as well as the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. The Rib Fest, which raised $14,000 last year, is the only community center sponsored event that raises money to continue to run, maintain, and improve the center.
The centers board of directors is made up of representatives from service clubs as well as the chamber of commerce, including two Rotary clubs, Lions, Kiwanis, Mountain Community Women, Soroptimists, Elks, the Sierra Senior Society, La Sierra Guild.
The Rib Fest is the one community center sponsored event that raises money to continue to run and improve the Oakhurst Community Center.
Details: Doors open 5:30 p.m. - Dinner served at 7 p.m. - Tickets cost $25 per person, $12 for 10 and under. Tickets available at Yosemite Bank, Dorsey’s Hallmark, and Oakhurst Giftworks & Framing. Sharon Smith, (559) 683-2290.
Oakhurst Community Center time line
* Land donated by Jack and Mary Owens (later to be Mary Hall-Green)
* Jo Arfwedson chosen to do fundraising publicity.
* Plans drawn by Vern Stewart
* March 16 - First call for volunteer workers to clean-up the property.
* Fundraising dance held at the Coarsegold Community Center.
* April 28 - Lions have a pancake breakfast for Oakhurst Community Center.
* May 19 - Lions have a motorcycle hill climb for Oakhurst Community Center.
* June 8 - Fashion show and card party put on by the wives of Lions and Kiwanis club members.
* Oct. 10 - Largest volunteer work party yet, foundation and plumbing completed.
* Oct. 24 - Large donation of lumber comes in from local lumber mill (General Box and Lev Lumber).
* Oct. 31 - 21 volunteers turn out to nail sub-floor.
* Dec. 5 - Cost so far, including the well, foundation, sub-floor and rough plumbing at about $2,000; $3,000 needed for the roof trusses.
* Dec. 19 - Don Ely offers $1,500 if the building committee can match it within one month to match the $1,500 donation. Plans were made quickly for a dance, with an appeal for support going out to the entire community.
* January - The dance netted $1,600, and with the Ely donation, the committee has in excess of the $3,000 needed.
* February - A caravan of pick-up trucks heads to Raymond to haul back 70 tons of granite stone for the fireplace.
* March 26 - A total of $7,774 raised as of this date.
* April 11 - Trusses arrive, and PG&E furnishes crane to set them.
* June 18 - Trusses up and wall framing near complete.
* June 25 - Lions and Kiwanis begin a special evening work party, starting at 6 p.m.
* July 2 - New population figure for Oakhurst, 1,845.
* Sept. 12 - An eight-day work party starts to get the roof on the building before the rains, enabling workers to work inside during the winter.
* January - 250 attend a fundraising dance at Snowline Lodge that nets $1,364.
* June 5 - First activity in the Oakhurst Community Center, 300 attend a Fashion Show, $900 profit.
* Second event, 33 Oakhurst Elementary School students graduate.
* July 31 - Building completed and debt-free. A big celebration is held. Mary Owens and Lester Bissett donate a couple beef for a big barbecue.
* Aug. - Certificate of Incorporation issued.
* Aug. 10 - Official governing body takes over the Oakhurst Community Center. Representatives from the Lions are Ray Gudger and Wade Allen; from the Kiwanis are George Woodward and James “Scotty” Brooks, and from the Chamber are Carl Porter and Carl Arfwedson. Ray Gudger is elected president.
* 11 acres added to the original 2.5 acres.
* The mortgage is burned.
- Compiled by Ken Kirby in 1997.