Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cowboy Culture -- Recollections of 1950s Mountain Living

I was 15 years old in 1957, when my folks moved to the little High Sierra hamlet known as Oakhurst.  Oakhurst sits right at the junction of two California highway routes -- SR 41 (the primary access to the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park -- 13 miles north) and SR 49 (also known as the Gold Country Highway).  And, best of all it was just 4 miles from Bass Lake a popular vacation destination.

The industry for the area consisted of a box wood saw mill, a couple of small cattle ranches, and tourism.  Driving through Oakhurst in 1957, you could sneeze and never know you had been there.  The entire town -- scattered over a couple of miles -- consisted of a couple of motels, two mom & pop markets, two gas stations, a small lumber company, a plumbing & well pump business, Clementine's restaurant, a boat builder, a watch repair & jewelry shop, and a good general hardware store with a sporting goods department. 

Dad purchased several acres immediately north of the hamlet just beyond a welcome sign that announced your arrival and informed you the population was 357 people.  Before moving to the mountains we lived on a semi-rural edge of Los Angeles, so adjusting to the mountains took some doing.  

Dad was a building contractor and found immediate work in Oakhurst.  He had planned to eventually build a resort, but never did and we moved after just three years.

For a teenage boy with a horse the place has heaven -- hunting, fishing, trapping, and backcountry exploration began at my doorstep.  It was not uncommon to see me and my red-dun horse Sandy cruising along the edge of highway 41 -- me packing' my Iver Johnson revolver with a Savage over and under rifle in my saddle scabbard.

I wish every kid could have experienced the wonderful everyday events in my life during those all too few years.  This is a list of random memories of Oakhurst in the late 1950s…

Our mountain home -- a humble wood sided -- 1000 square foot -- 2 bedroom home without a furnace.  Our fuel system was "all electric," with the exception of the fireplace with a heatilator (a fireplace insert that recirculates the air).  That fireplace did an ample job of heating the little house, but it required many hours of hard work cutting wood to feed it.  Oak burns the longest, but pine is the best kindling.

Cutting firewood -- dad and I spent hundreds of hours in the nearby national forest felling and cutting dead oak and pine trees.  The work was just started when we got the wood home because it had to be cut to about two foot lengths, split and stacked.  

Food -- groceries were too expensive at local mom & pop markets, so we'd go to Fresno -- an hours drive (45 miles) -- about once a week.  The drive was worth it as we'd save a heap of dinero compared to mountain prices.

Trash disposal  -- the local town dump was about half way to Bass Lake.  We'd take the week's garbage there every Saturday.  I usually volunteered to help because the dump always had a few black bears prowling through the refuse.

Water -- before building the house the first order of business was drilling a good water well.  I don't remember the pump rate be we had all the water our small family and horses could ever need -- that is long as you kept the pump primed.

Gasoline -- mountain gas stations charge an 'arm and a leg', but dad found it was less expensive if you bought 600 gallons at time.  Dad put a tank on stilts and let gravity do her job.  I recall Seaside was the brand.  I wonder if they still exist?

Electricity -- because all power lines in those days were overhead we were almost guaranteed to lose power during rainstorms.  Mom learned to keep plenty of candles on hand.  It was kinda fun to sit in front of the fireplace listening to the rain while candle light flickered on the walls

Telephone -- did you ever hear of a party-line?  Several of our neighbors shared a single line, but you knew when the call was for you because of the rings.  Our ring was two longs, and a short.  Our phone number was Oakhurst 457.

About 1962 (two years after we moved away) the town is starting to grow.

Highway 41 -- The main access road into Yosemite from the south was at the bottom edge of our property.  That highway was not a good place for a boy and his horse between Friday afternoon and Sunday night because a steady stream of traffic crawled through Oakhurst (at a snail's pace) all weekend long.  It sure was fun to sit on the front porch and look at all the new fangled campers, and speedboats as they made their way toward Bass Lake and Yosemite.

Wildlife -- hunting for deer, quail, and varmints started right in our own backyard, but the best deer hunting was 8 miles away in nearby Ahwahnee.  The best bear hunting was about 10 miles north near Fishcamp.

Fishing -- I could catch trout 200 yards from our front door in the Fresno River, but for bass, bluegill and bigger trout we had to drive 4 miles to Bass Lake.

Swimming -- local kids had the best swimming hole ever on the Fresno River.  It was about 8 feet deep in the middle and had a slick bluff to dive from.

Our corral -- dad figured our horses didn't need a barn, so he had built a corral fence around a nice stand of live oak trees.  He figured the oaks would provide ample cover for two horses, but I'm pretty sure he felt guilty during the few days every winter when the horses had to stand out in the snow.

School -- Sierra Joint Union High School was in Tollhouse -- 60 miles away.

School bus -- my twice a day trip to school and back added up to 120 miles and three hours of daily travel.  In the winter I left for school when it was still dark, and didn't get home again until long after the sun set.  On a few occasions snow kept us home from school.

All the disadvantages of living in the mountains was sure off set by the beauty of the place.  I miss that simple life and those few difficulties.  

A few years before moving to Oakhurst I had a chance to experience life in rural Montana where my relatives had no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.  We are sure spoiled today.


  1. I have come across your blog and really enjoyed reading it so I am sharing it with the Oakhurst community. One thing I noticed was your mileage was off of going from Oakhurst California to Sierra high school in Tollhouse California as it is only about 30 miles one way 60 miles round-trip.

  2. In those days the route was Highway 41, then Friant, Prather and Tollhouse. Google has 53.9 miles.

  3. There are a few more Oakhurst memories... use keyword Oakhurst in the search bar at the top left. Enjoy!


  4. Thank you for the update and clarifying the mileage and thank you for the tip of other memory blogs, I will be sure to read them as I am sure other people will too now.