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February 22, 2014
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History of Miners Foundry Nevada City: ‘Window into the past,’ cultural center of today

When David Osborn and Charles Woods decided to buy a building that largely looked like it had long ago seen its better days, few folks could likely foresee what the Miners Foundry in Nevada City would eventually be.

But these two San Francisco artists proved to be visionaries.

“They had an eye,” said Paul Matson, a member of the Miners Foundry Cultural Center Board of Directors. “They realized what a beautiful, interesting community Nevada City was. They had a great vision of how wonderful this building could become in serving the community.”

What once was a dilapidated Gold Rush relic has become a bustling building that embodies the essence of being the community’s cultural center.

According to the late local historian and longtime journalist Bob Wyckoff, Edward Coker acquired the present Miners Foundry site at Bridge and Spring streets after the “great fire of 1856 almost blotted from existence much of Nevada City.”

Having lost his small Nevada Foundry on Spring Street, behind the National Hotel, Coker commenced building what today is known as the Great Stone Hall.

“George G. Allan entered the foundry business in 1867, in partnership with David Thom,” Wyckoff wrote in one of his many columns on local history for The Union. “The two continued the name Nevada Foundry, where they fabricated a variety of mining equipment including ore cars, metal water pipe for flumes and hydraulic mining, stamp mills and myriad other mining tools and equipment.”

In the late 1880s, Lester A. Pelton of Camptonville invented a new type of water wheel and bought his invention to Allan’s Foundry, where they tested the wheel on the banks of Deer Creek. The wheel proved successful in hydro-electric and compressed-air generation and in running belt-driven machinery.

So successful, Wyckoff wrote, that the foundry was “overburdened with orders” and production was moved to San Francisco, where the Pelton Company was launched, although limited production of the famous Pelton Wheels continued at the foundry in the early 1900s.

Today, Pelton Wheels of all sizes are proudly displayed throughout western county, including the 30-foot wheel at the North Star Mining Museum, the 12-footer standing tall at Robinson Plaza, a 2-foot “demonstrator” at the Firehouse Museum in Nevada City and many more of various sizes at the Miners Foundry.

But also on display there is a thriving arts scene and real sense of community.

“It’s intimately connected with so many people’s lives in our community,” said Jesse Locks, organizer of the Nevada City Film Festival and other events, who also does public relations work with the Miners Foundry. “It really does become intimately connected with you, whether with weddings, school fundraisers or the spelling bee … Everything happens there.

“As a 34 year old who has lived all around the country and has come back, I have that connection. I mean … our medieval festival in seventh grade was there!”

Today, the foundry serves as an venue for the arts, an events hall and a museum — all in one — and offers ample other options for its use by the community.

“It is a great relic and a great example of another period and of what you can do with an old building that you’ve given new use to,” Woods said in a 2009 video promoting the foundry. Osborn and Woods lived in Nevada City for more than 50 years. Osborn died in 2002, while Woods passed away in 2011.

In September 1972, they purchased the Miners Foundry and established the American Victorian Museum.

“The era to which most of the artifact (then) displayed (in the museum) belonged — from the 1840s to the early 20th century — is the same time span which saw the founding and development of Nevada City, a uniquely Victorian town,” Woods once told Wyckoff.

“The ties between Victorian England and America of the time are both real and ideological. Many who settled the West were subjects of the English Queen and brought their goods, machines, their arts and crafts, their attitudes and styles and their prejudices and taboos. Many of these attitudes, symbols and images are still in evidence here today.”

The museum occupied the building until 1990, when as Woods said, “we were unable to fund necessary major improvements,” in order to keep the building open.

But before they sold, “a roster of events staged and produced in the AVM is seemingly endless,” Wyckoff wrote for The Union in 2008.

“Some events that were created by the museum are the recently concluded 25th annual Teddy Bear Convention that continues in the building; Robbie Burns Night, a celebration of the Scottish poet’s birthday; Queen Victoria’s Birthday, Fright Night (Halloween), Songs and Stories of the Gold Rush and in cooperation with KVMR-FM, more than 350 Sunday live concerts from the Old Stone Hall.

“The place was always “jumpin’.”

And now as the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, it still is “jumpin’”, whether drawing the likes of headlining acts like Cake, Richie Havens and Michael Franti or those on the more locally loved side such as the Deadbeats or Humperheads.

“Because of the size of the building, it’s one of the best places to see a show,” said Locks, “whether you have 650 people in there for the Red Hot Chili Peppers or 200 people, where it really feels intimate.”

In addition to offering a venue for the arts or a central hub for all things “community,” part of the nonprofit Miners Foundry Cultural Center’s mission is “providing an educational and social bridge from our past to the present and future.”

A bonus is all the bang the community has gotten back for its buck, said Matson. Recently, $65,000 was invested in a project to install new flooring in the building. Another project on the horizon for which the organization seeks support is the addition of a $300,000 air conditioning system that would extend the center’s use in the months of June, July and August.

“I don’t think the money put into it is significant at all in comparison to all the benefits it has accrued since it opened,” Matson said.

“People know how much I care about Nevada City … and how fortunate we are to have this beautifully preserved Gold Rush town, that’s not a museum, but an alive and well-working, living healthy community.”

“It’s really amazing to have the Nevada Theatre, KVMR and the Miners Foundry all within a stone’s throw of each other in a town of 3,000 people,” Matson continued. “It’s just such a good fit.”

And, as founding trustee Allen Haley says in the 2009 promotional video, through its wide array of offerings, the Miners Foundry continues to be as vital to the community it serves as it was more than 150 years ago.

“When people come here I would hope they would, first of all, see it as the window into the past that it is,” Haley said, “and appreciate the magnitude of the machinery and things that used to go on in this building that contributed so much to what the community is to this day.

“… I just remember the definition that guided us early on, which was that ‘we are in honorable competition with our ancestors.’ They built this building. They handed it down to us. And now it’s up to us to hand it on to the next generation, and keep it preserved and intact.”

To contact Editor Brian Hamilton, email bhamilton@theunion.com or call 530-477-4249.


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The Union Updated Mar 14, 2014 03:03PM Published Mar 22, 2014 10:46AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.