Hub of history: Downtown Grass Valley tradition passed down through the generations
Grass Valley’s historic downtown district has been the cornerstone of the city for more than 150 years, housing the town’s local businesses while also serving as the city’s main attraction.
“If you look at the entire city of Grass Valley, the downtown would be like the hub, it’s the heart of the entire city,” Grass Valley Downtown Association Executive Director Julia Jordan said.
“The basic architecture of our buildings have stayed the same. Although the businesses change constantly, the historical preservation is something that has stayed and is something everyone takes very seriously.”
That preservation has echoed a storied business tradition that has been passed down through the generations.
“There’s some generational things that have happened here in downtown Grass Valley,” Mill Street Clothing Co. owner and Grass Valley City Council member Lisa Swarthout said. “The building that I’m currently in used to house the old JCPenney. My family owned Stucki Jewelers in the 1970s and sold it in the early 2000s, so my family has history here. I’m the second generation and I am proud to be a part of that history.”
The first non-indigenous visitors to the Grass Valley area were members of an overland company who passed through in the fall of 1846. Historians claim the French-born pioneers overtook the Donner Party in a wagon train with starved cattle that eventually discovered the valley meadow now known as Grass Valley, according Claudine Chalmers’ “Images of America: Grass Valley.”
During the Gold Rush era, Oregon miner David Stump took a band of miners into California, and on their way back Stump said they found “a stream running through a fertile valley, whose luxuriant growth of grass and wild pea vines refreshed their weary eyes.”
That may have been the first recorded description of Grass Valley, an area that has now become a vibrant community with a historic downtown area full of local businesses.
“With the Gold Rush era, all the history we have here adds to the downtown, which has such charm,” GVDA Promotions Coordinator Liddy Bonomolo said.
“With all the old buildings and businesses, people just love going downtown because it’s the greatest part of Grass Valley.”
The city’s first recorded business, the Boston Ravine, was opened in the winter of 1849 by Boston immigrants headed toward gold, who built cabins in the area to protect themselves from the winter weather.
The following year the settlement became a town that was initially to be named Centerville, but was named Grass Valley.
The discovery of quartz gold in the town’s Gold Hill area near a body of water now known as Wolf Creek led miners and gold-seekers to travel to Grass Valley.
The town quickly became a city, with founded schools, a post office and the creation of local businesses. By 1865, Main and Mill streets soon became the city’s main downtown area, where some of the same buildings and businesses exist to this day.
“We’re in our 48th year here,” Foothill Flowers owner Mark Johnson said. “I am so grateful that my mother started her business in downtown. We live and work in downtown and we really have a big affinity for the downtown business district.”
Located at 102 W. Main St., the building that currently houses Foothill Flowers was originally owned by pioneer druggist William Loutzenheiser, who operated a pharmacy in the building, which was initially made of wood, in 1851.
After the Great Grass Valley fire of 1855, the building was remodeled and built from brick.
Loutzenheiser was once a member of the 1861 city board of trustees, and as one of the original locators of the Idaho Quartz claim, he was very active in the local mining industry.
On July 4, 1867, Loutzenheiser’s pharmacy was home to an infamous local gun battle between downtown Grass Valley merchants Henry Sylvester and John Davis, in which Davis was shot and killed.
Loutzenheiser retired in 1889, and his son took over the building’s operations.
From 1928 to 1966 the building was occupied and owned by several businesses, including Foote Electrical and Parky’s Gas Service, but was finally acquired by Marie Johnson, known as “The Flower Lady,” who founded Foothill Flowers in November 1966.
In 1984, a fire burned the inside of the building and for 11 months Marie Johnson preserved her flowers by setting buckets of ice in a room partitioned by plastic sheeting.
In the 1990, her sons, Mark and Todd Johnson, joined the business and took over operations after their mother retired.
“We’re very grateful for every customer that we have, and over the years we’ve realized the important of giving back to the downtown community,” Mark Johnson said.
“It’s a very integral part of our business to support the surrounding downtown community, and we’ve been doing that for almost 50 years.”
In 2011, the California Heritage Council recognized Foothill Flowers with a preservation award, ranking the Grass Valley building with previous award-winning structures such as the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Hearst Castle at San Simeon.
“We have a lot of businesses that have been here for a number of years, like Foothill Mercantile, The Owl and Foggy Mountain Music,” Jordan said.
“We do have those businesses that have been kind of like a revolving door, but most of our businesses have been here for 10 years or more. We have those types of businesses that remain true to downtown.”
One of those businesses is the Holbrooke Hotel, which is located at 212 West Main St. Originally the Golden Gate Saloon, the building was erected in 1851 but was subsequently destroyed in the 1855 fire.
The two-story brick building that currently exists was built in 1862 by C.W. Smith. The saloon was then incorporated into the Holbrooke Hotel in 1879 when D.P. Holbrooke purchased the building.
“If you look at pictures dating back to the 1850s, the basic architecture of our buildings are unchanged,” Jordan said. “We’ve worked very hard at preserving the outside of the buildings, although if you walk into them, some of the buildings look very modern but still have that historic feel to them.”
Jordan says that the downtown area’s ethnic culture has also been preserved, from the city’s Italian influences and restaurants that still exist near the Holiday Inn Express, to the Cornish culture represented by Grass Valley’s signature pasties.
“The Cornish are very prominent; they kind of shaped the area,” Jordan said.
“All of the Cornish miners came here to strike it rich in California, so there are Cornish businesses downtown that are a big draw for people. Also, what a lot of people don’t know is that the Chinese were settlers that have influence here, also.”
From 1868 to 1878, Grass Valley’s Chinatown, located on what was then called “China Street,” was at its most prominent with various barbershops, teahouses and restaurants on a block of the city that was encompassed by Bank Alley and Wolf Creek.
Community member Alice Tinloy Yun’s family owned the Quong Chong, an employment center that was also a bank that helped Chinese settlers find jobs and invest money.
Grass Valley’s Chinatown, though, was also home to some of the city’s gambling parlors, opium dens and brothels and became an area targeted by police raids.
An 1897 city ordinance ordered that “every person who loiters about that part of the City of Grass Valley known as ‘Chinatown’ without any apparent business” could be arrested for a misdemeanor.
Grass Valley’s Chinatown was located in what is now a parking lot, though more than 1,000 Chinese immigrants lived there in the 1870s.
A stone placard dedicated to Chinese immigrants is currently located on Cedar Ridge Road and reads, “the Chinese were noted for their honest, sober and industrious characteristics … Former residents Duck Egg, Georgie Bow, Ah Louie and the pioneer Yuen, Gon and Tinloy families are an integral part of Nevada County’s history.”
“That’s why all of the historical cultures we have had here, we have continued to try and preserve by creating foundations so that people are aware of what families were here, in downtown, from the beginning,” Jordan said.
And as Grass Valley’s downtown district continues to flourish, for Swarthout, it’s all about the area’s ability to serve the community.
“It’s still basically local business owners serving the locals who live here with a pretty good variety of goods and services,” Swarthout said.
“You used to be able to buy a pair of jeans downtown, and you can still buy a pair of jeans downtown, and that’s why it’s so special.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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