Spenceville: Mines and more
The town known as Spenceville was in the southwestern portion of Nevada County 17 miles by road from Wheatland and 17 miles from Grass Valley.
The road was used as early as 1851 as a road from Sacramento to Grass Valley and Nevada (City), and later became Spenceville Road. A post office was first established there in 1872 but discontinued six years later. It was re-established in 1879 and finally discontinued in 1932.
The town is said to commemorate Edward F. Spence of Nevada City, who donated lumber for the first school built there in 1868.
Spenceville was unique because it wasn’t known for its rich gold quartz mines; its main claim to fame was the copper ore discovered in 1862-63.
A copper mine was in operation by 1875 and was the first mine in the state whose pyrites were used for the manufacture of both mineral paint and sulfuric acid.
In 1881, Thomas Price of San Francisco reported that the copper deposit would prove to be a permanent one and of great value.
The Imperial Paint and Copper Co. was organized there in 1892. The brown-colored paint manufactured from the copper ore was fire- and waterproof and said to maintain its shade. Promoters said the paint was superior to any of the metallic paints imported from the East or Europe. The plant produced 10 tons of paint every 24 hours.
One of the early families that came to settle in the Spenceville area was that of Cyrus C. Bitner, his wife Mary (Steele) and their two daughters, Ella May and Barbara (“Emma”).
Bitner was originally from Somerset County in southwestern Pennsylvania and moved to Iowa just prior to the Civil War. The family may have already been on its way to California when two events may have altered its plans.
Emma, their second daughter, was born in early 1860 in Iowa, and the Civil War soon broke out. Bitner enlisted in an Iowa infantry unit, held the rank of 1st lieutenant, and later transferred to the 9th Iowa Cavalry and was promoted to captain. After the war, Bitner farmed in Iowa for several years and became the editor of the newspaper in Eddyville, Iowa.
The family came to California in 1873 and settled in Spenceville in an area that boasted gently rolling hills and a mild climate with warm dry summers. In the early days, the mild climate boasted oranges and other semi-tropical fruit, while the plains and valleys were used for growing cereals. Ground higher up was suitable for pasture. There was plenty of water available for irrigation from the numerous small streams that flowed into the Bear River to the south and the Yuba River to the north.
Bitner became involved in mining and was owner of several mines, including the Mother Lode Quartz, Jackson, San Francisco, American, St. Louis, Philadelphia, 16-to-1, Rose Hill, Mayflower, Last Chance Extension and Bitter, as well as others.
He was also superintendent of the Mineral Hill Mining and Smelting Co. and owned claims on the copper belt – the Golden Eagle, Index, Legion, Mineral Hill, Progress, Sacramento, Main Chance, First Chance and Advance Chance. Later in life he held various local offices in the area, including justice of the peace.
Bitner was partner in some of his mining ventures with a neighbor named Austin, also from Pennsylvania, and both had children who entered the teaching profession. Ella Bitner married John H. Austin in Nevada City in 1879. He would first become a teacher and later an attorney. After teaching in several schools, Ella became well respected in education and held the office of county superintendent of schools from 1922 to 1933. When she retired, she held the record for tenure in the position.
Emma, the younger Bitner daughter, married August Anderson, who was a prosperous Spenceville merchant and purchased the old “Original Kneebone” ranch in 1908. Anderson was also post master there from 1899 to 1914. The Andersons were well-known in the community for many years.
The town of Spenceville is no more; most of the area that made up the farming, ranching and mining community is now located in the Spenceville Wildlife Refuge. Hiking, horseback riding and a shooting range are available.
Maria E. Brower is a local researcher and member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and the Nevada County Historical Society. She works at the Doris Foley History Branch Library. She descends from the Bitner family of Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The Nevada County Historical Society meets the last Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the community meeting room of the Madelyn Helling Library in Nevada City. The next meeting is March 28, when a slide show and presentation on the history of Spenceville and its copper mines will be given by archaeologist Ellen Bowden. The public is invited . For more information, call Paul Hinshelwood at 272-1743.
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