Pioneer’s house named county historic landmark: Original 49er ‘home place’ preserves past amid new development
A house built by an original Grass Valley pioneer has been named a Nevada County historic landmark.
Visionary and enterprising, Benjamin Franklin Taylor finished building the Home Place for his adored wife, Esther, in 1866. It was “the first substantial house” in the booming mining town, according to one historical account. It can be seen from the 800 block of West Main Street, shielded by trees from equipment preparing for the Gilded Springs development.
Taylor’s Home Place may be the only residence in Nevada County owned continuously by Gold Rush descendants — 157 years, said Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission Chairman Bernard Zimmerman.
“Ben Taylor was a real 49er,” Zimmerman said. “An awful lot of the 49ers came and made a lot of money and went home. He stayed… He settled down. He became a pillar of the community.”
“We have really enjoyed restoring the Home Place,” said Taylor’s great-granddaughter, Mary Ann White. She and husband Gerald White expanded and updated the house, adding trees, lawn, roses and pathways.
The house remains a tribute to “an amazing man” who, according to family legend, picked up a handkerchief while riding a horse at full gallop on his 80th birthday, said Sally Knutson of Nevada City, another great-granddaughter. Knutson’s research on Taylor’s Home Place led to its recent designation by the Landmarks Commission. The county Board of Supervisors approved the recommendation Aug. 10.
TAYLOR KNEW TWAIN, MONTEZ
Taylor was 23 when he left Missouri in May 1849, arriving in late August. Soon, Taylor and fellow travelers built the area’s first cabin near present-day East Bennett Street, according to Thompson and West’s “History of Nevada County, California, 1880.”
What the Kentucky native lacked in education, he made up for with grit. Taylor panned gold, drove wagons, cut and sold hay, traded in Nevada City, herded wild mustangs, raised cattle, survived a fire that wiped him out, and encountered “old Waloopa,” probably a local Mountain Nisenan leader, his journals record.
In 1851, Taylor steamed from San Francisco to Panama and nearly died from measles. Still weak, he was carried “on a hammock” across the isthmus, boarded another ship for Havana, traded gold dust for coin in New Orleans, then steamed up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, he wrote.
Taylor crossed the Great Plains twice more, bringing 800 cattle and horses for the 300-acre Buena Vista Ranch and store he and partners established in the Peardale-Chicago Park area.
In 1852, Taylor was driving his first 500-plus head of stock when he met a wagon train. Taylor finagled an introduction to Esther Huling, then 15, while crossing a creek on the Oregon Trail. Love pierced his heart, but in his journal he noted: “A little young.” On journey’s end, the Hulings settled in what is now the Smartsville area.
“Benj” Taylor loved horses and his dog. Writers called him tall, big and genial. “My mother remembered him as kind and gentle,” Knutson added. He helped lead local politics, according to David Comstock’s “Lives of Nevada County Pioneers.”
Taylor knew Samuel Langhorne Clemens before the humorist penned stories under the name Mark Twain. In 1854, Taylor was in a local saloon when the entertainer Lola Montez famously stormed in with a horsewhip and leveled a blow on a newspaper editor who had aroused her fury.
In 1863, Taylor and partners started building the Grass Valley and Illinoistown Turnpike, a toll road and bridge crossing the Bear River to the transcontinental railroad depot planned for what is now Colfax. The road in Colfax still bears his name.
MAIL-ORDER BANISTER, STONE KITCHEN
Taylor waited until 1856 to marry Huling, by then 20. They lived at Buena Vista Ranch and had their first two children. Horses took an hour and a half to get to town, and Esther Taylor yearned for Grass Valley, great-granddaughter White said. “Benj” Taylor bought 75 acres at town’s edge, stretching from West Main up Alta Street to Ridge Road, bounded on the west by Peabody Creek.
Taylor built their two-story, five-room Home Place when others in Grass Valley resided in cabins and small cottages.
“He said the lumber was carefully selected, the boards being heavier than usual. All the important timbers, instead of being nailed, were morticed and dove-tailed,” wrote Thomas Dykes Beasley, who interviewed Taylor for “A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country.”
Above the front porch, the sharply peaked gable characterizes the then-popular Carpenter Gothic style. Through the front door, White stood in the entry hall by the restored wooden staircase. “My great-grandfather ordered it by mail,” she said.
White opened the door to the sitting room, headed by a brick fireplace. “I would sit in here and read as a child,” she recalled.
About 20 feet behind the original house, Taylor built a stone structure half-way into the ground — the original kitchen. Over the years, the house expanded around it, now a wine cellar and bar.
“They built the kitchen separate from the house, because back then there were so many kitchen fires,” explained Parker White, Taylor’s great-great-grandson. “The whole house could catch fire.”
‘UNIQUE IN NEVADA COUNTY’
Taylor raised hay here. His son-in-law planted a vineyard, grew pears developed by horticulturalist Felix Gillet, and started a dairy. Next to the house, a small building shelters one of three springs. Inside, cool water wells up and trickles into a cement trough — the dairy’s refrigerator, Mary Ann White explained.
“They would put the milk in metal urns, and then they’d put the urns in there to keep the milk cool,” White said. “I remember the cows. It was a fun place to come and visit as a child.”
Over the years, the acres were subdivided and sold to pay taxes, Knutson said. Subsequent generations moved away. The Home Place became a rental in 1965.
The Whites moved from Modesto to Grass Valley when Gerald retired, and they bought the property from other family members in 1995.
“When we came back, the house was standing in a weed field,” Mary Ann White said. Their work restoring, expanding and modernizing the house started as the town’s preservation movement bloomed. Taylor’s Home Place became No. 6 on the Grass Valley Historical Commission’s registry.
“It’s a unique place in Nevada County,” Zimmerman said.
Freelance writer Trina Kleist is based in Grass Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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