Photo © Unknown
The name Auberry is the incorrect spelling of the phonetically miss pronounced Al Yarborough. And there is not one Auberry, but two. Old Auberry started like most foothill towns with a general store and café, a blacksmith, and a bar, remnants of which are visible today. F.F. Witham built the first store on a dirt road with a wooden front porch in 1880. The Roots family owned the building when it was Auberry Tavern painted in big letters across the roof, replete with bar stools and juke box. Leonard stocked Kools cigarettes and served ice cream and meals. Fred Tuttle leased it from Roots and painted everything, including the Standard Oil gas island white with red trim. In 1970 a wood stove burned the store down, but the gas island is still standing. Mary Tuttle, Fred’s daughter and Barney Amundsen tore down the two-story Burlow hotel across the street and built Ponderosa Market. The prominent white two-story building in the 2011 photo is the old county yard and water tank and between the two is Auberry garage, the back of which was the front of the original blacksmith shop. These buildings, or where they used to be, can be seen form the sepia photo.
New Auberry was a company town. With not a lake, tunnel, or penstock named after him, John Eastwood conceived the massive hydroelectric projects that brought light and power 248 miles from Big Creek to Los Angles. To this day power and water, 80% by way of the Friant Kern canal, destined for southern California come from these mountains. Eastwood engineered three reservoirs and five powerhouses, and in 1920 a railroad, the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad, that traveled from Friant on the valley floor to Big Creek in the heart of the Sierra Nevada was built. Half-way between was where Southern California Edison, who absorbed John’s Pacific Light and Power, built New Auberry. The mountains went mad with activity. Dispatchers with pencils behind their ears answered phones and clacked typewriters. Between 1911 and 1929 hordes of men wanting good paying construction jobs worked between Florence Lake, Big Creek and New Auberry. New Town or New Auberry had thirty three homes for those holding the best jobs, bunk houses for single men, a cookhouse, commissary, a big German night watchman who wore wooden shoes and a quintessential five o’clock whistle that never missed a five o’clock in eighteen years.
Tent cabins were scattered about the hills and the switch-yard had a foundry to pour the wheels and iron tracks. Lore has it that wherever you find a stand of Trees from Heaven (trees from hell if you are a native plant advocate), there was a Chinese population. Of the five thousand gangs of men that were either coming, going or on the job, several thousand were Chinese, likely sequestered near Wish-i-ah, a tuberculosis sanitarium at the time. There were even some Hatfield’s and McCoy’s in the area.
The end of the job and the end of an era come suddenly. The houses went vacant, the iron rails were auctioned off, and finally the town was sold. If you know where to look the railroad grade can be seen around town, behind Auberry Garage, Wish-i-ah road, Monroe’s orchard, and the Historic San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad Grade. Indeed, soon only the hills will remember when New Auberry made history.
Rugged hardscrabble pioneers, the lot of the cattle ranchers, loggers, and construction workers, settled this hamlet. But they were not the first to travel up the mountain in the summer and down when the snow flew, or over the Sierra Nevada’s to visit relatives on the east side on a horse, or to stalk the abundant herds and stake out fishing holes. The handsome copper skinned Mono Indians in these foothills are the Piute from Nevada and called themselves Monache or ‘Piute on the west side of the Sierra Nevada’. The settlers in Spanish Kitchen just west of New Auberry shortened the name to Mono.
Gone are the days of 30 pound Chinook King Salmon, 50 birds a covey of quail, and four point bucks, lion and bear. This generation is garnering a new kind of pioneer, a geotourist, who appreciates a two-road town, stars at night, and the geologically astounding San Joaquin River Gouge ten minutes to the north. Up the hill one hour into the thick of the Sierra Nevada, locals and visitor alike wonder at the stand of thousand year old Giant Sequoia at McKinley Grove, the pristine high country lakes, massive granite domes and hot springs bubbling up from the depths at 160 degrees. Thrown in an azure blue sky and you have the last frontier of the great, and not to be trifled with, John Muir wilderness.
The proximity of the Gorge, the small eccentric town, and the FOAL programs sponsored by the library all contribute to the success of the Auberry of today. Surprisingly diverse programs: Shakespeare Festivals, poetry readings by published authors, Getty Museum bus tours, river rafting on the San Joaquin, Gorge hikes, and rockin’ evening music and dance concerts brought to this rural area by Friends of Auberry Library rival those found in any cosmopolitan city. Bubba- Lu’s café serves breakfast and lunch, and the walls are lined with black and white photos of town folk. Valsaco’s, at the opposite end of town, is the original Roots café as seen in vintage 1920’s Historical Museum photo’s, and offers a Mexican lunch and dinner menu. Cyclists, artists, hikers, and tourists often stay overnight or a week in Daddy Joe’s cozy cottages on historic SJ&E Road.
Auberry has a Community Supported Agriculture farm with a drop-off at Cressman’s General Store. Today, the caliber of the businesses, the massage studio, yoga classes, and the unique second-use boutique at Rock Tree Center belie the humble beginnings of Auberry. Not a chain store in the bunch, all the proprietors take pride in their trades and are committed to their historic foothill town, as were the spirited men and women who worked in these woods many years ago.