In the Sierra-Nevada foothills on the other side of the mountains from Lundy and Bridgeport, miners flocked to Columbia, known as the queen of the southern mines, founded on March 27, 1850 when Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, his brother George and a handful of other prospectors made camp nearby and discovered gold. Originally known as Hildreth's Diggings, it's name was later changed to Columbia. Today it is a California historical state park in which every effort has been made to preserve the buildings, furnishings and artifacts of the times.
As was typical back then, the store was not very large. The storefront was maybe twelve feet wide, but deep. The inside was packed with all the available supplies, dry goods and provisions needed by the miners and their families.
Like most towns in the gold mining regions, major fires swept through Columbia, one in 1854 and a second in 1857, which prompted the construction of brick buildings with tall, narrow iron shutters that could be closed to prevent the spread of fire. After 1860, when the placer gold was gone, the town began to decline. In the 1870s and ’80s many of the vacated buildings were torn down and their sites mined using hydraulic mining technology. Columbia’s population dropped from a peak of perhaps six thousand to about five hundred.
However, this little building sits a block away from several of the preserved brick structures on Main Street. It is a reproduction intended to represent a typical mercantile of the early placer mining era. Although not one hundred percent authentic, seeing the collection can help modern visitors visualize what was available to the miners, businessmen and families that lived back then.
For starters, I'm not going to vouch that the period wallpaper behind the merchandise shelves is representative of the typical mercantile of the day. I suspect that was a nice feminine touch added to make the display more appealing to tourists. However, the dry goods on the shelves may be typical of the times. I can vouch that if the fabric selection displayed was usually found in the frontier dry goods stores of the late 1800s, it is no match for the fabric stores where we shop today.
I did find the selection of tools, food tins, dishes, medicines and other goods interesting. I especially enjoyed seeing the wooden boxes, which along with wooden barrels, were often used to ship items during that time before the development of cardboard.
No store in the mining region would have been complete without its assay equipment since many of the customers paid, not with coin which was often scare, or with paper money which did not become widely used until after the Civil War, but with gold and silver.
Also typical of the time, the owners of the store lived on the premises either above or behind the public area.
Notice the dressing table with the pitcher and bowl for personal care. Also, the bed has a tick mattress over a foundation of ropes and leather straps. In that era, in the days before the use of chest of drawers became prevalent, many people were fortunate if they had a chest in which they could store their clothes and belongings.
The stove in the living area is small, but adequate to heat the approximately 10 foot by 12 foot room.
Then there was the tin hip bath. In spite of the well over six foot tall hunky heroes often described in today's historical western romance novels, due to diet and other factors, most North Americans and Europeans a century and a half ago tended to be shorter and thinner than most of their descendants living today. Still, considering this hip bath is about the size of a medium to large laundry basket, I don't think back then many people sank into the hot water in one of these for a long, relaxing soak. Most of us today would probably consider it about the right size for a foot bath, but not much else.
Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Her novel, FamilyNovember 2014. The first two novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine and A Resurrected Heart, are now available.
The author is a member of Women Writing the West, American Night Writers Association, and Modesto Writers Meet Up. She currently lives with her husband in California near the “Gateway to Yosemite.” She enjoys any kind of history including family history. When she is not piecing together novel plots, she pieces together quilt blocks.
Please visit the Zina Abbott’s Amazon Author Page by clicking HERE.