By Mark ZOELLER
On JUNE 30, 1970, Madera County approved Yosemite Lakes Park as a subdivision. This legally began our community, but there is history behind it.
Fresno and Madera counties
As California became a state, YLP was part of Mariposa County, the largest of the original counties. It extended far south and included parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. In 1856 YLP became a part of Fresno County which had been created from a combination of pieces of Mariposa, Merced, and Tulare counties. Merced and Tulare counties had previously split from Mariposa County. In 1893 YLP became a part of Madera County, which had split from Fresno County.
In the second half of the 19th Century YLP and its surrounding area were populated by a diverse mixture of natives and immigrants: Native Americans, ranchers, and gold miners. Before 1850, the Native Americans engaged in intertribal warfare. The ridge along Thornberry divided the Mono and the Chukchansi Yokut cultures. The Chukchansi were south of the ridge, but the cultures later became intermarried. As YLP was being constructed in the early 1970s, workers found many Native American artifacts.
Gold miners came into the area in 1849-1850, although YLP and most of the land around became cattle ranches. The area had over one hundred gold mines including:
- Abbey, Hildreth, and Mud Spring were in the Hildreth area southeast of Minarets High School. They were relatively large producers.
- Finegold was northeast of O’Neals.
- Quartz Mountain (Narbo) was south of today’s Chukchansi casino.
- Texas Flats was northwest of Coarsegold. It was one of the larger and more consistent mines in the area.
- Zebra was south of YLP about 1 1/2 miles behind the Blackhawk Lodge along Road 207 that was the main road to the San Joaquin Valley. (Blackhawk was a local tribal leader). The Zebra mine was owned by the Zebra Mining Co. of Gold Gulch (Coarsegold).
Although gold drew miners to this area, copper drew miners to Daulton, northwest of today’s Hensley Lake and Buchanan just south of Eastman Lake. Some mining communities had populations in the thousands, although people could move from mining town to mining town as one mine shut down and another opened. Zebra was smaller with a population of 200.
Coarsegold got its name from the coarse gold found in the creek and was originally Coarse Gold Gulch (1878) then Gold Gulch (1895), then Coarsegold (1899). Coarsegold Creek also had a large population of Chinese miners who used large sluice boxes.
The Big Change
With the influx of the miners and ranchers, the Native Americans resented the encroachment. In 1851 there began a series of violent clashes with the natives losing. They were displaced from their traditional villages onto rancherias, although many came to live outside the rancherias and eventually to work on the ranches and in the mines.
Many of the gold miners were immigrants, as were some of the ranchers. Jose Rivas was born in Mexico in March 1936, and Alice Simpson Rivas was born in March 1858 in California. Her parents were both born in Mexico. In an 1898 register of voters, Jose is shown as a naturalized citizen. Mrs. Rivas is listed in the 1900 census as a school teacher. She was the sister of Mary Alviso, the matron of another local ranching family. In 1900 the Rivases had 10 living children with the eldest born in 1880. Jose died in 1906 and Alice in 1927; he is buried in the O’Neals cemetery.
Long Hollow, Zebra, and Ranching
The Rivas family’s Long Hollow Ranch, with 3,200 acres, was one of the larger ranches in the area. Long Hollow Ranch eventually became the core of YLP. Federal mapmakers misspelled Rivas as Revis, and that is how we got Revis Mountain and the various Revis streets. The Lillie name suffered the same fate at the hands of the federal mapmakers, and we now have Lilley Mountain.
Long Hollow Ranch was in the Zebra voting precinct, and the post office was Zebra. No remnant of either Zebra or the Zebra mine remains; the mine closed in the 1890s. Both it and the post office, however, are shown on a 1908 county map. Zebra school existed behind Blackhawk Lodge along Coarsegold Creek until it consolidated with the O’Neals school district in 1942, and the Spring Valley school is near O’Neals. The valley behind Blackhawk Lodge was known as Zebra district, however, for many years. The part of the San Joaquin Experimental Station piece west of Highway 41 still shows on some maps as Zebra Station.
One Rivas daughter, Charlote, married a Lillie. She is one of three Rivases buried in the Rivas family cemetery near YLP’s recreation center. The Lillies seemingly had a sizeable spread west of Long Hollow Ranch on the south side of Lilley Mountain. Tradition holds that the Lillie home was at the north end of what is now Sequoia Court. The Lillies possibly were Native America because we can find no written record of any marriage, birth, or death. The Madera County genealogical society agreed that this lack of records might mean they were Native American. Until recently, Native American family information was passed on by word of mouth.
Old timers in this area say that they did not know the Lillies. One reason might be that ranchers on the east side of the Long Hollow ranch traded in Coarsegold and Madera while those on the west side of the Long Hollow ranch traded in Raymond.
Until Highway 41 was built from Yosemite National Park in the 1930s, local roads were unpaved, rough and winding. They were originally built for horse drawn wagons and carriages but later improved for automobiles. Madera was the main destination from this area down in the San Joaquin Valley. From Madera the road went to Stockton. This route was west of Highway 41 and began at Road 207 beside the Blackhawk Lodge, to Bates Station to the Wide Awake Ranch road (to the west of the 22 Mile House), and along Highway 145 to Madera. Road 207 (where Zebra mine was located) was cut long ago and is no longer a through road. Until Highway 41 was built, the ranchers were somewhat isolated and had to go through several gates before getting to Road 207. The road from O’Neals joined Road 207 in a Y behind the lodge. The Y is still known as Kelshaw Corners. The O’Neals road is visible across Highway 41 from the lodge.
With the south branch of the Kelshaw Corners Y going to O’Neals, the north branch led north to Coarsegold and from there up to Oakhurst and Yosemite. The dirt roads to Coarsegold were near today’s Highway 41, and parts of the old roads are visible from today’s highway. A freight route passed through the Coarsegold Museum property. An east-west branch went through YLP. At the end of Long Hollow Court North is a large water tank with a palm tree that signified a way station. This was Daulton Springs, which still shows on some maps. A Daulton from the Daulton ranch and mining community married a Rivas woman, and Daulton Springs was a wedding gift to the couple from the Rivas family. The homesite was where the water tank is now. That road continued over the north end of Revis Mountain where another stop was located just outside YLP’s north boundary.
To reach summer grasses and water, ranchers drove their cattle up the wagon roads through Coarsegold to the high country. The completion of Highway 41 in the mid 1930s changed this way of nomadic summer-life because the pavement was hard on the cattle’s hooves. The drovers also had to share Highway 41 with automobiles. The ranchers finally began to haul the cattle to and from the mountains by truck. Before they began using trucks, however, they drove their cattle to the base of Deadwood Pass, over what is now Road 420 to the forks at Bass Lake, to large holding corrals at the northwest end of Bass Lake and from there up to the mountain meadows.
YLP also has a historical tie to the logging flume that originated at the Sugar Pine lumber mill above Oakhurst. The flume carried the logs from Sugar Pine along the Fresno River to Madera. Madera is the Spanish word for wood, timber, or lumber. The lumber company had stations along the flume to clear log jams and to repair the flume. The Lawler family operated the “French Graveyard” station near Rivergold Elementary School. The Lawlers also owned substantial ranching acres.
New Owners and YLP
The Rivas family sold the ranch in 1940 to James G. Jeffries at the tail end of the Great Depression. The older children were approaching 60 years old, and several were unmarried. They moved to Madera where they bought a house. Jeffries owned a movie-film processing company in Hollywood. He built the white clapboard house on Yosemite Springs Parkway near the stable. He later sold the ranch to Eban Coe, who was an opera singer. Tradition is that Coe liked to sit on the back porch of the white house in the evening looking at the sunset reflected in the little lake. Coe also bought the Lawler property at the north end of YLP. Some Beverly Hills attorneys later bought the property and tried to develop it. They worked with Art Linkletter’s development company, which later went bankrupt, and the combination possibly had other Hollywood ties. The attorneys, however, were financially unable to follow through. Titan Group, through Yosemite Lakes Inc., bought out the attorneys and completed the assembling of the 6,700 acres that became YLP.
In 1970 the YLP subdivision was surveyed and platted by Fred N. Rabe Engineering of Fresno and approved by the county. It included 2,255 residential lots with a minimum of one acre per lot, 6 lots zoned commercial, 1 lot for the stable, and 1 lot for the recreation center.
Yosemite Lakes Inc., which had a New Jersey address, was legally the developer of YLP and a subsidiary of Titan Group. Yosemite Lakes Owners’ Association was incorporated also in 1970 with a board of directors to manage the affairs of YLP once it was developed. The association is governed much as a city. Where a city has registered voters who elect a city council which might elect the mayor and who might appoint a city manager, the association has members (lot owners) who elect a board of directors which elects a president and which hires a general manager. Titan originally had all the member votes because it owned all the property. In 1978, after Titan had sold the requisite number of lots, control passed to the lot owners who elected the board of directors.
Dick VanValkenberg became an unpaid consultant to Titan in 1972 and became the project manager for Titan in 1974. He also had duties as president of the association from 1976 to 1984 (he was and still is a member of the association) and was general manager of the association from 1976 to 1978. He was also the onsite manager of the water company from 1979 to 1986. His was the third home in YLP, and he and his wife, Betty, lived there from 1972 to 2002. They now live in Clovis. Betty was the originator of The YELP and published it with Dorothy Bremer and the association staff for several years out of the association office. It is now privately owned and published by Paul and Karrin Luce.
The original plan was for YLP to be a place where Titan created the lots with roads and utilities available to
each lot. Titan would sell the lot, and the lot owners would build small, weekend vacation cabins. It was presented as “a private golf and sports club community.” Because it was not expected to have a large permanent population, Titan wanted the roads to be gravel. It found, however, that to sell the lots it had to pave the roads. Titan also tried to change the county approved subdivision plan from 2,263 lots to lots of 40 acres apiece with each property having its own water well. The county, however, would not allow Titan to change the concept. The county also required that the water company be separately owned, and Titan brought in Bakman Water Co. The water system was designed by Boyle Engineering which supervised the installation. Titan’s relationship with Bakman, however, did not work, and Bakman sold half of its interest in the water company to Yosemite Lakes Inc. with the latter taking control. When that occurred, the CEO and the financial records were in New Jersey.
Titan advertised YLP far and wide as “ranch style, country club living.” Several people who bought lots in the early days were flown in from as far as Orange County to the Fresno airport. They were then driven to the clubhouse where several Realtors were arranged at tables. Each party was assigned a Realtor to escort them around YLP. The sales tactics included a continued sales pitch on the plane back home. Many lots were designated as unbuildable, but people bought them anyway because of the amenities. To show prospective buyers what an acre looked like, Titan also built a fence around a lot at Ranger Circle Road and Ranger Circle Way. Most of the fence still stands.
The first two houses in YLP to be occupied were built by Titan as spec homes on the west side of the parkway on either side of Stetson. In the spring of 1972 Bennie and Buck Noonkester bought the homes. Buck and Bennie built the golf course in 1972, which was the first amenity Titan handed over to the member-elected board in 1978.
In 1980, Yosemite Lakes Community Church became an integral part of our community and now has its facilities just outside YLP boundaries.
Ownership of the water company changed hands in 1987 as the homeowners’ association acquired ownership after a multifaceted legal wrangle that involved the association; the water company; Bakman; Yosemite Lakes, Inc.; Titan; Safeco Insurance Co.; and Madera County.
Titan did not survive long after the settlement. At one time it was one of the largest residential developers in the United States, but it eventually went bankrupt. Safeco, Titan’s bonding company, picked up Titan’s remaining pieces in YLP and, until recently, still held interests in small parts of it.
Even though our community is officially four decades old, we can still see remnants of the ranching days. There is the ranch house built by Jim Jeffries along the parkway near the stables and the adjacent concrete-block bunkhouse. We still see where ranch roads were; we still find strands of barbed wire fencing; and we have water tanks, cisterns, and livestock ponds. The dam that created Blue Heron Lake was built in 1957 across Long Hollow Creek and is registered with the state. We no longer have the grand old Rivas barn at the stables because the barn burned.
Titan’s original plan for YLP to be a weekend golf and sports club did not come to fruition. Instead, it advertised YLP as having country-club living. This attracted retirees, and the homes they built were larger than weekend cabins. In the 1990s Children’s Hospital built new facilities in stages on the north side of the San Joaquin River. Because the hospital is a relatively easy commute from YLP, many of its employees began building homes in YLP.
In the mid 2000s came the housing boom. Beginning in 2002 through 2007, YLP saw 367 new homes with a peak of 143 finished in 2003. We now have 1,862 homes and 16 businesses with more than 5,000 residents. Our community is diverse with our children comprising 90 percent of the students at Rivergold Elementary School. Home sizes range from modest to huge. We have come a long way in our 40 years, and our community is vibrant.
I have pieced together information for this article from many informal conversations and from the Coarsegold Historical Society’s book, “As We Were Told.” I thank Bennie Noonkester, Patrick Kennedy, Dick VanValkenberg, Ken Harrington, and Gordon and Doris Smith. I hope that what I have written here represents reasonably, faithfully what I have read and what they told me. I look forward, however, to someone writing a better and more thorough history of YLP. After all, our 50th anniversary is approaching. Nonetheless, as the song from a few years ago would have it, this is my story of YLP, and I’m stickin’ to it.