Colfax couple strives to preserve past

By: Cheri March
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Colfax residents Ken and Mickey Fletcher are living in the past – and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Since moving to the Cape Horn area 20 years ago, the couple has spent untold volunteer hours cataloging and preserving city history for the Colfax Area Historical Society. It started as a whim. “We were new in town, we were looking for something to do and the historical society was looking for members,” said Mickey, now the society’s membership chair. But the Fletchers were soon sucked in by the people and images of Colfax’s early days. Mickey’s passion is the personal stories. She’s on mission to record the voices of Colfax’s old-timers – a few dozen residents who have spent close to a century here. “These people were important many years ago, but over time they’ve been forgotten,” she said. “We need to remember the old people of Colfax because they gave us a good foundation. If we don’t talk about or write about them, we lose them.” Except for a tape recorder, her interviews might as well be casual conversation between friends. On a recent afternoon, she caught up with 91-year-old Naomi Prior at the historical society’s pride and joy, the Colfax Heritage Museum. Prior’s family relocated to Colfax from Bear Valley when her father contracted tuberculosis in the early 1930s. At the time, the area had one of the largest concentrations of tuberculosis sanatoriums in the state due to what was considered an optimum elevation. “We’re above the fog, but below the snow,” Mickey explained. Prior told Mickey that her father died in 1932, leaving her mother to support three children by working for a hotel and the railroad. She recalled the Colfax of her youth as a bustling Sierra burg, complete with multiple dress shops, a furniture store, three banks, four hotels, a major pear-packing and railroad industry and, of course, the tuberculosis facilities. While Mickey’s interviewees might paint the same picture, each has a different perspective. Prior, for instance, once raced an old jalopy at the Auburn fairgrounds. Others had similarly unique tales. “Naomi has a friend who passed away a few years ago, and she rode a bicycle from Colfax to the Chicago World’s Fair when she was 18 years old,” Mickey said. “These are the kinds of things most people don’t even know about. It’s the stuff that’s really fun.” In contrast, Ken Fletcher’s work is mostly behind the scenes. Every Wednesday, he and fellow Colfax resident Jim Mulligan open the society’s archive room to sort through a stash of more than 7,000 glass negatives. The photographs are the work of Grace Hubley Jones, an early 20th-Century professional photographer. After Jones’ San Francisco studio was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, she moved to Sacramento. From 1908 to 1920, she captured thousands of images of Sacramento and surrounding areas. Many of those photos were found in the basement of her Colfax home, where they had lay hidden for three-quarters of a century. “Some of the ones in boxes are as nice as the day they were made; others have a lot of dirt and bug marks,” Ken said. “We’re taking them out of boxes, cleaning up the dirty ones, numbering and filing them and putting them in archival boxes. And we’ve started putting them on the computer.” Most photographs feature unidentified women and children – including a rare portrait of a Chinese woman in traditional clothing displayed in the museum – but occasionally Ken comes across the photo of the foothills and Colfax. After a decade, he’s about halfway through the process. “It’s very meticulous, but we enjoy finding something or someone that we recognize,” he said. “That’s what keeps us going.” The 74-member Colfax Area Historical Society meets four times a year. Membership is $10 for individuals, $15 for families and $25 for businesses. For more information, call 389-2549 or visit