History in the hills

Memories of long-gone logging operations live on at the Stirling City Museum

Mary and Marshall Schaefer serve as secretary and president, respectively, of the Stirling City Historical Society, which oversees the Stirling City Museum.

Mary and Marshall Schaefer serve as secretary and president, respectively, of the Stirling City Historical Society, which oversees the Stirling City Museum.

Photo by Ken Smith

Back in time:
The Stirling City Museum will reopen on Memorial Day weekend (Sat.-Sun., May 26-27) and is open every other weekend through Labor Day. The Stirling City Historical Society also holds regular public events. For information and museum hours, call 873-1598 or go to stirlingcityhistory.org.

Memories of long-gone logging operations live on at the Stirling City Museum

Aside from semi-regular meetings and holiday presentations by the local Poets and Liars Club, at which Stirling City locals share their literary scribblings and tall tales with other townsfolk in a community center housed in a closed-down school, live entertainment is a rare treat in the historic logging town northeast of Paradise.

But the Stirling City Historical Society (SCHS) is planning quite a spectacle this Memorial Day weekend (May 26-27) to commemorate the seasonal reopening of the Stirling City Museum.

That Saturday, two figures from the North State’s wild west past—gentleman outlaw Black Bart and a singing, female stagecoach driver named Amy Morrison—will be on-hand to bring history to life.

The duo are played by historical re-enactors Lee Dummel and Mary Schaefer, the latter of whom serves—as she describes it—as the historical society’s “secretary, event coordinator and a whole bunch of other stuff.” Dummel will bring along a trio of truly unique artifacts—three of the actual lockboxes stolen by his bandit counterpart—and other Stirling City citizens will contribute baked goods to raise funds for the society and the museum it oversees.

“The ladies in town do an incredible job with the food,” Schaefer gushed during a recent interview with her and husband, Marshall, SCHS president, at the museum. “There’s fresh-baked loaves of bread and mile-high pies … we’re fortunate to have such helpful, involved people.”

In fact, the Schaefers said about 90 of the town’s total population, which has hovered around 300 for decades, are members of the historical society. Roughly a dozen core members actively participate by sitting on the society’s board, working as volunteer docents, curating museum displays and serving in other capacities. The couple said that community spirit is part of what drew them to the town from the Santa Barbara area 12 years ago.

Sitting at 3,575 feet above sea level, Stirling City was founded in 1903 by the Diamond Match Co., which logged and milled lumber there to be transported—initially by rail and flume, and eventually by truck—to its factory in Chico’s Barber District. In the mountain town’s heyday, as many as 4,000 people lived there, and Marshall noted it had an indelible impact on surrounding communities, as it contributed to turn-of-the-20th century construction and population booms in Paradise and Chico. The once-thriving town was home to a district populated by immigrants called Little Italy, a grand inn called the Raynor Hotel, and a saloon and brothel located next door to one another, respectively named the Red Devil and White Angel.

Stirling City was already in a state of decline when the sawmill closed in 1958, with many of the town’s original buildings having burned during a series of fires in the early 1930s. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal-era work relief program—built a two-building complex for the Department of Forestry in the footprint of the Raynor Hotel, which since 2003 has housed the museum. The SCHS was formed in 1993, and was deeded the property by Cal Fire.

The museum’s displays include an array of vintage matchbooks and Diamond memorabilia. There are also scale models of lost buildings like the Raynor Hotel and the mill itself, as well as the still-standing mill superintendent’s house. Other relics include an ancient wooden wheelchair and wooden skis and snowshoes like those early residents used during the area’s harsh winters. On the lawn between the two buildings sits a huge, bright yellow, meticulously clean 1946 Caterpillar logging tractor.

Marshall’s business card reads “caretaker of our history,” a title he doesn’t take lightly: “The entire purpose [of the SCHS] is to keep this history alive,” he said. “It’s the reason we exist.”

He said building relationships with nearby museums and historical societies is essential to that mission, and that his organization has participated in events with Paradise’s Gold Nugget Museum and the Yankee Hill Historical Society. Re-enactments like the one scheduled for Memorial Day weekend are part of the SCHS’ outreach program, which is headed up by Mary.

The re-enactments also allow her to recapture some of her youth. In her teens and early 20s, Mary was a stage actor, sang professionally, worked at Bob Hope’s Movie Ranch in Southern California (“He was a wonderful man,” she said of the Hollywood legend) and even appeared as a background player in a feature film—1966’s Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

Though it’s devoted to preserving the past, Marshall said the museum’s future relies on modern technology. SCHS volunteers maintain a comprehensive website and social media presence, but a lack of broadband in Stirling City limits internet potential.

“Most of these small-town museums like us are very remote, and the best way for us to keep up with the times is to go virtual,” he said. For that reason, one of the historical society’s goals is to work with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to obtain funding for infrastructure and to find a utility provider willing to do the work.

Until then, visitors have to visit the museum the old-fashioned way, with a roughly one-hour drive from Chico through forested foothills to a town that hasn’t quite caught up to the present. And, lack of broadband aside, that’s part of its charm.