History in the pines

Once an economic powerhouse, tiny Stirling City proudly hangs on

Jim Munn, below, stands in front of his home, which used to house the Stirling City Bank.

Jim Munn, below, stands in front of his home, which used to house the Stirling City Bank.

Photo by Tom Angel

Above it all: Stirling City is less an hour’s drive up the Skyway from Chico, and at an elevation of 3,575 feet it has a much cooler climate than the valley below. Tourists come up for the snow in winter or, in the summer, to reach the Feather River.

Forgotten, ridiculed, defamed. That’s how Stirling City residents say people from surrounding communities have treated their town.

Thought by many to be teetering on the brink of ghost town status, Stirling City nevertheless endures, mainly as a retirement community, a low-income haven and—at its elevation of 3,575 feet—a quick getaway for heat-weary valley dwellers. A lot of people like to make fun of the tiny town, but what they don’t seem to remember is that Chico owes much of its very existence to Stirling City, which provided the lumber, labor and capital needed to jumpstart the area’s economy.

The evidence for this can be seen in U.S. Census figures dating back to before and after the founding of Stirling City. In 1900, three years before the Diamond Match Co. finished its sawmill on what was then Laurel Street in Stirling City, Chico’s population was a paltry 4,739. Ten years later, when the sawmill was running at full steam, Chico’s population had more than doubled, to 11,775.

To be sure, other factors were partly responsible. But if it weren’t for the sawmill, railroad, lumberyard and wood products factories that Diamond built in the area around the turn of the 20th century, Chico could never have experienced the economic boom and subsequent prosperity that it did.

Thanks to the efforts of the Stirling City Historical Society, the town will soon have its own museum to showcase its history as one of California’s most important mill towns. When the town—located about 12 miles up the Skyway from Paradise—celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, the museum will serve as an affirmation to the town’s residents and provide an answer to what many visitors to the area naturally wonder: What keeps Stirling City—a town with no shops, no stores, no schools and no restaurants—alive?

That question answers itself with one visit to the town’s community hall. At a recent set-up day for the town’s annual Mother’s Day Tea celebration, several residents brought tablecloths, dishes and homemade treats to set out for the town’s moms. Expecting a few dozen guests, they swept and cleaned the old community hall, which used to be a theater for silent films, and chatted about the weather, the community and the happenings of the day.

Taking a break outside, they explained what they liked about living in Stirling City.

“It’s just a beautiful town,” said George Benson, who recently retired to the area. “It’s a small community, and you can get involved very easily. You don’t have the city bustle, but the city’s just a short drive away.”

Born out of the dreams of a Midwestern company’s board of directors, Stirling City came into being not by chance, but by design. While most of the towns that developed around the turn of the 20th century in California were slapped together out of a collection of tents and cabins, Stirling City had its streets laid out in a tidy grid and was one of the first cities in California to be equipped with gas, electricity and sewer service.

The building as it looked circa 1906.

Photo Courtesy California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections. Donor: Bill Shelton

It’s hard to imagine now, but Stirling City once boasted a bank, a gas station, a few restaurants, a couple of hotels and thousands of residents, all feeding from the economic powerhouse of one of the West’s largest sawmills.

Founded in 1903 by the Diamond Match Co., Stirling City was a beloved project of Diamond executive Fred Clough, who envisioned a thriving city on the hill that would attract not only laborers for the sawmill Diamond was building, but also tourists from all over Northern California. He named the town after the Stirling Company, which manufactured the huge steam boilers that provided power for the mill.

Because Diamond owned all of the land Stirling City was built on, it had almost total control over the town’s development, and Clough was determined to create a modern mini-metropolis on the ridge, complete with resort hotels and a train system that would deliver tourists in (and lumber out) of town. The tourism idea was probably ahead of its time, and it never lived up to Clough’s expectations. But by controlling who was granted leases to Stirling City land and stipulating what that land could be used for, Clough and Diamond Match were able to shape nearly every other aspect of the town’s image.

One of the ways they used this power was to gain a monopoly on town commerce, especially in the lucrative liquor trade. Since men of that era generally worked hard and, on payday, drank hard, Diamond executives knew they couldn’t have a completely dry town. But they also wanted to be able to keep order among the rough-and-tumble workers. So they made sure, through lease covenants, that only one property in town was able to sell liquor on its premises.

This not only guaranteed the existence and profitability of the town’s only saloon—called the Red Devil—but it also ensured that the company executives who ran Stirling City’s only wholesale supply service would get their cut of the profits.

Although Diamond never ran a so-called “company store” for its workers, it did set up “inside corporations” to handle trade and banking in the town. These corporations were owned not by Diamond, but by its officers, who made a good living off the trade. Today this practice is illegal, but at the time it allowed Diamond to maintain a comfortable and relatively crime-free atmosphere in an era when many logging towns were lawless and often brutal places to live.

This isn’t to say Stirling City was always tame and orderly. Every payday, the laborers, who made an average of $3 for working a 10-12-hour day, would spend much of their hard-earned scratch at the Red Devil and at its next-door neighbor, a brothel called the White Angel. Services at the White Angel ran about $2.50 a night and were such a popular diversion for the hard-up and often lonely workers that, on paydays, a dozen or so women were brought all the way from Sacramento for the occasion.

The lumber business may have propped up this region’s economy, but it was a tricky one to manage. Despite producing billions of board feet of lumber, the Diamond Match Co. was never able to make much money on its operations in the region. The company spent millions on building up the town, creating a railroad to extract the lumber and building factories in Chico to process that lumber, but after realizing only marginal profits, it gradually began to phase down its operations.

Through the years, Stirling City clung stubbornly to existence, refusing to follow the many mining and lumber towns that inevitably got boarded up when the ore and timber began to trickle rather than flood. Even the Great Depression could not shut Stirling City down completely, though the population did begin to seriously decline then. A series of fires claimed many, though not all, of its most historic buildings, including the largest structures in town, the Stirling City Mercantile building and the magnificent Raynor Hotel. But it took the closing of the mill in 1958 to drive in the final nail.

When the sawmill closed its doors, it sounded the official end of an era for the lumberjacks, sliverjimmies* and bindlestiffs* who labored there.

Historical Society boosters (left to right) Lori Batz, Carol Lewis, Marcia Abrams and Jessi Batz stand in front of the building that will soon house the Stirling City historical museum.

Photo by Tom Angel

Still, the town itself survived, and though the population has dwindled to around 300, it’s a spirited 300, a group that prides itself on its attachment to the land and to the community that flourishes on it.

Most present-day visitors to Stirling City get their introduction to the place at the town’s only visibly functioning business, the Stirling City Hotel. Located at the entrance to town, the hotel acts as market, snack bar and casual meeting spot for residents, as well as being a bed and breakfast and unofficial visitors’ center for tourists.

Built in 1904 as a dance hall and community center, the six-room hotel was bought in 1986 by Charlotte Hilgeman, who has maintained and run the place ever since.

“My life as a chamber woman—all I ever do is clean and move furniture,” she said to a recent visitor, describing her duties as hotel owner and manager. “At least I don’t have to wear pantyhose anymore.”

Hilgeman is one of those people you never forget, even if you’ve only met her once. Being at the very center of commerce in Stirling City, she knows everybody in town but is very careful about what she tells outsiders. Rather than spread gossip, Hilgeman regales visitors with tales of her own life, which probably rates a novel in itself rather than a mere mention in this article. Ask her anything about Stirling City, and she’s likely to know it, but be careful—she’s an accomplished raconteur, and one of her stories often leads to two or three more. Ask her about Stirling City’s astrological “Cancer cluster” sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.

A charter member of the historical society, Hilgeman was instrumental in getting the California Department of Forestry, which runs a firefighting station in town, to give the society a couple of old buildings it wasn’t going to use anymore. Located next door to the hotel beneath the shade of a magnificent redwood, the buildings will soon house the historical museum and its accompanying office.

Getting the museum up and running will be a crowning achievement for the historical society, which boasts more than 100 members from all over the county.

“The main thing is to preserve our history,” said society member Marcia Abrams. “Along with that, we want to help everyone look at [Stirling City] not so negatively. Everyone’s really community minded up here, and this has really brought people together.”

When it is finished, the museum will house a collection of historic photos and memorabilia that will allow Stirling City to show off some of its unique history to the tourists they hope to attract someday.

Nowadays, tourists often find little to do in town besides stopping by the hotel to buy soft drinks, rent inner tubes for snow tubing or just say hello to Charlotte and her four-legged bellhop, Desdemona. More often than not, they can’t resist sitting for a while on the porch, watching as small packs of neighborhood kids converge on the hotel snack shop to spend their pocket change. Usually, the kids clamber up the steps of the wide, gray porch, leaving a pile of bicycles and scooters on the hotel lawn to be guarded by a faithful family dog.

Lisa and Kaylene Ritter roller skate down Stirling City’s main drag, on their way home from buying snacks at the Stirling City Hotel.

Photo by Josh Indar

Scenes like these, evoking images of old Little Rascals films, lend a timeless charm to the town and make visitors wonder how Stirling City has managed to avoid becoming a full-fledged ghost town, an enclave for rich vacationers or a suburb of Paradise.

Part of the answer can be found in Stirling City’s uncommon history and somewhat remote geographical location. But the real reason it has stayed the way it has for so long is that its potential for growth is severely limited. When the mill shut down, the town was left almost completely surrounded by private property, most which is now owned—and logged—by the Sierra Pacific lumber company. While Paradise and Chico struggle with growth and development issues, Stirling City residents long ago resigned themselves to living in a place that cannot physically get much bigger than it already is.

One effect of this is that jobs in Stirling City are hard to find—some would even say nonexistent. But despite having to leave town to find regular employment, most people who live up there will tell you that they prefer the town to stay just the way it is.

Gary Connor, who runs a one-man gold mining operation and makes jewelry from the dust and nuggets he finds, said he has made Stirling City his home for nearly 50 years because “It’s quiet, and you can do what you want, pretty much.”

“One thing that’s great about this town is that it can’t get much bigger,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about it ever being part of Paradise. Good, bad or otherwise, we’re unique in our own way.”

Connor, who describes the town as a low-income and retirement area, said that the people who live in Stirling City generally take care of themselves without a whole lot of help (or interference) from outsiders. If anyone in town were to steal from another resident, he said, it wouldn’t be long before that person was found out because everyone knows everyone else and generally watches out for each other. In rare cases, it’s not unheard of in the town for scofflaws to receive a nocturnal visit from what old-timers used to call a “vigilance committee.”

But contrary to the town’s rugged image, most disputes are settled out in the open. Although Stirling City can rightly be described as a sleepy little place, there are still some issues that tend to rile people up. A proposed county nuisance abatement ordinance is one of them. A draft of the ordinance brought Connor down the hill to Oroville recently, where he showed his disdain for the new rules—which would put limits on things like how long a car can be parked on the street and how high a fence can be—before the county Board of Supervisors.

It’s the kind of debate that illustrates what Stirling City residents tend to care about—property rights issues and self-determination. Some in Stirling City are staunch advocates of the ordinance, believing it will help property values and smooth over some of the town’s rough edges. Connor, however doesn’t take much stock in that point of view.

“We’ve got some people up here from the city who want it to be more city-like,” he said. “There’s all kinds of private property rights being taken away. They want to tell you how tall you can have your fence, how often you have to cut your grass. We don’t need that up here.”

What they do need is a school, said Connor, who along with many of his neighbors has petitioned to have the town’s long-closed elementary school re-opened for the 40 or so kids who live in Stirling City. Ever since the school closed down in 1999, the kids have been bused into Paradise to attend classes.

The Diamond Match Company sawmill as it looked before it closed down in 1958.

Photo courtesy of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections. Donor: Bill Shelton

The residents recently prevailed in their fight against a Paradise company that wanted to re-open the school, but not for kids—for dogs. K-9 Crossroads had its proposal to turn Stirling City’s Horace L. Brakebill Elementary School into a facility to train guide dogs for the handicapped turned down handily by the Paradise Unified School District, which owns the school. Now, there is talk of reopening the school for summer sessions and adult classes.

People on both sides of the nuisance abatement issue joined together to fight off the dog school because, in the end, Stirling City folks tend to stick together. So, although they don’t always agree, they do generally get along. They have to—it’s hard to avoid somebody in a town with fewer than a dozen named streets.

Even when people have problems with each other, said many residents, they will still offer a helping hand to each other in times of need.

Carol Lewis, a native who left town as a young woman only to return many years later, said there are few other places in the country where you can count on your neighbors like you can in Stirling City.

“When you have something bad happen to you, there’s always someone to help,” she said. “One year we had a tree fall on our roof. I called my girlfriend, and within 10 minutes there were eight or 10 guys there ready to help.”

The insular nature of the community may have its rewards, but it has also led people in neighboring communities—namely Paradise—to ridicule and even shun people from Stirling City. Almost every Stirling City resident has a story about how Paradise merchants refuse to take checks from them. There are jokes about the so-called “Ridge Runners” that roughly parallel the Jeff Foxworthy “you know you’re a redneck if…” series of jabs, along with all the cracks about the townsfolk supposedly being poor, inbred, constantly inebriated and/or gun-happy.

But most residents take it in stride, knowing that if the town was that bad, there wouldn’t be such a large number of people—mostly retired couples—looking to move there.

“People are coming up now. People are buying old houses and fixing them up,” Lewis said. “People that have grown up here and then left or went to work have come back and bought houses. Despite what you’ve heard, this is a nice place to live.”

Jim Munn, who lives down the road from the hotel, would agree. Showing the kind of hospitality most Stirling City residents are proud of, he is more than willing to tell you about his house—the old Stirling City Bank, which he purchased two years ago for an amazing $30,000.

“They built this place to be the bank in about 1908,” he said, proudly giving some visitors a tour of his home. “They closed the bank in the ‘20s or ‘30s and turned it into a hospital.”

A snowy street scene shows Stirling City’s downtown before a series of fires ravaged the town in the 1930s.

Photo courtesy of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections.

Munn, a native of North Carolina, said he’s lived in Stirling City for the last five years. Parked in front of his house is a ‘51 red Plymouth that’s in pretty darned good shape.

With his long silver beard, pony-tailed hair and craggy, weathered face, the 58-year-old Munn presents, on first impression, an intimidating figure. But in fact, he’s a friendly—and very talkative—fellow.

“I first came out here in 1962 in a $172,000 recreational vehicle,” the silver-bearded Munn recalled. “They called it a Greyhound.”

Munn said he used to ride with a motorcycle group in the early 1970s that often traveled to and camped in the Feather River Canyon.

“And I had a buddy whose mom had married a gold miner up here, and we used to come up here and ride and look around. So when I retired from my county job in San Mateo, after I went through a divorce and spent some time on the road, I came up here.”

He stopped and gestured to the house behind him.

“I mean, where else in California can you buy a house like this for $30,000?”

He bought the house, he said, from a family who’d owned it since 1952. In the course of remodeling it, he discovered the living room has a 12-foot-high, square-patterned wooden ceiling and that there is a rectangular cement slab in the floor at the back of the living room extending into a back room that once supported the bank’s vault.

The gregarious Munn explains his hospitality: “We don’t get many visitors up here, so when we do, we invite them in and don’t let them go.”

Standing in his front yard, Munn recalls a Stirling old-timer named Red Keller, who lived up the Skyway a piece in a one-room house that was like a museum on the inside. Keller, Munn says, passed away a few years ago, and his wish for after he was gone was to actually turn the old house into a museum.

Keller worked at the mill and lived alone in the cabin until he died well into his 80s. He was active and helpful to neighbors—often running off in the dead of winter to help tow some poor soul’s car out of a snowdrift. And he was friendly to the town’s children.

“I’m kind of the Red Keller now,” Munn said. “I keep a[n air] hose out back so the kids can keep their [bike] tires inflated,” he said. “The kids got to have something to do. Otherwise they’re going to get in trouble.”

*Sliverjimmy is old-time slang for a sawmill worker, and a bindlestiff, named for the bindle roll bedding he often carried, was the olden-day equivalent to a migrant worker.

Editor Tom Gascoyne contributed to this story.