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Bill Meissner
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  • Columbia, CA
  • United States
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Professional Storyteller is a network for people who work in the field of oral storytelling. Please write a brief paragraph about your work.
I have owned and managed the 49er RV Ranch in Columbia, California, since 1980.
It has been a campground sine 1852. RVs were called Covered Wagons then. I enjoy sharing countless stories about the history of our area with our guests. Some have been written that can be reprinted.

A Road into history

An ancient Indian migration and trading powwow trail is today a road with unexpected links to Italian Gold, German Beer, Kentucky Milk, and a major Indian Rebellion. It accesses a town that inspired two California Governors to declare it an honorary State Capitol. First, in 1945, when Governor Earl Warren signed a bill establishing it a State Historic Park. And again, twenty five years later, when Governor Ronald Reagan reaffirmed this declaration. A fascinating variety of historical events are associated with this road as it winds through the Stanislaus National Forest. This remarkable road is located in California's Mother Lode foothills between Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.

Travel back in time by envisioning California Mission solders referring to this road as the fox trail. In Spanish, the word for fox is Zorro. Why might they have called this the Zorro trail? . . .  In 1828, a significant Indian rebellion began against Mission servitude. Rebelling Indians relied on fox like cunning to evade Mission Soldiers on trails in this area. This rebellion was initiated by a charismatic Indian named Estanislao, known today as Stanislaus.

Zorro - Historians recognize significant similarities between the achievements of Stanislaus and the adventures of the fictional hero, Zorro. The fictional Zorro was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, a pulp writer and amateur history buff. He created a hero of Spanish decent in the southern region of California. It is understandable that this would have more literary appeal than an Indian in central California. McCulley's character also appears to be influenced by popular legends of the bandit Joaquin Murrieta, who lived in this area during the gold rush.
Prior to starting his rebellion in 1828, Stanislaus was the Alcalde or Chief of the San Jose Mission Indians. As a child, he learned the cunning ways of a fox. As an adult he developed exceptional leadership skills and acquired knowledge of Spanish military tactics. As the Alcalde, he would be torn between fulfilling his Mission responsibilities and protecting his people from harsh and frequently unjust treatment by Mission soldiers.
  While he was the Alcalde, he would need to wear a mask to hide his identity when challenging the injustices of Mission soldiers. Like the fictional Zorro, Stanislaus outwitted the soldiers with the cunning of a fox.  It is easy to envision him taunting the solders with Z marks to show that he could outwit them, like a fox outwits its enemies. His rebellion grew to include thousands of California Indians from numerous Missions.

A Back-story of Names - His feats were extraordinary considering his followers had arrows and spears against the solders armor and guns. The river this trail crossed now carries his name. The forest area surrounding the river was called the toulumne. This literally means stoney house dweller in reference to the stoney caves and caverns the rebelling Indians used to evade their pursuers. Thus, the fascinating achievements of this Indian also influenced the naming of Tuolumne County, Stanislaus County and the Stanislaus National Forest. Each was named in recognition of his legendary achievements. This is quite remarkable knowing that historians, at that time, gave little or biased recognition of Indian achievements. Today, after several hundred years of tragic domination, California Indians are slowly recovering their rightful heritage.

Pine Log Trail - Next, let your mind travel this trail in the Spring of 1850 to meet a group of prospectors, known as the Hildreth party. These men left a camp in Jamestown to prospect for new gold deposits to the north. They traveled this timeworn trail to explore the area north of the Stanislaus River, or today's Calaveras County. Since a portion of this trail used a pine log bridge across the river, this part of the trail was known as the Pine Log trail.
After an unsuccessful search for new gold deposits, the Hildreth party were returning to their home camp tired, discouraged and damp on an overcast spring afternoon. They had traveled past an Indian village and springs, then a Mexican encampment. Finding a suitable area, they decided to make camp before continuing the last miles to their home base in Jamestown. 

Bonanza Discovery - While they were too weary to continue on, they were not too tired to explore for gold. However, these prospectors were unprepared for the bonanza they discovered. A bonanza? How large was their discovery? Well, news of their discovery spread like a wild fire. Within weeks there were several thousand miners at this rapidly growing gold camp. The name of their camp changed as rapidly as the camp grew. From Hildreth's Diggins, to American Camp, to Columbia, Gem of the Southern Mines.

Liquid Gold - Columbia grew like wind blowing sand in a desert. And like a desert, Columbia lacked a dependable water source to mine the seemingly boundless gold deposits.  For this reason, water was considered 'liquid gold.' Years later, Mark Twain visited this area and observed that whisky was for drinking, water was for fighting over.

Ditch Trail - Travel back a year later, when a group of miners, followed this popular trail to a creek five miles out of town. They constructed a ditch along this trail to provide water needed for large scale mining. This Indian trail was now referred to as the Five Mile creek or Columbia ditch trial. Later, a second larger ditch was extended to the Stanislaus River.

Growth Hazard  - With water for large scale mining, Columbia's population soared to about 15,000 by 1852 (some population counts were lower when nonwhites, women and children were omitted). Arriving families established schools, churches and over 100 businesses. This made Columbia a solid and significant town. However, the constant inflow of new arrivals continually outpaced the town's ability to provide basic needs of food and housing.

Dairy Road - Travel this trail in 1852, to meet a family of dairy farmers from Kentucky. They recognized a better opportunity for profit. That of trading dairy products for gold rather than competing with an existing horde of gold prospectors. Business owners referred to this as mining the miners. This family acquired land along this historic trail for a dairy ranch. The ranch became known as the 'Columbia Springs Ranch' after the near by Indian Village springs.

California's Oldest Campground - Additionally, this ranch benefited from a housing shortage by providing camping for the continuing overflow of arriving covered wagons. The campground helped the ranch increase its dairy herd with cows campers were willing to trade for food and a hospitable place to camp for the new arrivals.

Tragedy - Tragedy was encountered along this trail. For generations the near by springs had been a quality source of water for an Indian Village. During the gold rush, Indian populations were largely decimated by the mass of miners seeking gold on their lands. This village is gone, but their acorn grinding holes remain in large limestone rocks along this trail.

Brewery Road - Traveling this trail in 1854, you would meet two German brothers. They established the Bixel Brewery at the abandoned Indian springs.  It produced lagers, ales, wines and syrups for over 60 years. The Brewery gardens were popular for socializing on Sunday afternoons. Still visible is the brick brewery building, hops kiln, and a stone spring house.
Also visible nearby, are three generations of Columbia's water treatment facilities served by the Columbia Ditch. Ditch water was also vital for fire protection after Columbia completely burned in 1854 and 1857.

Italian Bar Road - A group of Italian prospectors traveled this trail past the Ranch and Brewery. Beyond Five Mile Creek, on the Stanislaus River, they discovered a gravel bar rich with placer gold. This gold had accumulated over thousands of years of being washed down from higher gold veins. This portion of the ancient Indian trail then became known as today's Italian Bar Road. 

Information - For your own adventure to former centuries, visit the historic Columbia Springs Ranch (now the 49er RV Ranch) north of Columbia on Italian Bar Road. This ranch is a good source of helpful information on Caverns, Columbia Ditch, Bixel Brewery, Italian Bar's gold mining, fishing and hunting in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Willie's Tour - While at the Ranch, take advantage of Willie's tour of historic relics such as a gold rush '49er RV' covered wagon, a 22 million year old stone fence post, century old barns, a ranch house-store, and an assortment of ranch and mining equipment. Pan for gold by Willie's water wheel and restored cabin. Learn why Willie became the Ranch Guardian Angel after his murder in 1857. Small nuggets found  around his cabin are rumored to be scattered by Willie's ghost.

More About Willie and the Ranch - In 1962, this 1852 dairy ranch-campground began operating exclusively as an RV campground. Bill and Pat Meissner have maintained the history of this ranch since 1980. They changed its 'Columbia Springs' name to '49er RV Ranch' in recognition that covered wagons were the original '49er RV.' Visit '' to see a Huell Howser 'California's Gold' TV interview. Camping Reservations - can be made online or by calling: 209-532-49RV (4978)
23223 Italian Bar Road - Columbia, California 95310

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At 5:02pm on June 3, 2011, Richard Stillman said…

Thanks Bill,

I was raised in California and remember Yosemite well.

Happy Tales,



At 5:54pm on May 12, 2011, Lois Sprengnether Keel (LoiS) said…

Welcome, Bill!

It's always great to have new & unusual venues for storytelling & your ranch seems to be a great location for telling.  After all campfires have called out for stories from the earliest days when people began telling of their adventures.  Have fun looking about this site & participating in whatever appeals to you -- blog, forum discussions, groups, whatever.  There's enough variety here with our large international membership that there's probably something to interest you & something you say to interest others.




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