Field Trip: Hornitos
On a recent photo trek through the area between the Sierra foothills and the Central Valley of California, the little tiny town of Hornitos was found, baking in the 105 degree heat. My brother Ken accompanied me.
Quiet and deserted now, the one-street town once had 15,000 people living there, Mexicans who weren’t welcome in Quartzsville during the Gold Rush and then German miners. The signs posted claim that 40,000 dollars in gold was transported to the banks daily.
Because of the Gold Rush of 1849, businesses and bars and banks sprung up and several of the Fandangos or dance halls were underground allowing folks to go from one to another without being seen…perfect hideouts for bandits! Legendary Joaquin Murrieta was the head honcho bandit, say the signs.
The name Hornitos has two explanations on the town’s website. One says it was given the name Hornitos, meaning “little ovens”, from the dome like rock and mud bake-ovens being used here by German residents.
Another statement says Hornitos is Spanish for “little ovens”. It got its name from the above ground graves that were shaped like little cooking ovens used in Mexico.
The town was laid out like many Mexican towns, with the buildings situated around a square. As we wandered, I caught up to my brother who had ventured down a walk near a small garden. I watched as a man stepped out of the building and began speaking to him. Oops, I thought, looking down at the sign half hidden in the rosebush saying ‘Private’.
Never fear, but Ken was asking the man about his garden and Old Bob Morse introduced himself (I had tiptoed over) and he began telling us how he made his sunken brick -lined paths criss-crossing the small knot garden. I commented on the thin sticks rising 3 feet high above the herbs and lavender. Dragonflies, he said, gives them a place to land. Cool!
Old Bob asked if we wanted to see inside the old building where he and his wife made their home. We said yes, of course, and he disappeared inside only to reemerge from another door with a stained glass window. We called Ken’s wife, Sheila, over to join us through the door and it took us several minutes for our eyes to adjust from the white sunlight.
The building was the old Pacific Saloon back in the when, made of adobe with walls about 18-20 feet high. Inside the ceiling was as high, but there were no windows except for the one in the door, stained glass. Bob turned on a light, which threw several candles worth of light on the huge room. It was dark. Ken, an avid photog, cranked his ASA to 6400 and took a photo of a display case filled with gems and orbs. Old Bob liked that shot and was starting to like us as well, I think.
The room was filled with velvet furniture, Oriental rugs and religious relics. Old photos of Hornitos filled one wall and Bob pointed out each one giving as good a talk as any historian or museum docent would offer about the town’s past. He had lived there with his artist wife for 17 years and lived in Mariposa before that. As we filed out into those 105 degrees, blinking, he urged us to visit two or three more points of interest, …the Jail and the St Catherine’s church.
Across the street from the plaza are the ruins of a Gold Rush adobe and brick structure that once housed the general store of Domingo Ghirardelli. He went on to San Francisco to further his business by concentrating on one well-known product. Nothing is permanent.
We photographed aimlessly what appealed to us, with the very good Sheila following us with the truck as we wandered along the one main street.
I loved the old doors, especially, and their colors, some very tall and some made of solid steel. These buildings survive so long because they’re all built like banks.
In front of the general store, now a gift shop, someone had chosen the exact right color petunias to fill a watering trough.
Funny we make this a through point when on a ride or a drive, …been there fifty times but rarely stopped for long…Hornitos is a quiet town, no services but the Post Office to be seen,…turkeys, Bob, his unseen wife and their garden.
On a recent trip back to Hornitos, this time with a gaggle of grown children and a sleeping baby, we met old Bob again,.. and again he invited us into his garden and into his inner sanctum. The hard-to-impress kids were duly impressed… and especially with the idea of the above ground graves which they asked to see.