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California Gold Rush Town has Multicultural Heritage


California Gold Rush Town has Multicultural Heritage

California Gold Rush Town has Multicultural Heritage

The colorful history of the Gold Rush is being kept alive in a handful of towns in the Western U.S. state of California. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan has more from the town of Jackson, a multicultural community in the heart of California's gold country.

Not far from here, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, and towns sprung up along the gold belt, called the Mother Lode, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. One of the liveliest towns was Jackson.

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Local historian Larry Cenotto says the lure of gold attracted people from many countries.

"There were a lot of French that were here in the early days," said Larry Cenotto. "Of course, an awful of Italians, a lot of Jewish merchants. I mean, Main Street in Jackson in the 1850s was at least half Jewish merchants. So [you had] an incredible society."

A walk through the city reveals its mixed heritage, with 19th century cemeteries for the city's German Jews, Irish Catholics, and British Protestant residents. A Serbian Orthodox church dates to the 1890s.

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Longtime resident Gino Ricci says his Italian family was part of a polyglot culture.

"You had a lot of Chinese, everything," said Gino Ricci. "We had all kinds of nationalities in here and they all got along. It was really a melting pot, but it was a good melting pot."

Ricci, now 84, is the town's only remaining barber. His father opened a barber shop here in 1913, and Ricci joined the business in 1941. He has seen the town flourish with mining, and later with timber. Through it all, there was gambling and there were houses of prostitution, illegal but tolerated until the 1950s.

"And we had the houses and we had gambling and we had no problems," he said. "Everything was just as smooth as silk."

Today, says Ricci dismissively, this is just a tourist town without its old excitement. But merchant Barbara Wierschem, who sells candy and ice cream, says it is a great place for visiting families.

"They like the oldness of the town, you know, the buildings, and people are all warm and friendly in the businesses," said Barbara Wierschem. "They like going to the gold mines, and also there are a lot of caverns up here that they go visit."

Larry Cenotto is a newcomer to Jackson, relatively speaking. He arrived in 1964 as a newspaper reporter, attracted by the town's friendliness. He says that living here, he got to know people as people, not just as part of the landscape, which he says is often the case in bigger cities.

"In small towns, you quickly learn that these are people, and you're going to see them again tomorrow, and the next day and the next day, and so you need to get along and understand them and then begin to value them," he said.

For Jackson's 4,000 residents, life today is quiet, but visitors passing through California's Mother Lode country can hear tales of more boisterous times when the world descended on Jackson in search of gold.

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