Fiddletown, Cal.

A fanciful tale is told regarding the naming of Fiddletown. As the story goes, the camp was first settled by a group of prospectors from Missouri in 1849. When it came time to name the place, one of the elder Missourians complained of the younger men: “They are always fiddlin,’ call it Fiddletown.” Another story gives credit to German fiddle players, while Edwin A. Sherman relates in his reminiscences of an old lady who claimed her family were the first settlers at “Violin City,” so-called because her husband, daughter, and two sons all played the violin. It’s probably safe to say that some early settler in Fiddletown was partial to playing the fiddle.

The town’s early years proved uneventful, its growth slow; the number of houses could be counted on one’s fingers. All this changed in 1852 when several rich discoveries were made in the region, resulting in new camps such as American Flat, French Flat, Loafer Flat, and Lone Hill among others. With the emergence of these camps, Fiddletown became a trading center for the region, and combined with the continued workings of the placers, the town boomed. Tents, brush ramadas, and substantial buildings of wood, brick and stone soon covered the landscape as the population swelled, ultimately reaching several thousand people during the mid-1850’s.

Unlike the neighboring lowland camps, Fiddletown lacked the deep quartz mines which would have sustained it when the placers played out. So when the gold began to go away, so did the people. The town never really gave up the ghost; however, as it remained somewhat of a supply point for the region and home to many of its original settlers.

Fiddletown didn’t disappear, but it died in early February of 1878. Due to the actions of Judge Columbus Allen Purinton, a petition was circulated, signed, and submitted to the state legislature requesting that the name of the town be changed to “Oleta.” Why? Apparently “Judge” Purinton, who was never a judge in Amador County, was embarrassed to write “Fiddletown” as his place of residence, after becoming known in San Francisco and Sacramento as “the man from Fiddletown.” The bill passed quickly and soon gathered the governor’s signature to make it official. Fiddletown was dead. Long live Oleta. But as you may have noticed, the town is once again known as Fiddletown. What happened?

In 1932, during the eighty-third anniversary celebration of the founding of Fiddletown (Oleta), visitors and residents alike chanced to wonder, why was the name changed? What significance was there to the name Oleta? Fiddletown seemed much more historic and right. Maybe the name could be changed back?

By this time it didn’t take an act of legislature to change the name of an un-incorporated town. All you had to do was petition the postmaster to change the name of the town’s post office. So once again a petition circulated in Fiddletown (Oleta), upon which sixty-four residents signed their names. Copies were sent to the U.S. postal department and the postmaster general, and in early June of 1932, the news came to town that on July 1 of 1932, Oleta would die. Long live Fiddletown!

Being located well off the main highways, commercialization and its resulting wear and tear have bypassed Fiddletown, which has helped it retain an early days atmosphere and kept many of its Gold Rush buildings in a fine state of preservation. Most of the town's early structures are located on Main Street, with the exception of the old schoolhouse and a few private dwellings.

Fiddletown is located six miles east of Plymouth via Fiddletown Road.

The Chew Kee Store is a true Gold Rush rarity, being one of the Mother Lode’s few remaining rammed earth buildings. It was built about 1850 by the Chinese of Fiddletown for herbal doctor Yee Fan-Chung. The adobe building was constructed using traditional Chinese rammed earth techniques, which involved leveling the site and placing a thin layer of gravel and stones for the foundation. Forms for ramming the earth were then laid down, and the process of mixing adobe, packing it into the forms, and then moving the forms to the next row began. As the ramming forms moved upward, two doors and four windows were built into the walls. Two of the windows were later filled in with adobe bricks. The completed building was thirty-four feet long by about twenty-one feet wide. The rammed earth walls are between twenty-two and twenty-four inches thick.

Fiddletown had a large Chinatown during the Gold Rush, complete with its own gambling halls, opium dens, brothels, restaurants, barber shops and Buddhist temples. For this reason, Dr. Yee settled here. He used the building as a combination herbal store, office, and residence, administering to the local Chinese and those of the surrounding areas until he returned to China in 1900. 

The Chinese Gambling House provided the camp’s large Chinese population with the various games of chance they were accustomed to play. Other pleasures were also available within the stone walls, as prostitutes were ever ready to comfort the weary miner. Built into the hillside circa 1852, the structure’s side walls are made of native stone, the front from locally fired brick. An iron door and shutter once protected the building against fire and thieves, its metal roof still protects it against the elements. It is located across the street from the Chew Kee Store.

The Forge has stood silent now for many years, staring out onto Main Street with a blank look on its weathered face. Originally constructed during the 1850’s as a blacksmith shop, the two-story Forge was made from locally fired brick and provided with an exceptionally tall front door, no doubt to accommodate the large pieces of machinery and the various projects worked on inside.

The Fiddletown Community Hall has what could be the world's largest violin resting atop its front porch. A small, brick buiding is the oldest portion of the hall, which at one time housed the Wells Fargo Stage Stop.

The Schallhorne Blacksmith and Wagon Shop is the largest, the tallest, and the most impressive building in Fiddletown. Located near the east end of town, this excellently constructed building was erected in 1870 of rectangular hewn blocks of Valley Springs rhyolite tuff which was quarried about one and a half miles east of town. Rhyolite tuff, a light brown stone commonly found throughout the foothills of the Sierras, is easily worked when first quarried and then hardens after exposure, making it an excellent building material. The Schallhorne building is without doubt one of the most striking and unique structures to be found anywhere in the Gold Country.

The Fiddletown Schoolhouse stands on a small hill above town, settled in amongst the tall timber. Built in 1863 to replace a previous school, this one-room, wood-frame building served as an eight grade, one-teacher school until 1955. The old school bell still rests in the small tower atop the schoolhouse. (1895 photo "Oleta" Schoolhouse - courtesy Amador County Museum Archives)

The General Store, a large brick structure fronted with four iron doors and a plank porch, was built in the early 1850s when the town was at its peak. It has been in continuous operation as a general store since it first opened, making it one of the oldes such businesses in California.

The Pioneer Cemetery occupies the low hill across the street from the schoolhouse. Among its occupants is the man from Fiddletown, Judge Columbus "Oleta" Purinton, who is buried in the Masonic section with his wife. Many other pioneers from the town's early days found this their last resting spot.