Friday, November 2, 2018

Curiosities: Felton Area Resorts

Much like the Zayante Creek basin, the area along the west bank of the San Lorenzo River south of Felton developed over the years into, first, a logging and picnic area and, later, a resort district. Unlike Zayante, though, a number of the resorts remain today, while others have become partially or entirely residential subdivisions. The appeal of these resorts is threefold: they provide easy access to Big Trees (now Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park), they are themselves located beneath and among second-growth redwood groves, and they are only a short distance from the beaches of Santa Cruz. The following are some of these resorts and how they developed, organized geographically from south to north.

Toll House Resort (1866-1989)
The history of the Toll House Resort is vague but begins in 1867, when Eben Bennett, a local lime kiln owner, built a toll road along the upper west edge of San Lorenzo Gorge between Felton and Santa Cruz. At the northern end of the road, he built a toll house, which survives today across from Glengarry Road along State Route 9. Whether this was the original structure or a later building erected at the same site remains unclear.

Throughout its life, the building functioned primarily as a general store and, later, a concessions stand. Bennett lived there for a number of years, operating the store, collecting tolls, and running his kilns from a distance. From 1875 to 1880, the route of the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad ran directly below the toll house, after which the Old Felton Branch continued to host trains irregularly until 1909. (Old) Big Trees Road also was built around this time, initially ending at the bottom of the road, just before the river, so that visitors could park and visit the Welch Grove on foot, but by around 1900, a ford was maintained over the river so that people could directly access Cowell's Big Trees.

The Toll House Cafe with a bus parked out front beside the Cowell Big Trees entrance, 1930s. [Jay Topping]
Because of its central location, the toll house has always been an important waypoint, regardless of the structure's purpose. After the toll road was made public in the mid-1870s, the building's purpose was less clear. The newspapers just called it the "Old Toll House", but who owned it or what it was being used for during the final two decades of the nineteenth century is unknown.

At the turn of the century, the Old Toll House had become a saloon. A succession of owners—Charlie Hartman, Peter Pundt, W. R. Adams, H. M. Meyers, George Featherston, and C. O. Stanton—refurbished the structure and operated out of it, primarily catering to visitors to the Big Trees parks. But clearly the business had difficulty making money since no owner kept the building for more than three years.

Santa Cruz Sentinel article for
Nidever's Toll House Resort,
May 31, 1932. [SC Sentinel]
The first time the property was known as resort came in October 1912, when a large barbecue and dance was held on the property. It marked a change in focus for the toll house, likely prompted by the advent of automobile traffic to Big Trees. In 1915, the name was changed to the Big Tree Entree, owned by Florence R. Silbery. Nonetheless, its seedy reputation remained. Silbery was arrested shortly after reopening the business for selling liquor without a license. Seven years later, another owner, F. D. Staggs, was arrested for violating the Volstead Act. The resort was raided in 1923 by federal officers. It was renamed the Toll House Cafe, owned by Elmer Boyea, soon afterwards, and raided by county officials in 1927 for violating state gambling laws. Another Volstead raid came in 1929. E. H. Emlay took over as manager of the cafe in May 1929 and ran it with his wife. For the first time, regular advertisements for the business appeared in newspapers, unmarred by scandal. The cafe sold sandwiches, salads, and Spanish dishes, and catered to picnickers and parties. Later that year, dinner service was added.

In 1931, W. C. Nidever and his son purchased the property as well as nine acres around it to convert it into a formal vacation destination under the name Toll House Resort. The father-son duo erected fifteen three-room cabins with garages and ten tent houses, all of stained redwood. Cabins included kitchens and shower-baths and all were situated beneath the redwoods behind the toll house. The Nidevers also made a clearing for camping with enough space to accommodate twenty-five tents, and another clearing was made for picnickers and group outings, decorated with Japanese lanterns. Across the street from the toll house, Nidevers built a Mobil service station to refuel passing cars. He ran the refurbished old building as a restaurant, general store, and soda fountain while renting out the cabins, tents, and camping spaces to visitors. Oliver Boyea, son of Elmer, purchased back the Toll House around 1934 and their son, Lloyd, managed it.

J. Ted Cress and his wife, Verna, purchased the business on October 12, 1941, continuing offering the same services as the Boyea family, to which he added a beer and wine bar. Beginning in 1943, the Cresses also offered an early morning breakfast for trout fishermen during fishing season. In June 1943, Ted was charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, but he was acquitted the next month. Ted died in November from a pistol wound prompting Verna to sell the property. By 1951, the resort was run by the Furlong family.

Toll House Resort owner Larry Noon outside the old structure, 1995. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]
The history of the Toll House Resort as a destination essentially ends in 1952, when it was auctioned and purchased by William C. and Annabelle Oliver for use as a private residence. The cabins in the back continued to be leased, but the main structure ceased to function as anything other than a home. In 1963, one of the old vacant cabins burned down, further marking the decline of the resort. Annabelle died in 1961 and the resort went up for sale again in 1978 and 1985. In 1986, the old structure served as Toll House Furniture & Antiques, which sold beds, sofas, dressers, and other household furnishings, as well as antiques. The Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 permanently ended commercial operations at the Toll House Resort. Larry and Trey Noon purchased it just before the temblor and attempted in 1995 to reopen the resort and restaurant, but they were unsuccessful due, on part, to resistance from the county which did not want further development in the area. As part of this restoration campaign, the site was designated a California State Historic Landmark in 1993.

Sequoia and Cotillion Gardens (1926-Present)
Advertisement for Sequoia Gardens,
summer 1926. [SC Sentinel]
Sequoia Gardens was developed at the bottom of (Old) Big Trees Road as a campground and picnic area for visitors to the Big Trees parks. It was founded by Dr. James Beard and the initial manager was Bobby Burns. The original complex opened during the summer of 1926 and included a restaurant, dance pavilion, tea room, souvenir shop, and cottages for guest lodgings. It quickly became a popular resort for evening dances and for people eager to visit the Big Trees, which were accessible via a river ford or footbridge located just outside the property grounds. In March 1927, I. L. Putman leased the property from Beard for five years and outfitted the cabins with electrical lights and the gardens with a sprinkler system. During its first year, the Pereira family managed the property, but the Mason Brothers took over in 1928.

The Great Depression hit Sequoia Gardens early and hard. By March 1930, the property was up for sale after a fairly slow season in 1929. Beard attempted to keep the business afloat during this time, offering the same amenities that Putman had introduced, but the seasonal nature of the resort and the heavy competition from adjacent resorts made profits difficult. Beard was finally able to sell the property in 1934 to Julius A. and Helen Johnson. Summer seasons remained busy throughout the Depression years. Between Beard and Johnson, twenty-two cottages were erected, each equipped with hot and cold water showers, porches, and gas kitchens. By 1939, parcels in Sequoia Gardens were also being sold for private ownership, the first going to Martin Noone and his wife. Private parcel sales increased throughout the 1940s.

The main restaurant and curio store at Sequoia Gardens, c. 1930s. [Cotillion Gardens]
Jack and Madeleine Morra took over the property at some point around 1950, and it was under their ownership that two great disasters befell the resort, punctuating its history dramatically. First, in 1954, the primary well for the property ran dry, forcing the resort to close for the 1955 season. Then, in December 1955, a terrible storm caused the San Lorenzo River to overrun its banks dramatically, destroying almost the entire resort. The Morra family sold the property and the resort's very name disappears from newspaper records thereafter.

For the next decade, the history of the property is vague. It appears to have been used informally as a recreational vehicle lot for many years without anybody managing the property. It may not have even had a formal name during this time. It was only in 1966 that Gerald "Jerry" D. Firenzo and James Howard got permits to convert the property into a formal resort under the name Cotillion Gardens, which appears to have been the unofficial name for a few years by then. Firenzo and Howard had a lot of work to do in order to bring the property up to code. By 1968, Cotillion Gardens was open for business and two years later RVs and camper trailers were allowed to return with eighty spaces available for use. By 1985, the resort under the ownership of Joan and Gus Isenburg offered a dumping station for RVs, hot showers, picnic tables, fire pits, a swimming pool, and a playground. Larger group picnic areas were also installed and connections were made with hiking trails in adjacent Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The park was purchased by Garry A. and Mary P. Bohn in 2001 and is currently owned by Martin and Callie Minogue.

Smithwoods RV Camp (1920-Present)
Early advertisement for Big Trees Auto Camp,
1927. [SC Evening News]
Urban legend states that Charles B. and Frances Smith fell in love with the site that would become their resort on a trip in 1920 to Clark's Big Trees Auto Camp. While there is no evidence that such a resort ever existed – and indeed 1920 would be quite early for an auto camp to even exist – it is certain that the Smith family purchased and possibly founded Big Trees Auto Camp in that year. Located along the northern side of (Old) Big Trees Road on a thirteen-acre parcel that included numerous second growth redwood trees, this area had served as a brickyard originally for George Treat's lumber mill, although what it had been used for in the intervening years remains unclear.

The park only began heavily advertising its features from 1927, where its chief appeals were the Big Trees parks and the San Lorenzo River, which they dammed for boating. Charles built a number of single-room cabins for use by friends and tourists, while tent camping was heavily encouraged.

The Smiths raised their four children—Bette, Florence, Eric, and Charlotte—on the property, where they built a large home, which used as its base Clark's original mountain cottage. Over the years, the home grew to sixteen rooms and functioned as the office for the resort, as well as the Smith family's home. Bette and her husband, Don Kelly, took over around 1961. It was they who renamed the resort Smithwoods. Two of their children, Doug and Penny, also helped run the resort and watched as it evolved from a campground to an RV resort.  Ownership passed to Brenda, Don and Bette's eldest daughter, in 2005 after Bette died, and Brenda managed the property with her own sons, Chris and Rick, all of whom still operate the park today.

Smith family home at Smithwoods Resort, 1971. [SC Sentinel]
Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort (1978-Present)
Santa Cruz Redwoods R.V. Resort is a relatively recent addition to local area resorts although its driveway originally functioned as the right-of-way for the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad. Located just to the north of Smithwoods, the resort was founded as River Grove RV Park around 1978. When it was built, it included a large clubhouse, eighty-four RV campsites, a playground, amphitheater, bocce courts, and a campfire area. Some portions of the property were parceled out on long-term vacation leases. In 1983, the property was bought by Advanced Resort Systems, which immediately sought to force out all long-term vacation rentals in order to renovated the site as a modern RV park. At the same time, they changed it into a members-only park, with restricted access to non-members and regular curfews.

Advanced Resort Systems advertisement for Lighthouse Marina and River Grove Park, 1984. [SC Sentinel]
Advanced Resort Systems did not advertise heavily in newspapers and declined throughout the 1990s and 2000s until going bankrupt around 2009. During foreclosure of the property in 2010, it was purchased by Rich and Sarah Martin, who heavily renovated the property, at the same time adding tent camping sites, park-wide wifi, electrical outlets, a dog park, and picnic tables. They continue to operate the property today, which is open year-round for camping and events.

Gold Gulch River Park (1938-Present)
Gold Gulch was for nearly a century pseudonymous with the brief Felton gold rush of the 1850s centered around the stream. But memory of that was fading by 1938, when Joseph R. H. Jacoby oversaw the sale of land on behalf of the County First National Bank around the confluence of Gold Gulch Creek and the San Lorenzo River in order to build a new housing subdivision. By July, properties within the subdivision were selling fast and Jacoby estimated that the entire subdivision would be sold before the end of the summer. A total of forty-eight third-acre parcels were drawn up for the subdivision. Although as a housing subdivision, Gold Gulch River Park did not offer the same features of the nearby resorts, Jacoby did ensure that it included a 1,100-foot community beach beside the San Lorenzo River, which still remains today. In 1941, the Gold Gulch River Park Mutual Water Company incorporated to manage water rights in the subdivision, although it was forced to shut down in the 1970s due to water contamination issues. Initially, the subdivision was composed almost entirely of summer cabins, much like nearby Forest Lakes, but eventually larger homes were built and the community evolved from a seasonal village into a permanent suburban neighborhood. Floods in 1940, 1955, and 1982 severely damaged homes in the subdivision, but residents continue to live there and it remains a popular housing area today.

Fern River Resort (1929-Present)
Gene Martin in 1994.
[SC Sentinel]
Along the northern edge of Gold Gulch River Park and on the southern side of the Tanglewood, a small resort sprang up in 1929 known as Griffin's Resort, run by the Griffin family. Virtually nothing is known of the early history of this property or the family that owned it except that a few rental cabins were built on a bluff that overlooked the river. In 1965, it was purchased by Frank and Helen Sherra, but they seem to have liquidated the resort's stock and used it as a private home. In 1971, Eugene and Beverly Martin purchased the property and reopened it as Griffin's Motel, which eventually included a total of thirteen rental cabins. They raised their children on the property and Beverly kept a small stable of horses. Griffin's Motel catered to vacationers year-round, and rooms were also leased during school months to university students, thereby ensuring a steady flow of income. In 1986, the vacation spot was renamed Griffin's Fern River Resort, but the "Griffin's" was dropped from all advertising from 1990 onwards. Around this time, Eugene and Beverly's son Daniel took over the resort and continued to improve it, remodeling structures, modernizing facilities, and building a wedding and events venue. His daughter, Nicole, later took over operations

Felton Acres (1923-Present)
Felton Acres was built at the same time as Forest Lakes on 655 acres of property purchased by George Featherston and R. L. Young from the Pacific Portland Cement Company, which owned the lime kilns on Hihn Street at this time. The residential subdivision is situated primarily along the north bank of Shingle Mill Creek, just south of Felton and across from the modern vehicle entry into Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Felton Acres sales advertisement, May 1924. [SC Evening News]
When it opened in 1924, a rustic wooden arch spanned across Redwood Drive, welcoming homeowners and visitors to the densely-wooded subdivision. Soon afterwards, a dam was created in the creek and boats were supplied. Trout were introduced to the stream for fishing, while small game hunting was offered as an extra incentive to prospective buyers. Young and Featherston also erected a community hall and dancing pavilion, and placed park benches throughout the subdivision, especially along the creek. Other features included a communal barbecue pit, tennis courts, and a small kiosk which survives to this day. Originally, Redwood Drive continued all the way to Empire Grade Road, but this route was soon cut off by the quarry at the top of the mountain. Nonetheless, promoters emphasized the connections between Felton Acres' roads and those of neighboring subdivisions. Within the subdivision, most of the roads were originally logging roads paved over and repurposed for residential use. Advertisements remarked: "Woods upon woods stretch on every hand. The sun smiles down through little glades just right for a cozy home. This is one of the Switzerlands of America."

Children swimming at the Felton Acres concrete pool, 1950s. [SC Sentinel]
Construction began in May 1924 and a number of homes were completed over that summer. Marketing emphasized that homes could be purchased for both vacation use or year-round habitation, which was a marked change from other local marketing campaigns that just promoted seasonal use. A concrete swimming pool was added to the resort in 1925 beside the tennis courts, likely to better rival Forest Lakes. Felton Acres as a distinct subdivision thrived for around fifty years, but by the 1970s, most of the perks were gone and the area was simply another residential area in Felton. Today, references to Felton Acres can only be found in title deeds and on a plaque found on the park's old kiosk, restored by locals in the mid-2000s.

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