By Dr. Nancy Wey
Fiddletown, a small community with a population of 112, is located off Route 49, south of Placerville. In its early days, it had a Chinese population second only to San Francisco. The last Chinese resident was Jimmy Chow, who died in 1965. Jimmy was the owner of the Chinese herb shop which was built in 1850 and is one of the unique monuments of American history because of its history, its contents., and its state of preservation. Yet it is in danger of being destroyed by neglect and by local industrial development.
Since Jimmy left no will when he died, the herb shop, along with the gambling hall across the street, became the property of Amador County. Fortunately, the importance of the Chew Kee Store was recognized by the Fiddle town Preservation Society, which had been organized earlier to save the town’s old schoolhouse scheduled for demolition. The Preservation Society was able to buy the schoolhouse and to prevent the Chinese store from being demolished. As caretaker of the herb shop, the Preservation Society’s first task was to clean the store and to sort out the items of historical significance. The most important relics were placed in locked display cases, but the Society’s efforts to label these artifacts were severely limited by the inability of any of its members to read Chinese.
The Chew Kee Store consists of a main building (approximately 17 feet by 28 feet) with walls of rammed earth 2½ feet thick. Its original roof was made of wooden shingles. The store occupies the front half of the building; the back is divided into a bedroom with an adult and child-size beds to the left of a hallway, and a small office and storeroom to the right. Attached to the back of the structure are wooden additions which provided rooms for washing, cooking, sleeping and storage. The only “modern” convenience is the electricity. The only heat comes from a wood-burning stove in the store, which heats only the rammed-earth building, but not the bedroom where Jimmy Chow slept. (Winters are cold here, with snow on the ground.)
Letters and photographs in the store tell some of the events of Jimmy’s life: that he was almost drafted when World War I ended; that his family in China worried about him; that he worked for a time in a blacksmith shop. His schoolbooks tell what he learned in school. In his First Geography Book, for example, the information about China
consists primarily of the statements that China was a heathen country and was filled with idol-worshipers.
There are also valuable records of the Chinese who lived in the area: an 1884 ledger of the gambling hall; a book for soliciting donations for the construction of a cemetery, 1869-1893; the 1865 records of the Chong How Benevolent Association; a record of the death dates of the Chinese in Fiddletown, 1883-1912. There are many articles which
belonged to Dr. Yee, the herb doctor who originally owned the Chew Kee Store and adopted Jimmy when his parents returned to China.
The current concerns of the Fiddletown Preservation Society (led by President Marie Scofield, Secretary Beth Kaiser, Treasurer Larry Hinckley, Norris and Jackie Nisbet, Bob and Marj Tieslau, Janet Boxhorn, and others) are as follows:
- To urge the State of California to begin repair and preservation of the Chew Kee Store without changing its character.
- To urge the National Registry of Historical Landmarks to recognize Fiddletown as a National Historical Landmark. (Fiddletown is already a California Historical Landmark, No. 35).
- To protect the environment from pollution by a proposed granite quarry, and the Chew Kee Store from collapse due to the vibrations caused by huge trucks being driven from the quarry through the town’s main street.
- To photograph, catalog, and research the artifacts in the Chew Kee Store.
Interested parties who are concerned with the goals of the Fiddletown Preservation Society may become members by writing to Mrs. Marie Scofield, President, Fiddletown Preservation Society, Fiddletown, California 95629, and enclosing the annual dues of one dollar ($1.00). Contributions may also be sent to the Preservation Society, which is a tax-exempt organization.
(Editor’s Note: The Fiddletown Preservation Society has appointed Dr. Nancy Wey as Museum Director of Fiddletown, with the task of cataloging materials. Dr. Wey is Oriental Art Historian, formerly at California State University, Long Beach. The Chinese Historical Society of Southern Ca!iforryia has granted funds to Dr. Wey for film and other materials to be utilized for this research project.)