Benjamin Franklin Taylor was an original Grass Valley 49er, and his life story has all the elements of an adventure movie: Taylor dreamed big, rode twists of fate, suffered hardships and faced mortal danger. And, he found true love while crossing a creek with a wagon train on the Oregon Trail.
No one’s making a movie — at least not yet — but Taylor’s house in Grass Valley was recently declared a Nevada County historical landmark.
Taylor finished building the “Home Place” for his adored wife, Esther, in 1866. It was “the first substantial house” in the booming mining town, according to one historical account. It can be seen from the 800 block of West Main Street, shielded by trees from equipment preparing for the Gilded Springs development.
By the time Taylor moved into the house, the Kentucky native had crossed the Great Plains to California three times.
Taylor started his first journey at the age of 23, arriving in the Gold Country in late August 1849. He and a partner worked a gold rocker, perhaps along Greenhorn Creek. He drove ox-drawn wagons for hire, traded with other early emigrants, herded wild mustangs, survived a fire that wiped him out, and encountered “old Waloopa,” probably a local Mountain Nisenan leader, his journals record.
Taylor and partners quickly built up a ranch stretching from what is now Peardale to Chicago Park. Seeking better breeds of cattle and horses to improve his stock, he returned to Missouri twice. On his first return journey, Taylor was carried in a hammock across the Isthmus of Panama, after having nearly died of measles, he wrote. Taylor made it back to Nevada County, knew Mark Twain, built a toll road and bridge over the Bear River to meet the transcontinental railroad in Colfax, and served as an elections official and political party delegate, according to historical documents.
House built for love
In 1852, Taylor was driving his first 500-plus head of cattle and horses overland when he met a wagon train. Taylor finagled an introduction to Esther Huling, then 15, while the group was crossing LaBonte Creek in eastern Wyoming, on the Oregon Trail. Love smote his heart, but in his journal Taylor noted: “A little young.” On journey’s end, the Hulings settled in what is now the Smartsville area.
The couple married in 1856, lived at the ranch and had their first two children there. Back then, it took an hour and a half to get to town by horse, and Esther Taylor yearned for Grass Valley, great-granddaughter Mary Ann White said. “Benj” Taylor bought 75 acres at town’s edge, stretching from West Main up Alta Street to Ridge Road, bounded on the west by Peabody Creek.
Taylor built their two-story, five-room Home Place at a time when others in Grass Valley resided in cabins and small cottages, according to Sibyl Leuteneker, who wrote for the Nevada County Historical Society in 1966.
“He said the lumber was carefully selected, the boards being heavier than usual. All the important timbers, instead of being nailed, were morticed and dove-tailed,” wrote Thomas Dykes Beasley, who interviewed Taylor in 1912 for A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country.
Above the front porch, the sharply peaked gable characterizes the Carpenter Gothic style popular at the time. Through the front door, White stood in the entry hall by the restored wooden staircase. “My great-grandfather ordered it by mail,” she said.
White opened the door to the sitting room, headed by a brick fireplace. “I would sit in here and read as a child,” she recalled.
About 20 feet behind the original house, Taylor built a stone structure half-way into the ground — the original kitchen. Over the years, the house expanded around it, now a wine cellar and bar.
“They built the kitchen separate from the house, because back then there were so many kitchen fires,” explained Parker White, Mary Ann White’s son and Taylor’s great-great-grandson. “The whole house could catch fire.”
House remains a tribute to “an amazing man”
Taylor’s descendants eventually moved away, and the house became a rental in 1965. Mary Ann and husband Gerald White bought Taylor’s house from other family members in 1995, after moving here from Modesto.
“When we came back, the house was standing in a weed field,” Mary Ann White said. They spent their retirement years expanding and updating the house, adding trees, lawns, roses, pathways and more. Their work began as the town’s historical preservation movement was gaining steam; Taylor’s house became No. 6 on the city’s registry of historic homes designated by the Grass Valley Historical Commission.
“We have really enjoyed restoring the Home Place,” White added
It may be the only residence in Nevada County owned continuously by Gold Rush descendants — 157 years, said Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission Chairman Bernard Zimmerman.
“Ben Taylor was a real 49er,” Zimmerman said. “An awful lot of the 49ers came and made a lot of money and went home. He stayed… He settled down. He became a pillar of the community.”
The house remains a tribute to “an amazing man” who, according to family legend, picked up a handkerchief while riding a horse at full gallop on his 80th birthday, said Sally Knutson of Nevada City, another great-granddaughter. Knutson’s research on the Home Place led to its recent designation by the Landmarks Commission. The county Board of Supervisors approved the recommendation Aug. 10.
Grass Valley-based freelance writer Trina Kleist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.