With history dating to '41, complex held memories for many vacationers

October 2, 2007 

Imagine a postcard as seen through the eyes and paintbrushes of, say, Charles M. Russell or Fredric Remington. An Old West lodge, so rustic, weathered and teeming with lore.

The main lodge at Kennedy Meadows Resort east of Sonora maintained that feel even though, at 66 years old, it was a relative babe compared to other buildings in Tuolumne County. The lodge burned to the ground early Monday, taking a chunk of history with it and threatening a way of life that has existed in the high country since World War I still raged.

Old wooden buildings like that are always overmatched, mere kindling for an angry flame. The six people sleeping upstairs all got out safely, but Maggie, the oldest dog at the resort, perished. A few firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Kennedy's pack station remains open as deer hunters comb the backcountry in search of a four-pointer.

Ben Cassinetto of Knights Ferry remembers working on the lodge after Reno Sardella bought it 1961.

"It was built a long time ago," Cassinetto said. "They didn't use any drywall. It was all plywood, with shingles on the side walls. And there were no summer rains at all. It was like a tinderbox." Even if there's a new lodge in place by the end of next summer, the sense of loss will be felt by anyone who ever vacationed there, stayed in the cabins, ate in the restaurant or shopped in the store. The vintage photos of the high-country lakes, the bridges and the area's namesake, Andrew Kennedy, throughout the restaurant and resort office might be impossible to replace.

A part of family histories

It will be missed by generations of families who took their first trail ride or pack trip from the stables behind the old lodge.

It will no longer serve as a backdrop for the meadow alongside the Stanislaus River's main fork, where generations have picnicked, barbecued and listened to cowboy poetry.

"The good news," said Oakdale's Jay Gilbert, who once co-owned the resort, "is that the bar is still there." Yes, the Last Chance Saloon, about 20 yards away, the last over-the-counter whiskey or beer before you head into the backcountry, escaped the destruction.

Kennedy Meadows became a destination even before it was a resort and pack station leading to that pristine playground known as the Emigrant Wilderness.

The meadows were named for Andrew Thomas Kennedy of Knights Ferry and his brother, J.F. Kennedy. Yes, before there was a JFK, there was a JFK. The brothers homesteaded or, through grazing arrangements, otherwise controlled thousands of acres of land.

They owned property that included Kennedy Lake northeast of the resort.

As folks tell it, Andrew Kennedy charged fishermen $1 apiece to fish his lake. When one angler tried to angle his way out of paying, Kennedy fired off a shot or two, sending a message and the intruder down the trail. Another version has him shooting the man.

About 1870, Kennedy built a cabin in the western meadow, a cabin that still stands today across from where the lodge stood.

The Kennedys sold their property to the Sierra and San Francisco Power Co., which built Relief Reservoir in the early 1900s. That company eventually morphed into Pacific Gas & Electric Co., more commonly known as PG&E.

Two men, last names of Ledshaw and Edwards, established a hunting camp in the western meadow. Ledshaw was paid by the government to hunt and kill mountain lions. By 1917, they operated a pack station, store and gas station, which they sold 12 years later to Frank Kurzi.

Fire claimed the original lodge

Kurzi built the original single-story lodge, which burned to the ground in the winter of 1940-41. The next spring, he began construction on a new lodge, this time a two-story building that included a restaurant and store. Construction ended July 4, 1941, about three months before Gary Cooper arrived to film Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

Willie Ritts, one of the resort's subsequent owners, said the last day of filming was Dec. 7, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

"It was snowing," Ritts said. "They left that day."

Kurzi kept the resort until 1945, when he sold it to a Bay Area man who, three years later, sold it to Cliff and Rose Mitchell. Cliff Mitchell's father, Mills, had been running cattle in the mountains since the late 1800s and supplied beef to feed the crews building Relief Reservoir. After they divorced, Rose Mitchell sold the business to Reno Sardella in 1961.

Ritts, who had worked for Sardella, partnered with Jay Gilbert to buy Kennedy's in 1970, then bought out Gilbert in 1977. Matt Bloom, who had wrangled for Ritts, has owned the resort for the past several years.

With phone service at the resort knocked out by the fire, and with no cellular phone coverage in the high country, Bloom could not be reached for comment Monday.

Until Monday, Bloom's primary worries about the future of Kennedy Meadows Resort stemmed from a bankruptcy case involving PG&E, which owns the land. The utility must divest itself of some of its properties. The Forest Service wants the land. Fearing the kind of restrictions the government has imposed on private cabin owners in the forest, Bloom has campaigned for a conservancy to get the property.

Now, his more immediate concern is putting the resort back together again.

Until that happens, the great American postcard that was the Kennedy Meadows lodge will simply be a memory.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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