CHINESE CAMP — The plaster peeling from a wall in an 1854 post office does not bother Frank Stanley, who has grand plans for this one-time boomtown in Tuolumne County.
The former Modestan and his partners hope to turn 10 vacant, rundown buildings into a tourist spot on a route to Yosemite National Park.
They expect to spend about $3 million to clean up the two-block site and create 20 lodging units, plus space for dining, shops and other uses.
It's a retirement project for Stanley and his wife, interior designer Michelle Lacy, whose past work together includes restoring The State Theatre and Masonic Hall in Modesto.
The buildings in Chinese Camp are older than anything in Modesto, but they are basically sound.
"Look how old this is, and it's still standing," Stanley said during a recent walk-through of the post office. "Look at the big beams, the solid wood, the floorboards."
The restored town ultimately could employ about 90 people full time and 150 part time, according to a market analysis done for the project.
The other partners are Carol Perry of Denair, who owns the buildings and was raised in Chinese Camp, and Ralph Souza, owner of a Sonora metal shop.
"There is a lot of history there," Perry said. "I'm certainly pleased that someone is interested in putting some time and effort into it."
The partners are working with Tuolumne County officials on the permits needed for the restoration, including street and other infrastructure improvements.
They hope to have the place in good enough shape by October to allow visitors to look into the buildings without entering. By 2014, they could have several of the attractions fully operating.
They are looking into planting olives and grapes on several hundred acres around the town. The exact acreage is not yet known for these crops, which would be pressed for wine and oil at other sites in Tuolumne County.
And they hope that passenger excursions from Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown will be extended to the Chinese Camp area. That would require track upgrades.
"This is an awfully great project if they can get it done," said Jim O'Neil of Jamestown, who is helping the partners with the planning.
Chinese Camp sits on Highway 120 about 40 miles east of Modesto and 10 miles south of Jamestown.
The place got its name from the estimated 5,000 Chinese people who lived there at the height of the Gold Rush. A few thousand miners from other nations and states flocked in, including Perry's family.
The mining faded by the 1870s, but Chinese Camp remained part of a key stagecoach route into the early 1900s. Fires destroyed many of the buildings, including a large blaze in 1918.
Cattle ranching is the area's main pursuit today. The small Chinese Camp Store, outside the project area, serves residents and visitors to Yosemite, Don Pedro Reservoir and other places.
The project buildings, which have been unoccupied for much of the past decade, were surrounded by overgrown vegetation when the partners got to work.
They have encountered some surprises, including water pipes buried not quite as deep as Stanley was used to in his contracting work.
One building has been storing a motley collection of items, from an old Crosley Shelvador refrigerator to a vinyl "Christmas with Glen Campbell" album.
That structure is the Fandango building, a former social hall that Souza plans to turn into a Portuguese bistro.
A bed-and-breakfast inn is planned for the large home once occupied by Dr. Daniel Stratton, a physician. He was the grandfather of Perry, who moved to Stanislaus County for a career in teaching and school administration.
The partners plan to turn the post office into a visitor center and museum on Chinese Camp history. They hope to create a stage backdrop from the one remaining wall on the Wells Fargo Bank.
A former boardinghouse would become a youth hostel. Other buildings would provide lodging, shopping and other uses.
Lacy, who has moved with her husband to Jamestown, is in charge of design.
"We're trying to revive the community, keep it historically preserved, not change a lot of things," she said.
Lots of travelers going by
This has been done before up and down the gold country. The state in 1945 created Columbia State Historic Park, the largest collection of buildings from the mining days. Sonora, Jamestown and Groveland have many structures from the era.
The new attraction would be along Highway 120, which carries many of the 4 million or so people who visit Yosemite each year from around the world. The planners hope to draw day-trippers from Modesto and other nearby cities.
On the day The Bee visited, Stanley was giving a tour to a women's club from Copperopolis. One stop was outside the future hostel.
"What's neat about this is that upstairs, the original numbers are still on the doors from when it was a boardinghouse," Stanley said.
Club member Sandy Rollings was impressed.
"It's nice to keep these old buildings, so I hope they do something with them," she said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.