MODESTO — Last year, Sonora High School Superintendent Mike McCoy came up with what he thought seemed like a pretty astute plan.
With Sonora High's enrollment dropping, and Summerville High's already small at just less than 500 students, why not combine the two districts into one more economically efficient one?
"It could save hundreds of thousands of dollars that could go into the classrooms," said McCoy, who plans to retire in a few years. "That was going to be my legacy."
Timing, of course, is everything. About that same time, the California Interscholastic Federation began the process of realigning its leagues. Sonora, with an enrollment of about 1,060, would join the Mother Lode League. Summerville vehemently opposed Sonora's move to join Summerville in the MLL, particularly for football.
Ben Watson, Summerville's football, basketball and softball coach, is a Sonora High graduate. Watson's sister, Cheri Farrell, also is a Sonora grad and serves on Summerville's school board.
Summerville recently hired a new superintendent and passed a school bond. It has no intention of joining Sonora to form a more perfect union school district.
Being a relative newcomer McCoy came to Sonora about five years ago he was surprised at the reaction toward unionization and the anti-Sonora sentiment he encountered. After all, people from both areas seem to get along well individually. You don't hear of any issues between the schools fights between the students, etc.
Peel back a few layers, though, and you'll find folks in and around Tuolumne City who maintain a distrust for Sonora that goes back more than a century. It began with sawmills, spilled over into sports and has been passed through generations.
Indeed, the roots of rivalry come from the days of the old West Side Lumber Co. in Tuolumne City and Standard Lumber Co. that began in Sonora before moving to the town of Standard and becoming the Pickering mill in Standard.
West Side operated a narrow-gauge railroad to bring its logs to the mill. Pickering had a standard gauge. They were rival mills even though Pickering bought West Side in 1925 and shut it down during the Great Depression. West Side reopened in 1934, free of Pickering ownership, and held its first Tuolumne Lumber Jubilee to celebrate. But Pickering bought West Side again in 1958. Four years later, a labor strike shut down both mills.
When it ended, Pickering reopened. West Side didn't, because it burned to the ground. Some believe a West Side worker torched it. West Siders weren't buying.
The irony is that Tuolumne City, where West Side was, still exists because it wasn't a mill-owned town. It recently held its 64th lumberfest, which now serves as a reminder of an era long gone. And it's gotten a boost from the Black Oak Casino just up the road.
Pickering, meanwhile, became Fibreboard in the mid-1960s, Louisiana-Pacific in the 1970s, Fibreboard again in the 1980s and now is owned by Sierra Pacific Industries. Louisiana-Pacific got rid of Standard's homes in the 1970s. The old company-owned buildings now house other businesses, including a restaurant, but no one lives there anymore. The mill recently closed for about a year, and then reopened.
Many who had worked at West Side later worked at Pickering, and made no bones how much they hated the place. I worked with some of them for two summers while I was in college in the 1970s.
Tuolumne City native John Bettanini worked as a sawyer in Standard, and now owns a mechanic business. He said disliking Sonora is in his DNA, passed down through generations.
"I come by it honestly," he joked.
John Hodge worked at both mills as well. When I spoke with him earlier this year just a few weeks before he died suddenly at 77 he talked fondly about the West Side and, well, not so fondly about Pickering.
He was among Summerville High's most avid fans and sports boosters. Even so, he told me he always got along with the Sonora folks. A few weeks ago, I ran into his son, Jeremy, who told me his dad was far more diplomatic with me on the phone that day than what Jeremy heard in the home growing up.
The Hodges are related to the Canepas, all of whom attended Sonora. Roger Canepa played and later coached football at Sonora High, then at Calaveras, and led Central Catholic to a state championship last year. His father owns a well-drilling business in Sonora.
"When my dad retired from SPI, he went to work for the Canepas' (well drilling business) for a while to do paperwork and basically keep himself busy," Jeremy said. "After a few months of working three days a week there, he called me and said he thought he was going to have to quit. I knew by the tone he was just setting up the punch line, so I went along with it. I asked why he was going to have to quit and got the following answer: 'Because the more time I spend with these Sonora ----s, the harder it is for me to dislike them.' "
That doesn't mean the Tuolumne City folks want to become one with Sonora, though.
They've been there before a couple of times, in fact and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.