Jeff Jardine

May 10, 2014

Jeff Jardine: New La Grange gateway a welcome – and welcoming – sight

Years of planning and fundraising went into new gateway arch and monument welcoming visitors to historic La Grange.

Don Lucas and his E Clampus Vitus friends build monuments. Lots of monuments.

In fact, since the mid-1990s, Lucas figures he’s built at least 25 – maybe more (he’s lost count) – of the concrete-and-stone monuments bearing plaques educating visitors about the history of the places and things they represent.

With respect to the guys who rescued stolen art from Nazi hideouts during World War II, you might even call the Clampers’ Estanislao chapter the Monuments Men of Stanislaus and Merced counties.

This project, though, is Lucas’ grandest yet. Situated at the intersection of Highway 132 and La Grange Road, it’s the new gateway to the community of La Grange, a milelong stretch of buildings that date back to 1850, when Spaniards, French, Mexicans and Americans began mining gold and settling the region. Today, more than 60 percent of the permanent buildings in La Grange are 100 years old or more, including some built when Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts built the La Grange Dam in the early 1880s.

La Grange’s new gateway replaces an old wooden sign that will become an exhibit in the town’s museum just up the street.

Lucas and other Clampers are very fond of La Grange. Lucas has built five other monuments in the area, including one detailing the history of the old gold dredge on the Tuolumne River. And at 86, Clamper pal Mike Stavrakakis of Modesto is sort of a foreman emeritus on the monument projects. He worked for the phone company and installed La Grange’s first residential phone line back in 1958.

“We’d go into Levaggi’s bar and (the bartender) would ask who the Christians were and who the boss was,” Stavrakakis said. “Then he’d serve us Levaggi’s coffee royal.”

What made it so special?

“Gin, rum or whiskey,” Stavrakakis said. “I don’t know what it was, but it took your breath away.”

So does the new gateway, La Grange movers and shakers like museum curator Marcia Ingalls will tell you.

Five years in the making, it began as a dream by a few people in La Grange, and with a sketch drawn at the McDonald’s on Modesto’s McHenry Avenue. That’s where several Clampers including Stavrakakis, a Korean War veteran better known as “the Book Dude” because he collects and distributes reading materials to veterans medical facilities throughout Northern California, meet for coffee at the restaurant each morning.

Once they settled on a design, they penciled out the projected cost: $8,000. It would have been much more – $20,000 perhaps? – if not for the free labor and monument-building expertise of Lucas and the Clampers.

The townsfolk raised the funds pretty much as you’d expect in a town of about 350 residents: They ate lots of spaghetti at benefit dinners. They ate lots of tri-tip at benefit dinners. They staged fundraisers during the town’s annual homecoming celebrations.

With three or four of these events each year over the past five years, they were able to raise the money needed to build their new gateway, said Ingalls, who runs the museum at the other end of town, only about a third of a mile away. They gave Lucas the go-ahead to begin planning the gateway in January 2013.

You might think replacing an existing sign with the steel arch and masonry monument beneath would be relatively easy near a town where Lucas has built five other monuments. Stanislaus County officials were behind it all the way, he said. But the corner is state property. Enough said.

“I butted my head for eight months,” said Lucas, 76, a retired Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy. “People kept telling me, ‘You’re going to lose. You’re going to lose. Can’t beat the state.’ ”

Then, one day last summer, he contacted state Sen. Tom Berryhill’s office in a plea for help. Berryhill aide Bob Phelan set up a meeting with state and county officials, La Grange residents and Lucas.

An hour after the meeting ended, “I felt like something was going to happen,” Lucas said.

Soon thereafter, the project was approved. Then, Lucas and Ingalls – headstrong individuals with strong visions of what they wanted the monument to represent – started hashing out the wording that would be on the plaque.

“We went through that for eight months to get it letter for letter,” Ingalls said. “He went through it, then I went through it – at every meeting.” They settled on a script that explains how the town once had 5,000 residents and, from 1856 to 1862, served as the Stanislaus County seat, among other things.

Construction finally began a few weeks ago and finished up Saturday, when they applied the exterior stone.

The gateway awaits formal dedication next month.

To La Grange residents and Clampers, it’s a welcome sight. And a welcoming one, too.

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