Sheltered by the vast Sierra Nevada mountain range and at the exact center of California, North Fork is a little town with a big heart. This amiable mountain village is home to artisans, writers, innovators and business folks, the hearty descendants of Mono Indians and logging and ranching families.
.Residents include families who have lived here for generations, retirees who appreciate the peace and beauty of the area, and folks who came to visit, and just didn’t want to leave. It’s a truly diverse group, but one thing they share is dedication to their community.
On most any weekend throughout the year, you will find something going on in North Fork. Activities can include the Lions Club serving up a pancake breakfast at the Town Hall, Indian Fair Days, the Grizzly Century Bike Run or the Boosters gearing up for the annual Mid-Sierra Logger’s Jamboree.
Just 6 miles from Bass Lake, and a scenic 40-minute drive from Yosemite National Park, North Fork is also the starting point for a beautiful day exploring the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway. With more than one million acres of the Sierra National Forest to explore just outside of town, the area is a haven for lovers of the great outdoors.
North Fork is cloaked in a rich quilt of oak, pine, cedar, and manzanita, which often conceal crystalline waterfalls, fertile meadows, and deep swimming holes, though you will likely need to buddy up to a local to get the scoop on these. Residents and visitors can fish, swim, or peacefully paddle around on a raft at the emerald colored Manzanita Lake. It’s a great place to watch squirrels clamor on rocks and waterfowl lounge leisurely in the shade.
North Fork is also the uncelebrated portal to the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, which begins at the outskirts of the town, and meanders up the winding road towards Mammoth Pool, through outstanding scenery and breathtaking vistas. Remarkable views of the granite formations that epitomize the Sierra Nevada range are manifest all along the route. Fresno Dome, Jackass Meadow, Mile High Vista, and Cold Springs Summit are only a few of the stops you’ll want to make along the excursion.
Visitors in the warmer months can take refuge from the California heat and experience the sheer joy of discovery all along this thoroughfare, much like early travelers must have done.
The Sierra Mono Museum boasts a large collection of baskets and artifacts from the Mono community, which is famous for their basket-making skills. There is also a walking trail with posts to help educate visitors on the culture and foliage of the area. The museum preserves the Tribal records, and offers both a static and living history experience.
Nearby, housed in the old mill site, the Greater North Fork Art Gallery promotes several local artists whose art is inspired by the beauty of the central Sierra Nevada.
Theater arts, organic gardening, festivals, bike and motorcycle events, parades, innovations in vegetation management and solar power, small shops, cottage industry and a thriving Alpaca Ranch, are only a few of truly brilliant methods that folks have devised to encourage the economy of this lush area. Solutions that support a life of significance, optimism and relation to the earth and area they value.
The people of North Fork are always engaged in the business of doing for their town, their schools, and their neighbors and enthusiastically offer a friendly welcome to visitors.
North Fork was originally known as Wa-up, translated as “Place of the Cedars” or “Where Cedars Grow” by the Mono. These original residents raised their families and trekked the vastness of the Sierra with a reverent regard for the land.
Local history states that in the late 1860s, Milton Brown built a cabin on the bank of the North Fork of the San Joaquin River, now known as Willow Creek. The cabin became a stop-over and supply hub for ranchers, miners and homesteaders.
Soon, large ranching outfits, including the huge Miller and Lux outfits, began to move their herds up from the valley in search of free grass. By the mid-1870’s, another store and several saloons had been built, and Brown’s cabin was the center of a booming young community. An election precinct was established, known as Brown’s Precinct, which is still in existence today.
It may have been the hope of gold that brought people to the area, but it was the call for lumber that kept them here. As the state of California thrived and the population grew, so of course did the need for lumber. By the late 1880s, lumber became the predominant industry of the area, as the riches here were in timber, not in the gold that drew people to the lands farther to the north.
One of the first sawmills in the area was established in 1860. In 1884 Charles Peckinpah and his family moved to the area and set up their sawmill on Whiskey Ridge. Peckinpah Mountain looms behind the current mill site. The sawmill and box factory owned by Albert Brown and John Bertram, and located in what was then known as Brown’s Place, was dubbed The North Fork Lumber Company. Hence the name of this new, burgeoning community was coined.
The headquarters for the newly formed Forest Reserve was established in North Fork with the arrival of Charles Shinn in 1903. Shinn was the first Head Ranger, and then in 1907 was named the Forest Supervisor for the Sierra National Forest. He used his home, which he called “Peace Cabin,” as the Forest Service Office. Apparently, each time a new man was added to the staff, a new room was added to the house – each with its own entrance. The cabin is still located at what is now called the Putney Ranch, which is a short distance from town. In 1911, Shinn acquired the land of our present-day Forest Service Compound.
With the state hydroelectric era coming on the scene, a small earthen dam was built in 1901 by the San Joaquin Light and Power Company at Crane Valley, presently known as Bass Lake. As the power demand increased, the dam was enlarged and expanded. More roads were also built, inviting more people to the area.
From the Nolen and Roberts Mill in Haskell Meadow, to the state-of-the-art but short-lived Sugar Pine Lumber Company operation in Central Camp, timber was king. When Vince and Merlin Goodwin purchased a mill on Musick Mountain and moved it piece by piece to North Fork, one of the town’s anchor businesses was established.
North Fork soon became a thriving community. In its heyday, it supported a host of businesses, including four markets, two restaurants, a jewelry store, a doctor, gas stations, inns, a movie theater, full-service bank and pharmacy, plus one of the best schools in California. Many of these buildings are still standing and in use today.
Associated Lumber and Box began operations in South Fork in 1942. Through its many incarnations as American Forest Products, South Fork Timber Industries, and finally Sequoia Forest Industries, it was at times the largest industry in Madera County. Employing some 200 people, and with an annual payroll of more than $1 million, it was the life blood of the town. In 1993, due to the reduction of allowable timber harvesting on National Forest land, the mill processed its last log.
With the demise of the logging industry, North Fork lost its main economic base. Due to hardship associated with this loss, some families moved from the area. Others stayed and devised other creative methods to support their dreams and their families. Attracting visitors to the area continues to be a worthwhile endeavor.