Even though the main road has been freshly paved, Smartsville is off the beaten path in the Yuba County foothills and residents have pride and sense of community.
The town, which the 2010 Census said had 177 residents, has an old Catholic church as its centerpiece that a group has been working to restore for more than 20 years.
“What we're doing now is working on the getting estimates for the restoration of the entire property,” said Kit Burton. “Contractors are giving us estimates and they have questions and that makes us think — it’s a little surprising that there’s so much we didn’t know about but it’s turning out to be a rather thorough job.”
Every year in April, Burton and a handful of others with the Smartsville Church Restoration Fund host Pioneer Day, an event that showcases the town and its Gold Rush-era history.
HistoriCorps, a national nonprofit that helps preserve historic structures, worked on the church’s bell tower in April and May.
“Ned and Carol Spieker, owners of Saddleback Ranch in Yuba County, generously pledged a donation of half of the expected construction cost of the bell tower, providing we could raise the other half,” Burton said earlier this year. “We have the opportunity to find out just where we are for the total amount of money needed to restore the whole thing.”
Deanna Evango set up a booth for Pioneer Day to sell cotton candy and snow cones for the fundraising effort.
“I grew up in Smartsville and knew some of the Magonigal family,” she said. “I heard all the stories about how their family made their way across the country and settled in the Smartsville area.”
Growing up in Smartsville in the 70s, Evango eventually moved away for more than 20 years but returned about a decade ago wanting to get back to living the country lifestyle.
“I got tired of the big city and wanted to get back to living with real people in the woods,” she said. “I had no idea what I was blessed with here.”
She moved next door to the Smartsville Church, helps with the annual Pioneer Day and is on the Smartsville Cemetery board.
“It’s great to see this place (the church) coming together,” she said. “There are lots of cemeteries in Smartsville, many that people don’t even know exist, and we want to get them spruced up so people go and see them.”
Ethan Phillips, an Oroville resident who is originally from Loma Rica, stopped by the Smartsville Church on Saturday morning to get a look at some plaques and check on the restoration.
Phillips is the grand trustee of the Native Sons of the Golden West John Bidwell Parlor so he values the preservation of history.
“I dropped by here on a lark on my way to Grass Valley and Nevada City and it’s great to see the progress on the church,” he said. “History is a funny thing — sometimes it’s harsh and cold and other times it’s fun.”
Part of his work with the Native Sons of the Golden West allows Phillips to connect with other groups and help keep the area’s history alive.
“You have to keep history alive because forgetting it is how you don’t learn your lesson and repeat it,” he said. “Gold Rush history is very interesting especially the people who came here and if we don’t preserve it, we will lose it.”
Hilda Biffle has lived in Smartsville for the past 11 years and tends to the Smartsville Community Church, a working church a few doors down from the historic Catholic church.
“I definitely love Smartsville and I live across from the church so it’s convenient for me to help out,” she said. “I take care of the janitorial services for the church, make the calendar and get things like coffee set up and ready to go.”
She and her husband came to the area and lived with her parents and she decided to stay after losing her husband in 2013.
“It’s really nice up here and they recently paved the road through town,” she said. “It’s almost hard getting use to the fresh blacktop but it’s wonderful that we have a nice, new road.”
The two-mile Black Swan Trail, which encircles the Black Swan Pond that’s remnant of historic hydraulic mining operations, is located east of town off Mooney Flat Road.
Brian Bisnett purchased more than 900 acres in 2009 and set aside several hundred acres for the Black Swan Preserve.
“It’s been stressful, a challenge and has taken way longer than I ever imagined it would. But it has been the most rewarding, exciting project I’ve ever been associated with in my life,” Bisnett told The Union in 2012. “It’s nice to know that people will finally have access to it.”
Bear Yuba Land Trust, a private, non-profit, community-supported organization, helped with the creation of the Black Swan Preserve.
What the Smartsville Church needs
Kit Burton said many of the contractors who have come to the Smartsville Church to offer an estimate help the Smartsville Church Restoration Fund get a clearer picture of what’s needed to finish the project.
“It’s a major undertaking but we have the subfloor done thanks to some people from E Clampus Vitus,” he said. “We got estimates for painting the doors and had a nice meeting with Yuba County officials and they’re working with us on things like off street parking, restrooms and elements of the restoration that will need separate building permits.”
He said they got an estimate for a hardwood floor and will be looking into electrical and lighting estimates that will be as true as possible to the authentic look and feel of the original church.
“We need to make it look original but need lighting that’s suitable for meetings where people can write and read so we may need to get a lighting architect,” he said. “Ultimately, it could be a place where any kind of a public meeting could be held or it could be used for entrainment of a certain nature.”
Burton said they’re looking into restoring the windows as well as adding insulation to the walls to help with heating and cooling.
“We got a quote from somebody local about installing heating and air conditioning in the church,” he said. “We will not have any plumbing because it didn’t have any originally.”
He said one option is for an exterior bathroom that would be a vault type structure which could be routinely emptied.
“The Nevada Irrigation District ditch is close to the back of the building and there’s some seepage,” he said. “No damage has occurred to the building and it may have been seeping for more than 100 years. There’s some deterioration to the wood foundation near the back of the church, which was an unexpected discovery, so we will have to address that too.”
Burton said he got an estimate from a Romanian man from Sacramento who has worked on old church in the past to repair and restore the chancel arch over the church’s altar.
“Its a very attractive backdrop and was made with lathe and plaster and he’s going to repair the lath and plaster that’s broken,” he said. “It’s challenging because it’s a very curved configuration but will be painted light blue — like it is now.”
One of the final touches planned is to reinstall the first three rows of the original pews.
“As you approach the back of the building, there will be three rows of pews in the original position and all the interiors decorations,” he said. “A visitor would come in walk in and it would look very much like it would originally.”