Snelling Courthouse effort gains new life

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 24, 2012 

— The paint is chipping, cracks sprawl across its decaying walls and the boards are separating from the building.

Yet the Snelling Courthouse, built in 1857, continues to stand tall and proud against the backdrop of a quaint town with deep historical roots.

The last 155 years of harsh elements -- heat, rain, wind and time -- have not been kind to the courthouse, which was once the heart of a hustling and bustling mining town known as Snelling.

"The Snelling community is a unique place in Merced County," said District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. "It's part of the Gold Rush movement and it's basically the cradle of Merced County."

The building once used as a jail, courthouse, sheriff's office and Wells Fargo vault with three steel doors through which to pass gold had reached a critical point.

The top floor of the 1,500-square-foot building was leaning to the east and was no longer structurally sound. Kelsey and a team of volunteers sprang into action with a major renovation project nearly eight years ago.

The Merced County Public Works Department estimated that it would cost $750,000 to restore the building.

Partnering with the county and using funds from donations, the volunteers raised almost $35,000, which they used to make the building structurally sound. Among other things, they put on a new roof, anchored the top floor and installed a new wall, window and electric panel.

After completing nearly 70 percent of the renovations, the project came to a stop in 2006 because many of the volunteers were preoccupied with other things.

Gordon Gray, 63, a retired Merced Department of Public Works manager, was involved in the project from day one and decided it was time to revitalize the effort. "I made a decision it was time to do some work before winter came," he said.

Rolling up his sleeves, he and the team of volunteers began by clearing out the mess left behind from 1,500 bats that occupied the upper level of the courthouse.

Gray said the main work is completed, which he hopes will attract interest from more volunteers and possibly some funding from grants. He said the upstairs needs the most work, including flooring and trimming the windows and doors. The exterior of the building also needs to be cleaned, scraped and painted -- which can cost up to $15,000.

"I think it's rewarding to see it come back to life and be used to its full potential," Gray said, who's lived in Snelling for 40 years. "Without the changes, the building would have died."

The ultimate goal is to open the courthouse to the public as a museum, displaying historical artifacts. Remnants from the building's past still remain, including prisoners' cots and steel chains from the jail cells.

"It's important for people to know where they come from," Kelsey said. "It would provide an opportunity for the public to view that history and it's a place for education and to showcase artifacts."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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