It was a celebration worth coming home for.
The grand reopening of the Mariposa Pizza Factory this weekend brought many former residents back to their hometown.
By midmorning a small crowd gathered as the Mariposa County High School Grizzly Band performed alongside the new building.
Saturday was the one-year anniversary of the Fifth Street fire that destroyed the building that housed the Pizza Factory and several businesses, leaving an entire community in shock.
Pizza Factory is owned by father and son, Ron and Luke Willey. On the phone last week, Ron Willey stressed how grateful he is to all who helped in the rebuilding process.
He said everyone involved in the project went to great lengths to remake the Pizza Factory just like it used to be.
"Realistically, it could have taken one and a half to two years. Alpine Builders did a spectacular job," Ron said.
MarLee Beaudoin held her little boy as she waited outside the building Saturday.
"I had tears in my eyes driving into town today," MarLee said. She had worked at Pizza Factory after graduating from high school.
College student and former Grizzly Band member Katie Sheetz arrived in Mariposa about 3 a.m. Saturday from California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, just for the reopening.
Her mom, Linda Sheetz, said, "Pizza Factory gives so much to the community. We wanted to be here."
Alex Crespi's two older kids are band members. Raising his family in Mariposa, he said, Pizza Factory has been a big part of their lives because it's such an integral part of the community.
At 11 a.m., Luke Willey came out from the side door, stepped over to the front entrance of the Pizza Factory and said simply, "Thank you all for coming."
The crowd applauded.
After the ribbon-cutting, he opened the door.
This time applause was accompanied by cheers.
As people made their way toward the counter, Luke's wife, Brandi Willey, offered menus to those waiting in line, smiling as she greeted them.
Four flat-screen televisions broadcasted sports and news. Team pennants formed a garland across the north wall, and the familiar tables and benches crafted to match those lost in the fire waited for their first customers in the dining area.
Most of the woodwork inside was designed and constructed by local artisan Sal Maccarone. The craftsmanship speaks not only of Maccarone's skill, but of the close friendship he shares with the Willeys.
"Uncanny how it looks the same," Crespi said after walking around inside.
Granite countertops and tile floors add to the familiar gold and green interior, the colors of the Grizzlies. A large high school Hall of Fame sign hangs on the south wall surrounded by photos of past teams.
Pizza Factory is one of Mariposa's biggest supporters of youth events and local sports.
Waiting outside Dianna Stockwell remarked, "It's amazing how a business can be the heart of a community.
"We couldn't go to Pizza Factory for birthdays or after ballgames," she said describing the impact of the fire on residents. "People felt lost without it."
In the short hallway leading from the dining area to the game room, two walls contain old bricks and an iron door from the original building. Discovered during the excavation, these items were cleaned up to become part of the new structure.
Amid the familiarity, though, there are reminders of the disaster that occurred: photos of the fire, news clippings, found artifacts and a lone dollar bill with edges burnt.
One letter has a prominent place on the wall. Written last year offering sympathy and support, it was signed by area business owners and given to the Willey family shortly after the fire.
Almost an hour after opening, the line continued to stretch beyond the front entrance. As the crew worked hard filling orders, Ron Willey stood behind the counter, tossing his popular pizza dough.
Finally this story has a happy ending.
Although a devastating fire caused a rift in the fabric of this small town, it would not be permanent. Like a family previously separated by circumstances beyond its control, this establishment has once again opened its arms, beckoning one and all to join the reunion.
Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.