In August, 1959, the Sacramento Bee published the following story about Jessie Thornton, the last of pioneer Arthur Thornton’s family, who was then 80 years old and still maintaining the Thornton Hotel.
San Joaquin County - It is unusual to find an octogenarian tending bar, particularly when that bartender happens to be an 80 year old woman.
Jessie Thornton takes her occupation in stride, just as she does all the other duties in running a 14 room hotel. Her 80 years rest lightly on her shoulders, and she considers her present work merely one of the interesting facets in a life made up of exciting incidents. These have ranged from doing her share in fighting floods along the Mokelumne River to taking voice lessons in Italy.
Miss Thornton says she is the last of the Thorntons, a family of early settlers in the region. The town, originally called New Hope, was renamed for her father, Arthur Thornton, who came to the area from Scotland in 1865 and operated the general store, post office and Wells Fargo office. In addition, he owned and managed large farming acreages. A farm of 5,000 acres was just average sized in her father’s time.
The hotel, with its vine covered porches, originally was the family home, built by her mother and father in 1871, in which they raised their five daughters.
“Those five girls were a bitter disappointment to our Chinese cook”, Miss Thornton relates. “When the last girl arrived, he said, ‘Oh, no, not another girl!’ and went out on a two week drunk.”
Miss Thornton recalls a girlhood filled with memories of winter floods, when they were surrounded by water from the Mokelumne and Cosumnes Rivers.
“Thornton is on higher ground, and never flooded”, she said. “The folks on lower ground would come from miles around, and would bring their cattle, horses, and possessions. Our big house would be full, and there would be people camping all around us in tents and makeshift shelters waiting for the water to go down. We always had to keep plenty of supplies on hand, because when those floods came, we were completely shut off in all directions.”
“I remember on one occasion my father got in his rowboat and rowed all the way to the back door of the Walnut Grove Hotel, eight miles away.”
During these flood-filled sessions, each member of the family was assigned specific duties by her father.
“My sister and I had the job of getting up at midnight, putting up lunches, hitching up the horses and taking the food to the men out sandbagging the levees.”
“It didn’t do us a bit of good to be afraid,” she said, “we had to do it anyway.”
Her father built the first road between Thornton and Walnut Grove over a tulle filled-marshland. His unit of measurement was to have his daughters drive over the area, with a rag tied to the buggy wheel so that he could gauge the distance.
Miss Thornton can remember the first levee building operations, when the work was done by Chinese laborers with shovels and wheelbarrows.
Her own personal experiences included years of voice study in Milan, Italy, after which she conducted a studio in Sacramento. She has lived in San Francisco and other communities, but always returned to Thornton as home base.
“It’s a hard town to leave”, she says. “It has such a nice climate and the people are so friendly.”
The Galt Area Historical Society offers a book of our local history called Tapestry. Click here for more information.
Last edited 27 February, 2005
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