Voices from the Past: Barbara Buckman Hansen

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Part One

Gem and Ray Buckman at Mineral King in 1944. (Photo courtesy of the Hansen Family Collection)

This is the first in a series of recollections based on historic letters sent from Mineral King's summer residents. This article is based on excerpts from a letter sent by Barbara Buckman Hansen to Louise Alice Jackson in the 1980s.

"Mineral King was a good life and a rough life and always an interesting life," Barbara Hansen concluded in a letter summarizing her memories of historic events in Mineral King.1 Her assessment probably echoed that of her of ancestors, who may have first visited the valley one hundred forty years ago.

Barbara Buckman Hansen (1921-2001) was a third-generation denizen of Mineral King. In 1864 her great grandparents migrated to Visalia, where they befriended families who were involved in the silver mining rush in Mineral King as early as 1874.2 By 1880, her grandfather and his brothers were ranch hands and miners in Kaweah and Mineral King.3 Her grandfather was at one time a teamster on the Mineral King Road, and he and his family were regular summer residents of the mountain valley. Barbara's parents, Chester Raymond "Ray" and Gem Vencill Buckman, also made Mineral King their summer home. In 1939 they purchased the resort at Mineral King.4 That year, Gem became the town's postmaster and held the position for twenty-two years.5

Along with her parents, Barbara spent almost all her summers in Mineral King, arriving as soon as the road was passable, and leaving only when storms threatened to trap them in the valley for the winter. Perhaps because of their extended stays, the Buckmans became fond of Mineral King's snowy landscape. Over time, this fondness became more tangible. "Ray and Gem Buckman had a dream," wrote Barbara.

"As early as 1933 I can remember talk of Mineral King being the greatest ski area in the [United States] one day," Barbara noted. Surprisingly, the inspiration for this discussion was the third Winter Olympic Games, which was held in New York in 1932. The Great Depression was well underway, and the event's organizers suffered substantial financial losses. Arguably, the event was not a success. Nevertheless it sparked dreams of a future Winter Olympics in Mineral King.6

A few years later, famed skier Otto Steiner purportedly discovered Mineral King on the first solo ski traverse of the Sierra Nevada. Steiner was the UCLA ski coach, and a passionate champion of the sport. He skied Mineral King repeatedly, and promoted its assets unreservedly.7 Other pioneers of the sport followed him, but for the most part, Mineral King's snowy slopes remained the realm of adventurers.

It was't until 1946 that the Buckmans' dreams of Winter Olympic Games in the valley seemed closer to reality. That year, Alf Engen, future coach of the United States Olympic Ski Team, visited Mineral King and stated that no alpine area was comparable.8 A ski survey of California and Nevada listed Mineral King as the best location in the two states.9 The California Ski Association formed a special Mineral King Committee, and numerous ski experts were invited to assess the valley's potential. Responses were enthusiastic, and some even identified a run for a future Olympic course. Over the next few years, experts conducted snow surveys. Local businesses, government organizations, and politicians entertained the feasibility of an all-season road to Mineral King. A ski area in Mineral King appeared to be only years away.4

Ray and Gem Buckman didn't wait, however. "The winter of 19[48-49] they kept the resort open all winter," wrote Barbara. They announced that their Mineral King Lodge could hold up to thirty-five winter guests. They hired a chef and arranged for ski instructors. For transportation, they rigged a sled to a DC 6 tractor. A bulldozer blade on the front kept the road level for more comfortable riding. The sled was able to transport only four people at a time, but unverified reports indicate that society notables such as Cortland Hill (wealthy grandson of railroad magnate James J. Hill) and George Hearst (William Randolph Hearst's oldest son) skied in Mineral King that year.10

Under the circumstances, it was no surprise when the Forest Service opened a bidding process the following autumn for individuals and firms interested in developing Mineral King as a ski resort. Despite the preceding years' enthusiasm, however, there was only one bid.11

Barbara remembered the Mineral King Resort falling into a state of disrepair in the following decade. This evidently wasn't due to disappointment, but rather the result of undiminished optimism: "the knowledge that Mineral King would be an all round resort at some time." The Buckmans weren't sure how to proceed in the interim. Should they "build for just summer or both summer and winter? And when would that time come?"

The time seemed to arrive in the early 1960s, when Walt Disney hinted his company's interest in Mineral King. Convinced that Disney would be able to make their dream a reality at last, the Buckmans sold their Mineral King property to Walt Disney Corporation.

On August 31,1965 Barbara and her father Ray were the first to greet Walt Disney when he disembarked the Disney jet in Porterville to announce his company's intent to submit an application to develop a year-round resort at Mineral King. They were bonded by a shared dream and, although they had not met before, Disney welcomed Ray as his old friend.

The dream didn't last.

Gem had passed away the month before Disney's visit. Ray passed away two months after Disney attended his last press conference in Mineral King in September 1966, and Walt Disney passed away a month later. The dream of a ski area lingered another decade, giving way to a new dream when Mineral King became a part of Sequoia National Park in 1978. Barbara's summer life in Mineral King continued, however. There, she passed down to the next generation the dream of preserving Mineral King and sharing its bounty with others. Along with the dream, she passed on the memories.  

"[My husband] Jack and I get a lump in our throats sometimes, and [other times] we laugh at the many things that happened through the years," she wrote. "We are always saying to each other 'remember'."


[Click on the images below to enlarge them.]


1. All quotes are from a letter dated November 11, sent by Barbarbara Buckman Hansen to Louise Alice Jackson in the 1980s.

2.Mineral King mining records indicate that the mother of the cousin of Barbara Buckmans grandfather owned a mine in Mineral King in 1874.

3. The 1880 Federal Census. (http://files.usgwarchives.net/ca/tulare/census/1880twnshp1.txt)

4. Jackson, Louise A. Mineral King: the Story of Beulah. Sequoia Natural History Association, 19888. P. 150.

5. Record of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832 - September 30, 1971, M841. (http://www.archives.gov/research/post-offices/postmasters-1832-1971.html)

6. Dyreson, Mark. "Marketing National Identity: The Olympic Games of 1932 and American Culture," Olympika, Volume IV, 1995. (http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/Olympika/Olympika_1995/olympika0401d.pdf)

7. Various book and magazine accounts indicate that Otto Steiner 'found' Mineral King on a solo ski trip from Giant Forest to Mt. Whitney, and back in 1930, 1933, 1934, 1935, or 1937. Steiner's support for a ski development spanned two decades, and he gave formal testimony on Mineral King's suitability as a ski area, as evidenced by the March 14, 1953 issue of the Fresno Bee.

8.The Bakersfield Californian April 15, 1948 edition includes the relevant quote. There is considerable material available on Alf Engen's support for Mineral King, including 1947-48 Mineral King correspondence in a collection donated by Steiner's son to NWDA. (http://nwda.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv49768)

9. Schneider, Hannes and Luggi Foeger. "Ski Area Survey of California and Parts of Nevada and Oregon." 1946. P. 5. This five-page report is available at collections.mineralking.org.

10. Joe Doctor in the June 7th, 1989 edition of the Exeter Sun, and  republished in the Foothills Sun-Gazette on August 17, 2011. (http://fsg.stparchive.com/Archive/FSG/FSG08172011p12.php)

11. U.S. Forest Service. "Prospectus for a Proposed Resort and Ski Development at Mineral King, in the Sequoia National Forest, California." 1949. The prospectus is available at collections.mineralking.org.


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