A Noose and a Scoop

Placerville California Hangman's Tree True West Magazine
A bird’s-eye view of Placerville, California, in 1888, forty years after the El Dorado County gold mining camp began humbly as Dry Diggin’s in 1848 and then renamed Hangtown in 1849 after three men were hanged from an oak tree along Main Street. Renamed Placerville in 1854, the historic mining town is just eight miles from Coloma and the gold discovery site at Sutter’s Mill.
— Courtesy Library of Congress —

A hanging tree. A blacksmith’s shop. A gold field. A Studebaker. An ice cream saloon.

This story was almost lost forever. It would have been if the town of Placerville, California—once known as “Hangtown”—had issued its threatened demolition permit on an 1856 building that was falling apart. Would have been if the town’s historical society hadn’t considered a lawsuit while begging for a different result. Would have been if Tim and Sue Taylor had given a different answer to the mortgage holders demand, “You buy it, you fix it.”

Thanks to all those things falling into place, it can now be told that a large oak tree used to hang three men here in 1849 was cut down in 1853 because blacksmith John Studebaker needed the wood for wheelbarrows and pick handles to supply the Gold Bug Mine—making such a fortune he and his brother back in Indiana created a wagon (and later a car) carrying their name—while the hanging site made way for a building that served as a saloon for 113 years until it sat vacant and deteriorating before being saved and redone into an ice cream saloon.

Now, that’s a story worth telling.

Tim Taylor loves telling the strange history of his new obsession, saying he now knows that anybody who gets into this restoration business has to have “lot of money and lots of love.”

“With an old building, you fix one thing and find three more things that need fixing.”

He and his wife bought the old building in 2013 and spent four years renovating it. “The floor sloped seven inches, so of course the walls and ceiling went with it,” Taylor reports. “We stripped the inside down to the joists.” The Hangman’s Tree Ice Cream Saloon opened in January of 2017—20 flavors, featuring Cascade Glacier ice cream made in Eugene, Oregon.

A large mural painted in 1945, depicting Hangtown of the 1850s, was carefully saved and is a highlight of the visual treats the ice cream saloon also offers. Other walls are filled with historical photos, as well as one of the picks John Studebaker made from the hanging oak tree. Studebaker, by the way, came back to town in 1915 to write his memoir, arriving in a brand new Studebaker.

Jana Bommersbach has earned recognition as Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She cowrote the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.

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