Since the deadly Camp Fire broke out in northern California’s Butte County, the destructive wildfire has decimated some 150,000 acres of land, killing at least 77 and leaving approximately 1,000 on the missing person list. As the inferno continues to chart its path of destruction (according to the state’s forestry and fire production agency, it likely won’t be fully contained until November 30), residents of the razed town of Paradise are beginning to face the unprecedented scale of their loss. Nearly 10,000 homes are gone. Businesses ranging from McDonald’s to Safeway, a gas station and a newly remodeled Jack in the Box have been reduced to ashes. And, as the Associated Press’ Martha Mendoza reports, the Gold Nugget Museum—a beloved local institution founded in 1973 to provide a year-round glimpse into the town’s prospecting past—was included in the count of institutions felled by the flames.
The museum served as a powerful symbol of small-town pride. As Evan Nicole Brown reports for Atlas Obscura, the Golden Nugget was locally funded and volunteer-run. It delivered insights into life in 19th-century California through a replica blacksmith shop, miner’s cabin and schoolhouse. The museum also held a collection of artifacts related to the region’s indigenous Maidu community. Its official mission was “to preserve and protect the Ridge heritage through the collection and display of local artifacts, and with community education programs.”
Special events and programs held at the site brought members of the 27,000-strong Paradise community together in celebration of the area’s past; according to the museum’s website, a “Pioneer School Program” found students cooking in a cauldron over an open fire, creating corn husk dolls, weaving cloth on a homemade loom and learning how to pan gold.
Just a few months ago, Paradise’s 25th-annual Days of Living History initiative transported the museum grounds back in time to the so-called “good old days” between the 1850s and 1950s. As Amanda Hovik of the local Paradise Post reports, historical reenactors clad in period costume taught families old-fashioned activities such as candle dipping and rope making. Melvin “Sam” Dresser and his wife Joan, two founders of the museum, demonstrated how to use apple polishers, peelers and crushers.
Paradise traces its Gold Rush roots to the 1859 discovery of a 54-pound nugget in the town of Magalia, which was then known as Dogtown. As Mendoza notes for the AP, the town commemorates the find with an annual series of “Gold Nugget Days” featuring a parade filled with homemade floats, a “Miss Gold Nugget Pageant” and even a “Donkey Derby” that finds locals reenacting the arduous task of transporting the eponymous hunk of gold. The museum, which was officially founded during the 1973 iteration of Paradise’s Gold Nugget Days, also hosts special events marking the occasion.
Michelle Rader, a museum board member, told the Los Angeles Times’ Maria Laganga that she attended a local vigil in order to pay her respects to friends and colleagues who have lost their homes, as well as her own lost workplace.
One of the museum’s docents, John Sedwick, died in the fire. He was “an amazing storyteller and historian,” Radar told Laganga, and had grown up in the neighborhood of Old Magalia.
Although the Gold Nugget Museum—like the majority of the town—has been ravaged by the fire, there’s hope that the annual celebrations that gave the museum its name will live on. “My daughter’s going out for the Gold Nugget Queen this year,” Krystin Harvey said in an interview with the AP.
Mayor Jody Jones tells Paradise Post’s Julia Sulek that there’s much to salvage in Paradise. Ponderosa Elementary School burned down—but Paradise High survived. The museum is gone, but the library remains. The town hall and police department are still standing, and parts of the local hospital can be saved.
“So many have said, well, there’s nothing left of Paradise,” she says, “[but] there’s really a core to build on.”