Housing project hopes to reveal remnants of Visalia’s first structure

Ground penetrating radar being used to find remnants of original Fort Visalia settlement at Oak and Garden streets before work begins to build a new affordable housing project inspired by the historic site

VISALIA – A historic-inspired project will soon break ground to build an 81-unit affordable housing complex at the old lumberyard at the corner of Oak Avenue and Garden Street in downtown where local historians believe the original settlement of Visalia, Fort Visalia, once stood.

But before they start demolishing buildings, trenching to relocate utilities and raising and leveling the land for the new project, known as The Lofts at Fort Visalia, nonprofit developer Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) is partnering with Visalia Heritage, who brought ground penetrating radar (GPR) detection equipment to the site on Oct. 12 in an effort to definitively determine if there is any evidence of the fort’s location, which was built in 1852 and torn down in 1855. The results of the study will not be know for several days.

“Most towns don’t know where their town started, but we do,” local historian Terry Ommen said. “Visalia is the oldest town in the Valley between L.A. and Stockton. What an amazing opportunity to bring in this state-of-the-art equipment to see what evidence we can find.”

The GPR equipment runs over the landscape in back-and-forth grids to detect what is underground. The radar shows shapes and straight lines and earth displacement, but exactly what these things are can be open to interpretation.

The split oak tree logs used to build the fort were probably reused once the fort was abandoned to build other structures, according to Ommen, who doesn’t expect to find the fort walls. But a deep trench had to be dug to place the upright logs into when the fort was built. So the difference in dirt types and layers may show up. Ommen is hoping to find the 60-by-60-foot trench footprint of the fort along with other possible remnants.

“There were probably dances, maybe weddings held inside the fort,” said Ommen. “Plus blacksmith and farming equipment. There must have been ash pits. There’s a possibility that someone was buried in there. There were no cemeteries in Visalia until later.”

Foundation of the city

A group led by the Matthew brothers decided to start their town in the lush oak forest with rich delta farmland that became Visalia in 1852. They started by building a fort where people could be safe at night. Nathaniel Vise, for whom the town was named, lived there. They soon found out that there were no hostile Native Americans in the area, and Ommen speculates that the fort was abandoned about three years later.

The land probably lay vacant for awhile afterwards. Ommen has used Sanford maps, which showed where structures were located back then for insurance purposes. They were first produced in 1885.

“The first time a Sanford map shows a building on the site is 1898,” he said.

The next known structure on the site was when William Spalding built a lumber yard there in the early 1900s. He built his first lumber yard on Main Street, and then expanded to the current location after that.

Spalding’s was there for over four decades. Eventually Copeland’s Lumber took over the site in the 1960s and sold it to Keith Brown Building Materials in 2000. In 2010, the city of Visalia bought the site with the idea of redevelopment. For the last four years, they have leased it to the Arts Consortium, Tulare County’s arts council.

Right after the Arts Consortium’s annual Taste the Arts event on Oct. 16, Self-Help will take possession to start the new building project. The Lofts will also house the Arts Consortium and have four artist lofts for artists to live and work.

Self-Help and their architect are working with Visalia Heritage to have some kind of representation of the fort in the building along with an historical marker.

“Visalia is such an amazing town with so much interesting history,” said Michael Kreps, president of Visalia Heritage. “To find the exact location of the fort and represent it on our historical walking tour would be so incredible.”

The Arts Consortium’s video class is working on a video of the fort/lumberyard site to document its history and Arts Consortium events that have been held there. In talking to former Copeland Lumber employees, they have learned that bottles and a porcelain doll’s head were discovered underground when they dug to add structures to the lumberyard.

These items were probably left long after the fort, but GPR equipment can detect artifacts at different levels.

However, the focus of the site GPR survey is to find the fort footprint. Local historians will be holding their breath to see what is found.

Artistic changes

The Arts Consortium has occupied the site for the last four years after the city bought the old lumberyard in 2010. The organization’s annual Taste the Arts festival on Saturday, Oct. 16 will be the last event held at the site before it is razed to make way for the housing project.

When the Arts Consortium decided to host a big regional arts festival 11 years ago, they named it Taste the Arts (not Taste of the Arts as many people mistakenly call it). The name was chosen to represent the wide variety of crops grown in the Valley as well as to highlight the high level of multi-cultural arts created here.

Taste the Arts offers a full day of free activities for the community. What started out as seven art booths in Garden Street Plaza the first year now incorporates over 100 artist booths, three entertainment stages, live art demonstrations, food trucks and interactive activities all along Garden Street from Garden Street Plaza to the Old Lumberyard.

Artists will show paintings, sculptures, steel work, photographs, gourds, and jewelry. Entertainment on three stages will feature rock, Latin, reggae and dance bands; youth dance groups and deejays. Interactive activities include: an instrument petting zoo by Grace Note Music where children can try out instruments; COS Printworks printing wood block prints for guests; the farmers’ market is doing a fun with food sculpture challenge; blacksmith demos by Clint Wood; children’s art sessions; The Creative Center is showing ceramic projects; screening of movie trailers by local filmmakers; the Urbanists are painting a giant graffiti mural; and the Enchanted Playhouse is performing interactive children’s plays.

Right after Taste the Arts, the Arts Consortium will relocate to 808 N. Court St. at Lincoln Oval Park and will be there until the low-income housing is completed.

The three-story housing complex, called “The Lofts at Fort Visalia, will feature one-and two-bedroom apartments. It will also house the Arts Consortium and its mental health arts program, My Voice Media.

In addition, it will have four artist lofts where artists can live and create their art, opening up their studios during arts events, such as the Downtown First Friday Art Walk.

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