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Six Volumes : Tiny County Has History Covering All

December 29, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — Just about everything that has happened in tiny Sierra County in Northern California since its discovery in 1849 is recorded in James J. Sinnott's six-volume history.

If you ever lived in the sparsely populated, isolated, mountainous county, chances are you are mentioned in Sinnott's historical series, which probably is the most comprehensive history of any California county.

Sinnott covers school activities, plays, sports, graduations, holiday celebrations, grand balls, birthday parties, births, weddings and deaths in a county that is still so rural that it has no stoplights, no condominiums and only a three-mile sliver of an interstate (80 in the southeast corner).

"I have included all aspects of life--founding of towns, building of roads and bridges, routine and unusual events, churches, lodges, crimes, accidents, great fires, floods, the whole works," the 78-year-old historian said.

The material comes from more than 5,000 issues of newspapers published in the county, from interviews with members of 200 pioneer families and from hours spent searching local archives, the State Library in Sacramento, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Huntington Library in San Marino.

During the Gold Rush, when 11,540 people lived in Sierra County, $300 million worth of gold, based on a price of $20.67 an ounce, was produced in the county, Sinnott said. Mining as a dominant industry came to an end about 1920. Lumbering and recreation are now the county's biggest industries.

Sinnott has lived his entire life in the house in Downieville where he was born. Sierra County, which has 3,300 residents, is the second smallest county in terms of population in California. Downieville (population 365) is the county seat. The house has been in his family since 1864, when it was purchased by his great-uncle. Until his retirement in 1964, Sinnott was a teacher, school principal and, for six years, county superintendent of schools.

"When I retired I did a lot of thinking about something that was lacking in our county, a history," Sinnott said. "In 1967 I began my research."

The books, published by Mid-Cal in Fresno, began to appear in 1972, with the last completed in 1978 but updated several times since. More than 11,300 copies have been sold, Sinnott said.

Besides writing history, Sinnott handcrafts replicas of 1714 Stradivarius violins that he sells for $250 to $400 each.

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