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Old Skinflint Left a Legacy Standing Tall in the Peppers

July 26, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

TUTTLE, Calif. — A 68-foot obelisk rising out of fields of tomatoes and bell peppers on a huge farm in this Central California hamlet is a mystery to hundreds of motorists who pass it every day.

The granite shaft stands on a massive concrete base containing 13 steps on each of four sides. Carved in the side of the obelisk are two decorative scrolls and the inscription: "George Hicks Fancher. Born New York State February 9, 1828. Died in California March 30, 1900."

Who was Fancher? Is he buried under the obelisk? Why is a monument out there in the middle of the tomatoes and bell peppers?

To get the answers to these questions and more, motorists on their way to and from Yosemite National Park on California 140 often turn to Janice Brooklin. Brooklin, 53, who runsJan's Market, a country store across the highway, has lived in this community (population 20) east of Merced all of her life. Her mother, Jennie Earl, who died last year at age 99, knew Fancher.

This is what Brooklin says about the mystery monument:

"Mr. Fancher was a wealthy banker and farmer who owned all the land for miles around. Mom told us that when Mr. Fancher died all kinds of stuff he valued as part of his life was buried with him under his monument, like the limbs of fruit trees, books and his favorite furniture."

Catherine Julien, 38, historian and director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, maintains a file of old newspaper clippings reporting Fancher's death and the 10-year court battle over the $25,000 he left for "proper interment of my remains in a suitable monument."

"George Hicks Fancher was not a big spender during his lifetime," noted Julien. "He had a reputation of being a skinflint who scrounged away his money and spent little on himself. The obelisk is his monument to himself."

Fancher had come to California from upstate New York in 1850 to prospect for gold. He was a gold miner for six years, farmed in Stockton for 13 years, then moved to Merced in 1869, where he amassed a fortune as a farmer and banker.

Never married, Fancher left an estate valued at $608,000 when he died at age 72. Except for the money for his memorial, he left it all to 17 heirs--brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces.

After Fancher's death, a local schoolteacher, Robert Gracey, filed suit to stop erection of the monument and calling for using the $25,000 instead to build a public library in Merced. The teacher saw a library as a more fitting tribute to the pioneer.

But Fancher's heirs said no--the money had to be used to build the monument he requested.

It took 10 years and two trips to the appellate courts before the heirs were finally granted permission to build the obelisk. When completed in 1911, Fancher's fanciful legacy was reportedly the largest tomb for an individual in California.

Fancher established a $1,000 trust in his will, the earnings of which were to be used for the care and maintenance of the monument.

The remaining descendants of Fancher's brothers and sisters have no interest in maintaining it, so the task of administering the trust fund has fallen to an attorney in San Jose, Robert Loehr, 40, who took over the job from an attorney friend who died.

No Takers

Loehr would just as soon do without the honor. He would like to present the trust to an individual or group in Merced County to take care of the tomb. So far he has no takers.

"The earnings from the $1,000 trust fund are only enough to pay the annual property taxesfor the acre on which the monument stands," explained the attorney.

"A historical society in Merced County or some similar group would be ideal to take it over. But no one has come forward. Everyone is concerned about liability and maintenance. There is no insurance. The trust is so small it cannot afford it. The whole matter is a bit bizarre," he admitted.

Too Many Concerns

Historian Julien said the Merced County Courthouse Museum would be pleased to be caretakers of the Fancher monument. But concerns about the cost and liability prevent that.

"It's wonderful. I love it. I only wish we could do it," sighed Julien.

"The monument is a big mystery to most people. We get calls all the time asking what it means. It would be nice if there was a plaque on it explaining who Fancher was and that he left a big chunk of money to build the monument to himself."

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