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In Gold Rush country, golden years lose their luster

For seniors who arrived in the Sierra Nevada foothills with retirement plans and enough money to buy homes, a dreary economy has turned everything upside-down. Now many are scraping by on a fixed income, a tough task in a place so isolated.

January 04, 2012|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • When Kate Hamon retired to Amador County over a decade ago, she felt she had it all. Now, at 78, she has had to unload one of her houses in a short sale and sell her treasured furniture. Unable to meet her monthly expenses, she is desperately seeking a job.
When Kate Hamon retired to Amador County over a decade ago, she felt she had… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Reporting from the Sierra Nevada foothills -- It was a dream to retire here — in a quaint little town atop a hillside, among the pines and the quail and the Main Street shops. When Kate Hamon arrived more than a decade ago, she had it all.

Now she is on the phone with Kmart, hustling to get a job.

"Please, please keep me in mind," she tells the manager. "I can start any time you like."

Work is hard to find around these parts, especially when you're 78 years old.

PHOTOS: Lean times in Gold Rush country

For many retirees such as Hamon who came to spend their golden years in California's Gold Rush region, life has not turned out the way they'd hoped. Prospectors once came chasing riches; seniors arrived with retirement plans and enough money to buy homes. But a dreary economy turned everything upside-down. Now many scrape by on a fixed income, a tough thing to do in a place so isolated.

Across Amador, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, seniors make up 20% of the population, twice the state average. About 1 in 3 gets by on less than $20,000 a year.

They count on churches, senior centers and outreach groups for the most basic needs: food, heat and rent.

At the Interfaith Food Bank of Amador County, 600 retirees collected food this year, double the amount of 2007.

"Seniors who once used to donate are now standing in line," said director Kathleen Harmon.

In Tuolumne County, food bank workers are finding more people 60 and older living in trailers on private land or in the woods. Some are forced to move every few weeks.

Hamon, a great-grandmother of 11, knows others have it far worse. She's a proud woman, an Army veteran, trying to avoid public assistance.

The retired purchasing agent moved from San Jose to Amador County in 1997. She bought two homes, one for herself and one to rent. She also invested money and opened a gift shop in the cozy town of Jackson, next door to the busy deli.

But about three years ago, her homes went underwater, the investment turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and business was so slow that she had to close her shop.

Now she has to somehow survive on her Social Security check of $800 a month.

"I figured I had it all set up," Hamon says. "I'd be OK for the rest of my life."


Gold can still be found in the foothills. In Jamestown, tourists pay $5 to try their luck at unearthing flakes and nuggets. They come from all over to camp, golf, antique-shop and, in the summer, ride the steam train west to the old Rock Quarry.

Just up the road from Main Street, with its wooden Victorian-style buildings, Lee Kimball serves more than 9,000 people at the local food bank, the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency.

On a recent weekday, morning temperatures dipped into the 30s as several hundred people lined up outside the building for the bimonthly food giveaway — many of them with white hair and backs hunched over from old age.

Many had once vacationed in these mountains, with their parents and, later, their children. They skied and hiked and encountered their first deer, first mountain lion. They fell in love with the area.

They left behind fast-paced San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento to live their retirement years in towns often too tiny and secluded for even the postal carrier. Roads are gravel, water is pumped from wells and heaters are powered by propane.

For years, real estate agent Jo Ann Stump helped retirees find perfect cabin-like homes — tucked along winding roads, near riverbeds and mountaintops.

"They often invested everything in their house," Stump said. "It was their nest egg."

Many seniors enjoyed the lifestyle — until a partner died or they became ill or grew restless, tired of icy winters and long drives to the doctor. They sold their home and moved away.

Now, more and more have no choice but to stay put.

"They can't sell and they struggle to make monthly payments," Stump said. "They feel very stuck, trapped in a dream."

Gerri Conway resisted the move to Calaveras County. But her husband, Steve, fell in love with nine sweeping acres in a place called Mokelumne Hill. It reminded him of his childhood home in Atascadero.

He built their retreat atop a hill in 1995: a wooden ranch-style house with vaulted ceilings, a wrap-around deck and big picture windows so they could enjoy the countryside from every room. He bought a tractor and tended to pigeons, roosters, emus and horses.

"It was a constant circus," Conway, 67, remembers. "He'd sit out back for hours and look out at the trees. That's where he was most at peace."

In 2006, shortly after he began to build a barn-like workshop on the land, Steve died of a heart attack. He was 60.

After his death, Conway was left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The home also lost half its value.

The couple used to make good money negotiating union contracts for public employees, but now Conway can hardly keep up. She's $30,000 behind on property taxes and in danger of losing the house.

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