One of the grandest buildings in California gold country is the town hall in Copperopolis. The three-story brick-veneer building is festooned with columns, balconies, and a clock tower. However, it never actually served as a town hall. Built in 2008 to anchor a $53 million faux-historic town center, it is part of a developer’s vision of a massive new community. Here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the unsettling dissonance between a generic simulacrum and the actual past raises a question for small communities throughout the West: Is history just fancy window dressing for the next growth opportunity?

“I want the new town square to thrive, but it sucks that they didn’t try to incorporate actual history—it looks like a movie set,” says Michele Schummer, a sixth-generation descendant of one of Copperopolis’s founders, Thomas McCarty. Schummer was raised here and recently moved back. Today she lives in a house just a short walk from her ancestor’s grave in the Copperopolis Cemetery.

Situated about two hours east of San Francisco, this Disneyesque version of a boomtown sits oddly by itself in a field along Highway 4. Each building is designed to look like a bunch of separate storefronts in different architectural styles, with touches to suggest that they’ve aged over time, like a bricked-over window and a coat of plaster that appears to be weathering off a stone wall. Meanwhile, a mile away lie the original one-strip mining town’s buildings, forlorn but authentic. In addition to piles of mine tailings, there are a handful of structures from Copperopolis’s halcyon days, including a redbrick Gothic revival church. Down the street, in a neglected park, yellowing pages thumbtacked to a display board recount how McCarty discovered copper here in 1860 as he dug his wagon out of the muddy road. The Civil War created a huge demand for the metal, used in bullet shells; Copperopolis grew to more than 10,000 people and 90 businesses. Its fortunes subsequently waxed and waned with the world wars. In the 1970s and ’80s, asbestos mining was a major industry.

In the meantime, Copper—in local shorthand—also became a boating resort for retirees and second-home owners. In 1957, the creation of a reservoir, Lake Tulloch, had transformed the pastures several miles southeast of town into lakefront. New homes were built with little government oversight, and developers bought up immense parcels of ranchland for subdivisions. Later, during the golf course craze of the ’90s, a gated, 900-acre development with an 18-hole course went in. From 1990 to 2010, the population nearly tripled, from 1,281 to 3,671.

The potential market for luxury homes attracted Los Angeles–based developer Castle & Cooke, which had converted its struggling pineapple plantations on the Hawaiian island of Lanai into resorts. It purchased the golf course development and another, 4,000-acre property with lake access. It also started work on the nascent town square, a retail and commercial center to serve the area’s new residents.

The square displaced nearly a thousand olive trees, a recent addition to the local agricultural economy (in the past few decades, the nearby town of Murphys has reinvented itself as a wine-tasting destination). They had been planted about 25 years ago—around the time the golf course was built—by Ed Rich, a former real estate broker from Oakland. His orchard produced one of the first artisanal olive oils in California.

“Values skyrocket, and then they tank,” says Rich, who continues to operate Calaveras Olive Oil Company, the one remaining store on the old Main Street, but with olives grown elsewhere in the state.

Resident Michele Schummer, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas McCarty, one of the town’s founders, at the front gates of the Copperopolis Cemetery.
Christie Hemm Klok

However, Castle & Cooke’s sweeping ambitions—and those of other developers here—stalled out more than a decade ago for a variety of reasons. The Great Recession certainly had an impact, but the county was also struggling with a woefully outdated general plan for its growth and rejected some projects in favor of keeping the land as pasture.

“Because of how fast things are going now, we need the community to rally behind their [own] vision of the future,” says Amanda Folendorf, the newly elected Calaveras County supervisor for the district that includes Copperopolis, which is an unincorporated area. “Dollar signs can’t be the bottom line—the developers need to invest in what the community cares about.”

A couple of years ago, new developers picked up where Castle & Cooke left off, scaling back the housing plans while putting energy into making Copperopolis a base for exploring gold country. The town square has resounded with construction noise as a 29-room hotel is built on the ground floor of the town hall. Folendorf supports a local community plan for Copperopolis, and the current draft includes a policy recommendation that reads, “New commercial development should first consider locating in or adjacent to the existing Historic Old Town.”

For now, Copperopolis feels like a bunch of disparate elements, with glaring disparities in wealth between the new and the old. The original town’s “Main Street used to seem open and friendly, and now there’s just dirt and storage lots,” says Schummer.

On a September afternoon, Tony Barnes and his family watched the last of their belongings emerge from a moving van. Barnes’s job had gone remote during the pandemic, and the family had decided to move from Orange County to Copperopolis, where their new home is twice as big as their old house but cost $100,000 less. The residence backs up to a golf course, a surreal green oasis amid the golden hills, and is near a lake. “This is God’s country,” Barnes says.

But as a former official was known to say, “if you’ve spent a summer in Copperopolis, you’re not afraid of hell.”

“It’s a roasting foothills environment during much of the summer season,” affirms John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. Temperatures reached 112 during a recent heat wave, and much of the area, if not Copperopolis proper, is in a very high fire hazard zone.

“It makes no sense at all to build in the wildland-urban interface, and we should disincentivize it with carrots and sticks,” says Karen Chapple, a professor and the chair of the City and Regional Planning Department at UC Berkeley.

After all, even the best-laid plans have to contend with unforeseen disasters. In 1867, most of the town’s 60 buildings burned in a fire that started in the old Copperopolis Hotel. They were never rebuilt.

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.