Placerville, California would seem to be an unlikely location for a university, much less a large institution that would belong to the Pacific-8 (now 12) conference in athletics. Which is pretty much exactly why it was such a great initial setting for A COACH AT HEART.
Writing is both art and entertainment, and I wanted the reader to enjoy some humor outside George Steele dealing with the impact of his father’s misdeeds and the intensity of the football. Inserting a major university into a small foothills town — population nearly 10,400 in 2010 — was just the ticket.
Placerville was probably half the size during the late 1960s and 1970s, the time period for A COACH AT HEART. It was an era of transition for a community not unused to changing character. The town’s major history starts with the Gold Rush. Sutter’s Mill, where James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848, sits up the road about 20 minutes, and Placerville became a center of commerce and banking for the region. But over the years, as the Gold Rush dissipated, it became a center for logging. When that industry began to fade, the hillsides around the historic center of town were mined for pears, and as mentioned in the story, the city boasted the world’s largest pear-packing plant.
It was during those years that Placerville, as described to me by some longtime residents, became quintessential small town Americana, with a long main street of mom-and-pops, homes surrounding the central village and a culture where everyone knew each other. As in so many small towns around the U.S., high school football was the dominant feature in the fall, and El Dorado County High was the preeminent team in the region. When the community wasn’t watching the Cougars, they came together for dances. Everyone participated. Extra spice was added by Italian immigrants who settled in the area. And George’s concerns about getting drafted during the Vietnam War were valid. Many of the area’s youth joined the military out of high school and, sadly, some failed to come home.
Here’s how weird connections can be made. I’d never heard of the place until I started playing around with the Microsoft Flight Simulator computer program in the early 1990s. Being a Californian, I would “fly” around the Golden State a lot and noticed that a navigational waypoint east of Sacramento was called “Hangtown.” That would certainly get your attention. When I investigated, I learned that Hangtown was Placerville’s nickname, so bestowed because it was in the center of the historic village where thieves met their fate.
So when I was writing A COACH AT HEART, I looked for an unusual location for a fictional university, and Placerville and its historical background fit the bill. My original manuscript began with a very young George attending the University of Oklahoma loss to Notre Dame that ended the Sooners’ 47-game winning streak, and his noticing the impact of the setback on his father and his friends. One of the jobs of a writer is to not only write a compelling story, but then go back and polish it and shape it. In doing so, it became clear to me that George’s childhood with his move to Placerville and discovering that Gold Country was green half the year and his father getting sick and the university being founded to serve GI Bill soldiers — blah, blah, you get the point — was just so much of what writers call “back story.” It gets in the way of the actual plot. So I cut it out, though I do think I might upload it here to the website sometime soon.
The somewhat fictionalized Placerville has the historic center of town and a newer area to the west that includes the University of Northern California and James W. Marshall Stadium. It’s not too far from the truth, in which a spot to the west of the village appears to be newer. And further down the hill, development is encroaching. Sacramento itself is spreading like crazy, with the suburb of Folsom reaching nearly out to the foothills. The community of El Dorado Hills, referred to late in the story by George’s friend Mickey, is right at the base of the foothills. And as you head up in elevation, you get to the growing towns of Cameron Park and Shingle Springs. Placerville is a bit farther up along Highway 50.
The city’s latest iteration is as a far-flung commuter suburb of Sacramento — think Temecula to San Diego, Modesto to the Bay Area, or Riverside to Los Angeles. That’s a bit different from a gold mining center. The pear orchards in the hills around town faded out in the 1970s, replaced by housing. The city now depends on, yes, suburbia, but also its historic charm, its position as the seat of El Dorado County, and location as a terrific stopping point on the drive between the Bay Area and South Lake Tahoe.
And I do mean terrific. I spent a couple of days in town when I was writing A COACH AT HEART and pretty much fell in love with the place. The occasional mentions of tall pine trees, green hillsides and the American River are there for a reason. It’s a place I would recommend as a stopping point if you’re ever traveling nearby or heading to Sutter’s Mill. I returned in 2014, a few months before A COACH AT HEART was published, during a family vacation to Lake Tahoe — the trip when these photos were taken.
Placerville was an interesting choice as a setting for George and UNC, but in the time I spent there, it was clear that I’d made a good pick.
Photos: Top photo is a bell tower in the center of town that was used to notify volunteer firefighters when a wildfire was burning nearby. The village was mostly destroyed a couple of times by fires in the 1800s. In the center is a look down the main street. At bottom is the American River near Sutter’s Mill, around the place George Steele would have taken his initial kayaking trip. (Photo credits: James R. Riffel, Laura M. Riffel)