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Welcome to our very first “Voices of Downieville” blog series, where we embark on a journey to uncover the unique stories and perspectives of the vibrant individuals who call our picturesque riverside community home or their “home-away-from-home”. In this series, we’ll delve into the lives of a diverse array of people, from frequent visitors to lifelong locals, to recent arrivals, capturing the essence of what makes our village enchanting through their eyes. Join us as we take a deep dive into the heart of our community through the voices of those who know it best.

Today, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cindy McCreary—a staple of the Downieville community—to chat about our little town and what makes it so special. We met across from the Sierra Hardware, at the Carriage House Inn. In 2002, Cindy took over as manager of Sierra Hardware, and after her parents passed away, she became the store’s sole owner. Cindy continues to run the business the “old-fashioned way,” which is perhaps what customers enjoy most about the store. Beyond the store’s swinging wooden door, you can still find a vast selection of hardware, plumbing, paint, electrical, and sporting goods Sierra Hardware is a Department of Fish and Wildlife agent, so you can also purchase fishing and hunting licenses there.

Still wearing her hardware shop apron, Cindy was grateful to Cora for watching the shop while she stepped out for our chat. With only a few minutes to connect, we jumped right into her story. Cindy was born in Grass Valley, as there was no hospital in Downieville, but she was raised in the area – so you can still pretty much say she was “born and raised in Downieville”. She moved away for college and then lived in Southern California for about eight or nine years. When her son was almost two, her parents expressed their desire to retire and sell the hardware store. Cindy and her husband, Dennis, saw this as a perfect opportunity to leave the stress of Southern California behind and raise their children in a more serene environment.

They moved back to Downieville in May 1988, initially living with Cindy’s parents while they built their own house. The appeal of a quieter, slower-paced life kept them in Downieville. Cindy mentioned how raising their children in this environment was a major factor in their decision. The sense of community, where everyone cares for one another, is a significant part of what makes Downieville special. “If anyone really has a problem or needs help, everyone is there in different ways,” Cindy reflected.

Running Sierra Hardware keeps Cindy busy, but she loves the area and its tranquility. Despite occasionally feeling out of touch with the fast-paced technological advancements, she appreciates the simpler, more relaxed lifestyle. Cindy’s children now live in Folsom and Roseville, and while she enjoys that they are so close and she can easily visit them, she always feels a strong pull to return to Downieville’s peaceful setting.

One of Cindy’s favorite aspects of the community is the way people look out for each other. Whether it’s offering help or simply making sure someone is okay, the support system in Downieville is robust. “In the city, even though you have lots of services, you can feel alone. Here, if something happens to you, someone is right there to give you something or help you out,” she said.

Cindy’s Great Aunt Rina Tomola inside the Fire Lookout

Cindy also shared her love for local attractions, especially the Lakes Basin and the hike to the Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower. These places hold a special kind of magic for her. With a deep admiration, she recounted her great aunt, one of the first “lookouts” on The Buttes in the 1940s, and the sense of adventure and courage it must have taken to live up there.

The trail leading to the steep climb up to the tower is just over 5 miles out-and-back. The National Geographic Magazine described it as a “spectacular location that has to be seen to be believed.” Generally considered a challenging route, it takes an average of 3 hours to complete, but it is worth the effort. Cindy recounts her last visit up to the lookout which was on her 60th birthday. She hopes to make it up again on her 66th.

On a clear day you can even see Mt. Lassen, 100 miles away. The lookout was built as a vantage point for spotting fires in the early 1900s, one of many in the Tahoe area. In the 40s, there lookouts would ascend the to the fire lookout atop a glacial pinnacle by climbing a series of ladders. Today, the tower is reached by climbing three dizzying flights of stairs. The actual completion of the stairs was done after Cindy’s great aunt worked there as a lookout, in 1964 by five Tahoe National Forest employees who made it possible for people to visit the top safely.

Cindy’s Great Aunt Rina on the Sierra Buttes Lookout Ladders several years before the steps were installed.

Among Cindy’s cherished local traditions are the Fourth of July kids’ races, a family legacy that her grandfather started in the 1940s. This beloved event has been a highlight for the whole town and numerous visitors ever since. The races are divided into age groups, with children competing in foot races that span the length of Main Street, which is closed off for the occasion. This fun-filled day brings the entire community together. Cindy fondly recalls how her grandfather, Tony Lavezzola, who founded the event, would hand out prize money, making it a memorable event for all the children. Today, she continues this tradition by purchasing prizes for the kids, and working with other community members and family who generously reward the participants, something that the local children eagerly anticipate all year.

Golden Ghosts of the Lost Sierra, 1973 Photo Of Downieville’s 4th of July Foot Races in National Geographic Magazine

For anyone visiting Downieville for the first time, Cindy’s advice is to be prepared for the varying weather and to embrace the opportunity to disconnect from technology. “Don’t feel like you have to be connected. If you’re coming here to relax, be prepared to leave technology behind,” she advised.

Tony Lavezzola with Kids of Downieville, year unknown

When discussing tourism, Cindy acknowledged both its positive and negative impacts. “For those of us in business, I don’t think we see tourism as negative. I mean, I think almost all of it is positive for us and our community. The only negative aspect I see is from those people who want everything all at once, expecting the same conveniences they have in the city. Here in Downieville, you have to be flexible,” she said.

Cindy in pigtails, circa 1960.

Cindy highlighted the joy of seeing new visitors appreciate the area’s beauty, especially during the pandemic when people flocked to Downieville to escape their confined environments. This period saw a significant influx of visitors and digital nomads, bringing a mix of challenges and delights. With the reopening of the forest, people from Sacramento, Reno, Chico, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Truckee, Tahoe, Southern California, and even other states came to explore Downieville for the first time. Cindy enjoyed witnessing visitors engage with the area in various ways—biking, fishing, hiking—and truly immersing themselves in the local charm. This holistic enjoyment of Downieville not only brought economic benefits but also enriched the community spirit.

“During Covid, when the forest reopened, it was like a big literal door opening. People came from close by and far away, discovering Downieville for the first time. It was wonderful to see them enjoy the area,” Cindy recalled.

She also acknowledged the occasional instances of disrespect, such as visitors using public spaces inappropriately or parking haphazardly but stressed that most tourists were respectful and appreciative of Downieville’s unique charm.

Cindy’s local day trips she recommends for visitors include exploring the Lakes Basin, checking out the Kentucky Mine, and enjoying the town’s museums and scenic river hikes. She emphasized the unmatched beauty of places like Sardine Lake, which she believes rivals international landscapes.

“Even though I’ve lived here my whole life, I still find places like Sardine Lake breathtaking. They are as beautiful as any international destination,” Cindy said.

One common misconception about Downieville, Cindy noted, is the availability of housing. Many visitors think they can easily find a place to live, but housing is in short supply. A quick search on Zillow confirmed that there was still, in fact, no homes available as of today.

“There isn’t much housing available. People think they can just come and find a place to live, but it’s not that simple,” Cindy explained.

Reflecting on the future, Cindy hopes Downieville retains its historical charm while adapting to necessary changes. She shared a humorous memory about a misunderstanding that arose in her early 20s when she first introduced Dennis, her husband, to the town. With his prematurely gray hair, some locals humorously mistook him for her “50-year-old sugar daddy,” as they drove into the service station in Dennis’ El Camino. The story of her sugar daddy quickly spread through town and the funny rumor still brings a smile to her face.

Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower, Photo by Sonya Z. Meline

One of Cindy’s fondest hopes for Downieville is that it doesn’t change too much. She wants the town to retain its charm and sense of stepping back in time, which is a significant draw for visitors. Cindy believes that maintaining this balance between preserving the past and embracing the future is essential for Downieville’s continued appeal.

“One thing I hear in the hardware store over and over is that visitors love coming here because it’s like stepping back into the past. You can’t get that too many places,” she said. “I hope we don’t lose that charm because that’s what makes Downieville special.”

Cindy’s story is a beautiful reflection of Downieville’s past, present, and hopeful future, showcasing the deep community bonds, the blend of tradition and modernity, and the unwavering charm that makes Downieville a beloved haven for residents and visitors alike.

Cindy on her birthday at the Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower.
Cindy with her daughter at the Sierra Buttes Lookout Tower