A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Fiddletown in Amador County. Know an unusual place name in California? Tell us about it in the comments below, or send a note to calreport@kqed.org.

Elaine Zorbas says she fell in love with Fiddletown because of its rolling hills, vineyards and rich history. But that’s not what gave the town its name.

“The town has always had a lot of music,” says Zorbas, a former librarian who has lived in Fiddletown since 2001, “and fiddles were very common during the Gold Rush because this is a Gold Rush town. It was quite a place in the 1850s.”

Fiddletown resident Bob Lawrence and Jimmy Chow.
Fiddletown resident Bob Lawrence and Jimmy Chow. (Courtesy of Amador County Archives)

Zorbas, who has written two books on Fiddletown, says an old man heard “people fiddle” and decided the town should be called Fiddletown.

“Now what we don’t know was whether they were playing the fiddle or whether they were fiddling around,” she says.

But not everyone was a fan. Zorbas says sound found the name embarrassing including one of the town’s wealthier residents. Zorbas says he owned the town’s ditch that brought water into town — an important and lucrative position in a Gold Rush town where you needed water to sift gold from gravel.

Zorbas says he was so embarrassed about saying he was from Fiddletown that he got the name changed to Oleta in 1878.

The old blacksmith in Fiddletown , with a facade boasting an 1870 establishment date.
The old blacksmith in Fiddletown , with a facade boasting an 1870 establishment date. (Courtesy of Fiddleton Preservation Society)

“But in 1932 during the Depression people needed something to cheer them up and they decided, ‘We really want to restore the name Fiddletown,” Zorbas says.

So the townspeople got together, signed a petition, and Fiddletown was back.

“We like it that way,” Zorbas says.

She says the modern-day Fiddletown still has several buildings from the mid-19th century. Back then, the population was incredibly diverse with residents from Great Britain, Germany, Australia, France, Mexico, as well as Native Americans. But it’s the town’s Chinese and Chinese-American residents who have left a lasting legacy.

Young Fiddletown resident Jimmy Chow.
Young Fiddletown resident Jimmy Chow. (Courtesy of Amador County Archives)

The Chew Kee Store Museum reflects over 100 years of Chinese and Chinese-American residents in the town. The town’s last Chinese-American resident, Jimmy Chow, died in 1965, and he is the only person of Chinese descent buried in the community’s public cemetery.

How Fiddletown Got its Name Back 13 February,2018Nadine Sebai

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