Searching for historic painting
February 5, 2003
Deer hunting has always been an important tradition in Truckee. During the nineteenth century, it was not only a sport, but also a necessity for families to survive the long winter months. Many men who worked in the lumber mills and icehouses were excellent hunters.
This photo of an old painting depicts six men on a hunting trip. For many years the huge 5-foot by 8-foot picture hung on the east wall of Tony Polyanich’s bar in downtown Truckee.
Tony and Essie Polyanich operated the popular pub in the building now occupied by Bar of America and Pacific Crest Bistro. Tony ran the bar and Essie ran the coffee shop next door
Part of the bar’s charm of the aforementioned work of art was of particular historic interest and topic of conversation. The subject painting, dated 1894, shows a location on Cold Stream, about seven miles southwest of Truckee near the site of the old Cold Stream ice plant, which was a popular hunting area in those days.
The story, as was told by Tony Polyanich, is that the artist was a Frenchman named Charles “Frenchie” Koster who left his homeland along with a beautiful young French girl, with hopes of striking it rich in the silver diggings at Virginia City.
Having more taste for liquor than for the hard work of a miner, the artistic but lazy Frenchman put the girl to work and the two lived on her earnings.
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Some time later, with the mining boom declining and then new-born lumber industry in California booming, the two moved to Truckee where the young girl worked hard while Koster spent most of his time cavorting the local saloons.
Eventually, Koster sobered up long enough to decide to take up painting again and began working on the hunting scene, which ten alcoholic months to complete.
The painting depicts a remarkable likeness of six men who were well-known local characters, along with a self-portrait of the artist himself.
The man laying in the foreground is William McDougald, who was a constable and undertaker in Truckee for many years. He also owned and operated the popular Fountain Saloon.
The others, from left to right, are Fred Irish, a sawmill worker and son-in-law of George Schaffer. To his left, standing, is John Fay, who for years was County Supervisor of the 5th District of Nevada County.
Seated next is Franck Meloche, a saloonkeeper, and his dog “Sport.” Standing to his left is the well-dressed George Schaffer, who built Truckee’s first sawmill in 1866 and hauled the first locomotive over the summit. Schaffer was one of the most important men in town in those days.
Finally, seated, is Charles “Frenchie” Koster, the artist. The horse, named “Pony,” belonged to Schaffer. The lake in the upper part of the picture is where the Cold Stream ice plant was located.
About the time the painting was finished, the artist’s young girlfriend ran off with a prominent Sierra City businessman. After losing both his girlfriend and his meal ticket, the homeless and brokenhearted artist left Truckee for Sacramento where he died unnoticed and unattended, leaving his painting behind.
Although Koster was gone, his picture lived on. It’s owner, Frank Meloshe, borrowed money from McDougald, leaving the painting as security and departed town to seek his fortune in Alaska, but died in Tacoma, leaving McDougald in permanent possession of the painting.
A few years later, McDougald went to Hawaii on vacation but died of appendicitis aboard ship on the way. His widow married William Smith, editor of the Truckee Republican, who was shot to death in 1912 following a longstanding feud by P.M. Doyle, an influential Truckee merchant.
Doyle was later acquitted of the crime, thanks to a brilliant defense by Truckee’s famous attorney, C.F. McGlashan.
In 1930 Tony Polyanich retired and the painting was taken out of public view for several years. Essies’s son, Gene Barton, inherited the painting and loaned it to Tahoe Donner to hang in the clubhouse, where it remained for a time. It was then returned to Barton and put on display at the Nevada Art Museum.
Later, it was returned to Barton and realizing it would require some expensive restoration, he sold the painting to a casino owner in Reno. I spoke with Barton before he passed away in the late 1990s and he had no recollection of the name of the casino owner, but provided a photograph of the painting.
The current location of the painting remains a mystery today, but it is believed to be somewhere in Nevada.
The Truckee-Donner Historical Society would be grateful for any information that might lead to its current whereabouts and its potential return to Truckee.
Guy Coates is a Truckee resident and historian. Echoes from the Past appears every other week in the Sierra Sun.
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