When reading histories of the park, it’s easy to make assumptions that are flat-out wrong – which is why Mel Bradley’s recent seminar on the Bradley Grove was so inspiring. With stories, old photos and surrounded by his large extended family, Mel described how his grandparents helped to save over 1,000 giant sequoias in the South Grove for future generations.

The facts are clear: Mel’s grandmother (with insistent support by his grandfather) started a campaign that ended up raising $1.5 million in seven years in 1947 dollars. It was a monumental task, so it’s easy to assume (incorrectly) that they were wealthy, well-connected people. In truth, they were a young couple, with a young son and few resources. They lived in a rammed-earth, adobe home they’d built themselves and ran a small farm in Modesto.

Mel’s grandparents were Adrienne and Owen Bradley.

For love of the big trees

Mel’s grandparents’ obsession with Calaveras Big Trees grew slowly. In 1938, they made their first visit to the North Grove – and fell in love with the big trees. Nine years later, in 1947, Owen Bradley surprised his wife with a trip to the South Grove for their 20th wedding anniversary. There was no easy way to get to the South Grove in those days, but when they arrived, they found out that the Pickering Lumber Company planned to log the valley. Blue paint and grade stakes for a new railroad were everywhere.

Owen insisted that his wife should try to stop that from happening. And so she did.

The campaign begins

Starting in 1947, Adrienne Bradley spent months putting together a slide show of the South Grove, then dedicated the next 7 years to safeguarding the big trees. She drove up and down the state of California, speaking and showing her photos to every group that would listen. She was told many times that it simply couldn’t be done, and that she’d never raise enough money to save the South Grove from the lumber mills. But she persisted.

At one point, she became desperate to replace the old, ramshackle car that she drove around the state seeking donations. With fire in her heart and nothing to lose, she went to see Henry J Kaiser in hopes he might support her cause by donating a new car. She never received a new car from Kaiser, but he was taken with her story and published two articles in his magazine that gave her campaign important nation-wide publicity.

Adrienne quickly found out that she needed credibility and couldn’t raise money without the backing of an organization. On the advice of Save the Redwoods League, she took steps to revive the old Calaveras Grove Association (CGA) that had gone dormant after acquiring the North Grove in the 1920s. Adrienne found the last living officer for the CGA living alone in a single room of a boarding house. She persuaded him to call a meeting then kicked off the time-consuming task of electing new officers and rebuilding the board.

By 1954, they had done it. The State of California matched the $1.5 million raised by the CGA and purchased the South Grove from Pickering Lumber. Over 1,000 giant sequoias were saved for countless future generations to enjoy.

The story continues

The South Grove was saved, but there was no money to create or run a park. From 1954 until 1967, there was no public access to the South Grove.

Never one to leave a task undone, Owen Bradley got hired as a park ranger for the South Grove during the summers to fill the role of fire guard. Every spring, the state would haul a trailer into the South Grove where Owen and Adrienne would live. Infrastructure was built slowly with the help of Folsom Prison honor camp inmates.

In 1956, Owen Bradley got the idea to start a new grove of redwoods in a wet meadow near the South Grove. He was always concerned about fire danger, and if the South Grove was ever lost, the Bradley Grove of redwoods might survive. In his youth, Mel Bradley spent many summers digging holes, planting seeds, tending seedlings, and hauling water to the baby grove of 200 redwoods.

In 1975 – after nearly 30 years of dedicated effort – the Bradley Grove and Bradley Trail were dedicated. Through sheer perseverance, they accomplished what they had set out to do.

Thank you, Mel Bradley, for sharing stories about bygone days at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. As we stand in awe of your grandparents, we’re reminded that committed people really can change the world and make a lasting difference.