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Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The two-story stone building at 594 Main Street in Placerville is truly a testament to the bustling and often brutal times in which it was built.
John Pearson, who traveled from his native Scotland in the early 1850s, was one of the few who made his move a success. But he didn’t do it by finding gold; he did it by selling ice.
If the 22-inch thick stonewalls of the Pearson Soda Works building could speak they would have abundant stories to tell. The first may be how the original Pearson building at the location was destroyed in the 1856 fire, which burned most of downtown Placerville.
The location for the shop was no accident. Built up against the foot of the Pacific Hill, the back of the first floor—which was completed in 1859—opens into the mountain, literally. A 150-foot abandoned mine curves its way under the hill and stays a steady 58-60 degrees Fahrenheit all year. Pearson, who traveled high into the Sierra to cut blocks of ice, would store that ice in the mine, which he reinforced using old railroad ties and pieces of wagon. He sold the ice in his store and also used it to preserve perishables. “Ice was a luxurious necessity,” says Mary Cory, director of the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “Summers here are hot, and people had labor intensive jobs.”
As Placerville grew so did Pearson’s business, expanding to offer butter, eggs and other necessities. He also operated one of the first soda fountains in the West. A section from an 1884 Mountain Democrat stated, “A gentleman here from Chicago who travels for a large drug house, declared that Pearson’s Crème Soda was the best in the United States.”
John Pearson and his wife Jane had nine children, eight who survived to adulthood. He was remembered by residents of towns as far away as Coloma, carting in his ice on hot summer days and selling bottled sodas straight from his wagon. A member of the Freemasons, Pearson was active in his community. He passed away in 1891 at his home on Cedar Ravine and left his business to his eldest sons William and John.
Pearson Soda Works was the franchise for the first Coca-Cola bottling facility on the West Coast as well as Wieland’s and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Besides being the oldest restored building in Placerville boasting a 150-foot Gold Rush-era mine, the building also contained the second hydraulic elevator lift on the West Coast (the first can be found at the Winchester Mystery House).
Today the building houses the Cozmic Café; visitors can explore both floors as well as the mine while enjoying a coffee or even a crème soda. And what about ghosts? “I’ve seen some things,” admits the current owner. Ghosts or not, it is impossible to walk through the rooms and not feel the past all around. Truly, a testament to one of Placerville’s most successful businessmen.