Originally published in Lincoln News Messenger 2005.
In 1889, with only a few dollars in his pocket, a young Swiss man named John J. Scheiber stepped off the boat at Ellis Island with dreams of running his own dairy in the land of opportunity. The twenty-year old Scheiber, along with two sisters Henrietta and Anna, and two nephews, Ambrose and Oswald, continued west to Nicolaus, a small farming community nestled along the Feather River, where his six brothers, Ambrose, Jost, Joseph, Anton, Albin, Morris and sister Josephine had settled earlier. Hard work, good business sense and a growing, strong family, the Scheibers’ soon became successful ranchers and dairymen. In partnership with three of his brothers, Morris, Joseph, and Albin, purchased 600 acres near Nicolaus. Soon after they added to their ranches by purchase of an addition 2600 acres where they operated five big dairies and manufactured cheese. In 1918 John and his brother Joseph extended their business in Placer County, two miles southwest of Lincoln, where they owned 307 acres on which they ran another successful dairy.
The story isn’t that different from other foreign-born farmers who left their homelands due to economic difficulties. What makes the tale unique is that the small town of Nicolaus, less than 100 people, lays claim to numerous multi-generational families. Today John J. Scheiber’s great-great grandchild, Haily Iaea, attends the same high school as his descendants. Her mom, grandmother, and great-grandfather, all sang the same alma mater and rooted for the Spartans at East Nicolaus High School. Although not in the same building, the new high school, built in 1974, has cycled through its door other family surnames such as Michel, Peters, Aljo, Coppin, VanDyke, and Spangler, just to name a few. These families also have 5th, 6th, and 7th generation children attending the high school or one of the three local elementary schools that outline Nicolaus.
“I think it’s great that I get to attend the same school as my great-grandfather Carl,” says ENHS freshman Haily Iaea. “Although every time I come home and talk about a classmate, my mom says, ‘Oh, I went to school with his/her mother or father. And your grandma went to school with their grandma.’ It’s a little cool and creepy at the same time,” she says with an easy laugh. Another aspect of going to a small rural school is that everyone participates in sports and other activities if they want. “We need everyone to play to have a team,” says Haily, as she found out when the community sponsored Little League softball team fizzled out by 7th grade due to lack of participation. The boys’ teams have a history of stronger involvement. In addition to the Little League, the community has basketball and soccer leagues for the youth.
Even though Nicolaus has the generational aspect going for it, what hasn’t changed for the youth of this community is the desire to leave and explore the world. Cindy (Scheiber) Gander, 4th generation, left after high school to attend UC Davis. She traveled to Switzerland, met her future husband Herb Gander, and fast-forward a few years, settled back in Nicolaus on the same land that her great-grandfather John J. Scheiber once called home. Her parents, Ron and Vreni Scheiber along with sister Michelle and husband Jamshid Khazaeepoul, and aunt and uncle Mike and Shirley (Scheiber) Gabhart, have all settled on what’s affectionately called the “Scheiber Compound.” Cindy considers herself lucky to be back in Nicolaus. “I wanted my kids to grow up in Nicolaus because I wanted them to grow up next to their grandparents and cousins like I did. Her husband Herb’s agrees, “I consider myself very lucky to live in this small town of Nicolaus, which I’m reminded of when I drive by all these orchards and fields that decent people live in this very tight-knit community.”
Nicolaus continues to keep the small-town environment even with urban sprawl encompassing it from all directions. Plumas Lake, over the Bear River and seven miles to the north, has a housing development that is growing at a rapid rate. Also a new development eight miles to the south, The South Sutter Plan – Measure M Group, plans to develop 7,500 acres in the future. To the east is Lincoln, which is undergoing an urban expansion. Hedy (Scheiber) Immoos, local Nicolaus realtor and granddaughter of John J. Scheiber, sees the growth in our neighboring communities affecting land values. “Some farmers are selling out to developers and this is decreasing farmland in the surrounding areas. Because of the increased valuation in property, farmland is turning over to urban sprawl.” Hedy goes on to say, “Many new homes have been and continue to be built in flood plains. With the recent rains this winter, there is cause for concern by property owners and politicians on how vulnerable residences are to the forces of nature.”
As land across America is paved over, Nicolaus has so far avoided any major development. Recently, a developer from Yuba City has started building seven new homes, and the first street gutters in this area have been spotted. The price to buy one of these homes goes for $895,000. While these homes may be out of reach for most middle-income families, most of the newer residents that come to Nicolaus are not the yuppies looking for a little piece of country, but great-grandchildren, typically 4th or 5th generation, who cut out a plot of land from their parents, build a house and raise their kids just as the other generations before them have done.
Longtime farmers, the DeValentine family, are getting ready to plant a new walnut orchard just west of town. Rich in pear, walnut and almond orchards and surrounded by rice fields and cattle ranches, Nicolaus brings envy to “town” people who happen to stumble on this quiet community. A golf course, Rio La Paz, is two miles from downtown Nicolaus and gives residents and out-of-towners a fabulous recreational outlet. Fisherman who appreciate living nestled up to the Feather River, tell “big fish” stories at the local Nicolaus Tavern. A small, family-owned store is a gathering spot for the farmers to have a cup of coffee, talk about the weather, crops and share gossip.
Often, upon hearing the early morning calls of ducks, hunters are out before the workday begins. A common sight during hunting season, along the levee, will be a young boy riding on his quadrunner with a rifle strapped to his back. Whereas city kids enjoy the convenience of going to the mall or a fast food restaurant at a drop of a hat, kids in Nicolaus jump on motorcycles, take hunter’s safety courses, walk on top of fences, climb trees, and take care of their farm critters.
Town may be beating on Nicolaus’ backdoor, but country living will continue for now, and the farmers will continue to farm. John P. Scheiber, farmer and grandson of John J. Scheiber, likes the slow pace of country life, noting that he can take a break and “lay under the big oak and hear the woodpeckers.” Probably just like his grandpa did.