The Nickel Home: The Road to Three Rivers
Driving the road to and from Three Rivers each day might seem long and monotonous for some, but to Gene and Carol Nickel, it’s the peaceful road home at the end of a long day.
But it wasn’t always that way; for a long time, the road to Three Rivers was just a dream. Up until they met in 1984, Gene and Carol’s lives were on very different paths, but you could say their roads merged somewhere along the 198-East, bound for the hills.
On their very first date at the old White Horse Inn restaurant in Three Rivers, Gene and Carol discovered they had a lot in common, including a mutual, life-long admiration for Three Rivers.
“On this date, we found out that we were both skiers, we were both at the same Dave Brubeck concert in 1961 in San Jose, we both had family homes in Cayucos, and we both loved Three Rivers,” said Carol.
Fast-forward five months after their first date, and Gene and Carol married, merging their two families in a true “Brady Bunch” fashion. As a father of two sons, Gene “bravely,” as Carol puts it, moved in with her and her three daughters. Despite the inevitable learning curve of figuring out how to survive in a house full of women, it wasn’t long before Gene and his sons got the hang of it, and their two families became one.
After living in Exeter for several years, Gene and Carol decided to pursue their dream of living in Three Rivers. They spent many weekends exploring the different areas and rivers before deciding to build on the South Fork of the Kaweah River.
“We looked at everything on the river that was for sale,” said Gene. “Several we really liked, but each time we talked about things we wanted to change or tear down. So the bottom line was, why would we remodel when we could build our dream house?” Gene and Carol purchased a two-acre property on the South Fork of the river, where they built a 1,200 sq. ft. cabin before breaking ground on their three-story home. They initially planned to use the cabin as a weekend getaway, but plans changed when their home in Exeter sold much faster than they anticipated.
“Our youngest was still going to high school in Exeter and we thought it would take a year to sell the house, so we put it on the market to see what would happen,” said Gene. “And it actually sold immediately, within about two months.”
With no place to call home, the Nickels ended up moving into their getaway cabin, where they lived for three years while their house was being built. Despite living in a small space with all of their earthly possessions stashed away in storage, they were finally in Three Rivers; their dream was becoming a reality.
When Gene and Carol were drawing up plans for their home, they knew they wanted it to have a lodge, or even tree house, feel. The home’s six decks, three-stories, vaulted ceilings, and countless windows achieve this feel and flawlessly bring the outdoors in.
“I think what I love about this house is not only the feeling of bringing the outdoors in, but that you can go out of any room, any deck, and find sun or shade,” said Carol. “And every window frame is a picture. You don’t need a lot of art on the walls because of the views; it’s just beautiful in here.”
No matter where you are in the house, the rushing river serves as a soothing soundtrack, and each window provides a snapshot of a tree or mountain; it seems as though the walls separating you from the outdoors disappear completely to make way for nature’s majestic display.
Even the materials used throughout the home bring in an extra element of the outdoors. With pine ceilings, redwood siding, red oak wood floors, clear heart redwood walls, and a fireplace made of local river rock, the house is one with its surroundings.
“We’re skiers and we love the lodge look, so we wanted a mountain feel,” said Carol. “We actually knew where we wanted each room to face in order to capture all of these views, so when we met with the architect, we told him exactly where we wanted the rooms.”
The third floor loft has perhaps the most breathtaking view of the South Fork River and the mountains in the distance, but the views aren’t the only thing the loft is known for; it’s considered the “party” room, complete with a large wet bar, a vintage wood stove, and a shuffle board.
In addition to the loft, the house displays a variety of unique features, like Gene’s 12-foot deep wine cellar, which his carpenters constructed from the wood of an old local barn they salvaged. Throughout the house, there are also a number of beautiful, custom-stained glass windows, several of which Carol made herself.
While the home has just two bedrooms and two bathrooms, it has plenty of space for entertaining friends and family. It has been the location for many large holiday gatherings over the last 25 years, and continues to be a “party” spot for friends and acquaintances.
“I call it a gathering house,” said Carol. “We only have two bedrooms, knowing that we have the cabin for overflow or guests, and because most of our family lives close by, we don’t have too many people coming from far away to stay here. We can gather a lot of people in this house.”
Even in the midst of the home’s beautiful views, unique features, and proximity to nature, Gene and Carol treasure the memories most; Carol has also brought her own family memories into the home by implementing several décor pieces from her childhood, like her grandmother’s old rug and a chair her great-grandfather made in 1875.
“The house is full of memories,” said Carol. “This rug came from my grandmother’s old house in Visalia—the big white house where Green Acres runs into Main Street. This rug was in her dining room and it came from my great- grandfather’s house in Los Angeles. It’s well over 100 years old and might even be close to 150 years.”
Both Gene and Carol’s families are rooted deeply in Visalia and Tulare County history. Gene’s family owned Nickel’s Payless Markets throughout Tulare County, and Carol’s biological grandfather was Fred Uhl of Uhl Rubber Company, which still exists today on Main Street in Visalia. When Fred died in the 1940s, her grandmother remarried into the Harrell family, a name that goes back to the 1800s in Visalia. In fact, local historian Terry L. Ommen has written about the Harrell family in Lifestyle Magazine on multiple occasions.
While Gene and Carol both have rich family histories in Visalia, they each have shaped their own unique history that has made an impact on the community.
“When I sold the grocery business, I needed something else to do, so I went into farming in the early 2000s,” said Gene. “For whatever reason, I wanted to grow avocados. I originally wanted it to be a hobby, but now I have 40 acres and it has become work; but it’s a lot of fun. I love to be out under the trees.”
Gene also grows pecans and a variety of citrus, so he makes the trek “down the hill” to tend to his crops on a daily basis. And Carol, a retired hospice nurse, also keeps herself very busy acting as board president of the Open Arms House, a nonprofit hospice home in Visalia, set to open this summer.
“I go down the hill every day,” said Carol. “I’ve also got some property that I manage, so I’m down in Visalia a lot. We keep very busy.”
While some often question why anyone would want to drive back and forth between Three Rivers and Visalia every day, Carol and Gene both see it as their time to unwind after a day’s work. And really, you can’t beat the scenery.
“It’s amazing how many people ask, ‘don’t you get tired of the drive?’ Well, I don’t even try to explain to them that it really isn’t much of a drive,” said Gene. Carol added, “And there are a lot of people who make the drive down to Visalia every day. It’s just beautiful, and there’s some downtime.”
Carol also starts her mornings with some downtime at her “tree house,” a lookout spot she built a few miles from their home. Several years ago, Carol discovered the spot while on a run, so she contacted the property owner, purchased the land, and built her very own “tree house.” Even now, she continues to walk the steep, 19 percent grade to the top of her hill several days a week.
“This is my special spot,” said Carol. “I walk it in the mornings with the dogs, and I absolutely love it. This hangout is going to be my forever Three Rivers spot. It’s just so peaceful.”
Photos by Danny Klorman Photography