*A condensed version of this article originally appeared in April, 2023 editions of Reel Cowboys newsletter and the Sierra News Online

By Laurie Waskin

2023 marks the 60th anniversary of The Rifleman’s final episode to blaze across TV screens, although its ongoing popularity has stretched into the 21st century. But now new research reveals the series origins were not quite so fictional after all. Nor was the locale or central characters of Lucas and Mark McCain as portrayed by Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford. Rather they were inspired by an authentic town, its residents and a time period steeped in memories for the show’s creator, Sam Peckinpah. For the first time, a veil is lifted on this previously unknown backdrop and presented here for the enjoyment of The Rifleman’s many admirers.

“North Fork” – the evocative name of this idyllic 19th century town may sound familiar to Rifleman fans, along with an assumption the locale could have been coined by screenwriters similar to “The Roy Rogers Show” fictional setting of “Mineral City” and other productions. But this real life community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada even has distinguished ties into some significant and fascinating California history.

In addition to its beginnings as a major supplier of lumber for the gold rush towns, in recent years North Fork has also earned a measure of fame from its official title “Exact Center of California.” Established by both the U.S. Geological Survey and Fresno State University Engineering and Surveying Department in 1995, this intriguing and celebratory theme was also the focus of a visit by Huell Howser for a PBS episode of  “California’s Gold.” 

a photograph of a wooden sign with American flags
North Fork: Exact Center of California

Besides these notable assets under its belt, although a small town in breadth North Fork has left big footprints in the western genre of television and film history where it struck another kind of gold thanks to screenwriter/director – and Rifleman creator – Sam Peckinpah. A Fresno native, the youthful Peckinpah regularly spent a good deal of time in North Fork where his grandparents resided. The enjoyable experience left Peckinpah with many strong impressions and recollections, which he often made use of as an adult in his TV westerns and film work. One standout example was fondly casting the name of the town as the setting for television’s The Rifleman – albeit in New Mexico Territory vs. the factual California.

North Fork, 1920s

Both sides of Sam’s family were firmly based in North Fork since the latter 19th century. Today Peckinpah Mountain is named for the location where his grandfather Charles Peckinpah’s imposing sawmill once stood. Born to Charles’ son, David, and his wife Fern Church Peckinpah in 1925, Sam grew to love the cowboy way at his maternal grandfather Denver Church’s North Fork cattle ranch, where his father served as foreman. Many hired hands also had forebearers who’d been miners and ranchers during the 19th century and often had interesting tales to spin. Sam much preferred this latter day Old West lore and its vanishing lifestyle to his city home in Fresno, although the boy’s grandfather’s other vocations meant he was not always on site. A righteous man, Church was a practicing attorney and at various times served as a Superior Court county judge, district attorney and U.S. Congressman. Church was additionally well known throughout the Sierra Nevada for his shooting expertise.  

a newspaper clipping of a photograph of Denver Church
Denver S. Church, grandfather of Rifleman creator Sam Peckinpah, who helped inspire “Lucas McCain”

Peckinpah later based some of his characterizations and plots on his North Fork years and drew from this as a screenwriter and director of western TV series like Gunsmoke, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, Have Gun-Will Travel, Broken Arrow and The Rifleman. Although it wasn’t just the town’s name Peckinpah borrowed for his creation of The Rifleman – there were other semi-autobiographical undertones to the show, which originally ran from 1958-1963. Starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son Mark, the two made their home on a cattle ranch outside town during the 1880s the very same decade the Peckinpah clan arrived in North Fork, CA. Like Peckinpah’s grandfather Church, Lucas found himself regularly called upon to uphold the law in various ways, often with the town sheriff.  It didn’t hurt that in another parallel, Lucas was also widely recognized as an excellent shot. 

The character of Mark McCain also appears loosely based on Sam Peckinpah himself, including that Sam’s mother was often absent from his life, preferring instead to leave her children’s upbringing to her parents. Sam grew close to his grandfather Church, who like Mark McCain, grew up without a mother’s care from age four when his father, Emery, was widowed. The sensitive inclusion of a corresponding, realistic situation gives insight that The Rifleman’s origins didn’t only spring from the warm, fictional relationship of a boy and his father, but of a true life bond between the show’s creator and his much admired grandfather.

In addition to character inspirations and North Fork’s borrowed name, the basis for the McCain Ranch was also not produced from thin air. During the early 1900s, Denver Church purchased the 900+ acre Angell’s Ranch in the Crane Valley area, growing it as a cattle ranch to 4,100 acres over the next 40 years. 4,100 happens to be the exact same acreage of the Dunlap Ranch Lucas McCain purchases in the very first episode of The Rifleman called “The Sharpshooter.”  In actual fact, the Dunlap Ranch belonged to the Church’s next door neighbors immediately west of the Church Ranch. Today both properties sit on Church Ranch Road eight miles northwest of North Fork. The former Church cattle ranch is also eight miles south of Bass Lake in the scenic foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where cattle ranching continues to thrive.

a screencapture of the Dunlap Ranch For Sale sign from The Rifleman
Sign appearing in The Rifleman’s first episode, “The Sharpshooter,” that catches the eye of Lucas McCain. The posted notice mimics both dimensions and locale of Sam Peckinpah’s grandfather’s ranch.

Interestingly, this classic western, which continues in syndication today, was actually the result of Peckinpah’s rejected screenplay for Gunsmoke. Following some revision, he sold the episode to Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre where it turned into a pilot for The Rifleman. Peckinpah wrote and directed some episodes but went on to other projects after the series first year, including films like Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Although the lines can sometimes blur between imagination and reality onscreen, the real North Fork that left such an impression on Sam Peckinpah and others definitely has its own illustrious past. Here’s a peek at life in North Fork during its historic heyday, when the town’s booming lumber industry was strongly intertwined with the reign of the California gold rush, benefitting all.

Established in the mid-19th century, the settlement took its name from a location then known as the North Fork of the San Joaquin River. However, this was later revealed as a misnomer since the rambling waterway turned out to be Willow Creek, which originated at Bass Lake. Yet the genial name stuck and the rural community became an important main source of lumber for the mining towns.

The first cabin in North Fork was built by miner Milton Brown, who ran a supply center there for fellow miners and stockmen. During the 1870s as the town grew, the Fred and Geo Driver store and stage stop building were constructed and still stand today. The town also boasted several saloons, a blacksmith shop and livery stables. Sheep were commonly brought through North Fork to reach the plentiful acorns at higher elevations, while ranchers led their cattle there, too, during the summer months. Some of the cow camps can still be seen today. Additional sawmills sprang up in the area, though smaller than the Peckinpah enterprise. 

Although generally a peaceful town, there were the occasional feuds and killings, as in other mining era hamlets. So to keep order, Sheriff John M. Hensley of Fresno County was the lawman with the power to make arrests in the latter part of the 19th century. Whenever things got rough, Sheriff Hensley diligently traveled up from Madera and if required, the nearest courthouse was located a further 30 miles away in Belleview. A little more convenient was the shared jail at O’Neals, a mere 12 miles distant and built from 2 x 4’s and 60 penny nails. This jail once held an unusual occupant – a local rattlesnake, resulting in a curious official inquiry about its floorboards. The incident occurred after Sheriff Hensley’s arrest of a man for disturbing the peace at an Easter picnic, who was brought to the jail. A deputy was then instructed to stop by and check on the overnight prisoner, which did not occur. Nevertheless, it turned out the inmate had an unexpected and fearsome companion – who may have been as startled as the man it kept company with all night – when at daybreak the deputy opened the door to reveal a coiled rattler waiting on the other side, blinking at him. Luckily, the prisoner had not been harmed and was released. But the incident sparked a grand jury investigation into how a snake could’ve made its way inside an incarceration facility, effecting an order to the Board of Supervisors by the State Board of Charities and Corrections to cease using the jail. 

But this odd tale didn’t end there. Some years later in the early 1930s, the unoccupied jail building was itself the object of a successful heist. In the middle of the night, it was hauled onto a truck and driven away by several North Fork residents, whose town lacked its own jailhouse. This apparently solved the dilemma as the “stolen jail” remained in North Fork for many years afterwards and now resides in Bandit Town.

At least a couple of Rifleman episodes appear to have roots in bona fide occurrences in North Fork, CA, although one may never know for certain. The unusual jail-rattlesnake-prisoner story may have sparked imagination for an episode called “And the Devil Makes Five” (S5 Ep19) when a rattlesnake finds its way into Lucas’ bedroll during an overnight camp stop with Mark, Marshall Torrance and the prisoner he’s transporting to the North Fork jail to stand trial before a circuit judge. Another episode, “End of the Hunt” (S5 Ep20) also shares similarities with a hunting escapade Sam Peckinpah encountered as a young man. Both Sam and Mark are each determined to track a buck. Yet in Sam’s case, immediately after firing he experienced great anguish while looking into the animal’s eyes of fear and resignation and spoke regretfully of this incident over the years. However, The Rifleman episode instead ends on a more heartening note as Mark describes to Lucas why he didn’t shoot the buck after all that day because of the emotional eye communication he’d had with the animal. 

a color photograph of the main street in North Fork, California with a flag, antique store, and feed store
North Fork today

Today residents of  North Fork, CA are proud of their Old West history, gold rush era roots, and rich logging heritage – the latter celebrated at an annual summer Logger’s Jamboree. The well known Sierra Mono Indian Museum and Cultural Center is also in town. In addition to North Fork’s own historic buildings, which includes the Buckhorn Saloon (built 1923), the performance and event venue of Bandit Town is also close by. Its Old West theme features the original O’Neals/North Fork jail and some typical cowboy buildings that include a saloon and dance hall, shops and a corral/rodeo arena. Visitors can feel as if they’ve stepped back into the past – or at the very least, a western TV or movie set. Located en route to Yosemite’s south entrance in the midst of some stunning natural beauty, North Fork remains a small, friendly town. Just like the one its most famous resident, Sam Peckinpah, nostalgically brought to life for millions of people onscreen.

Thanks to Kathleen Ellis, Chairperson of the North Fork History Group, for providing some of the information included in this article.

Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah:  A Portrait in Montage. New York: Proscenium Publishers, Inc., 1976.


All Photos Courtesy of the North Fork History Group except for the following:

-Denver S. Church – “Just Politics.” The Livingston Chronicle, Merced County, CA, May 31, 1934, p. A1. 

-Sign used in The Rifleman: “The Sharpshooter” –  Season 1: Episode 1.  Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions

Copyright © 2023 by Laurie Waskin