NORTH FORK – More than three dozen red-shirted members of E Clampus Vitus, affectionately know as Clampers, descended on downtown North Fork Sunday morning to unveil their latest monument preserving the history of the West.
The monument, placed in front of the Stagecoach Stop downtown, shares a bit of the history of North Fork, beginning with Milton Brown.
“Brown’s Place was established in 1852 when Milton Brown settled on the North Fork of Willow Creek near this present location. His cabin was one of the first homes built in the area. As the many miners and stockmen came to the area, they used his homestead as a storage area for their wagons and supplies which they returned for as needed. The first road into this area started from Fort Miller and ambled to Crane Valley. This was a better route because the snow melted almost a full month earlier than the northern one.
In 1888 through the efforts of the North Fork Lumber Company a post office was established in Albert Brown’s home with him serving as postmaster. In 1893 the US Forest Service was formed and the headquarters was based here. Now known a North Fork. Around 1910 all freight and passengers came by stage and wagons. 16 horses or mules were needed to pull the two wagons to this stage stop. The timber industry was instrumental in the development of North Fork, bringing jobs and families to town.”
Clampers Historian Rob Stapleton welcomed everyone with a bit of background as Diann Miller, long-time volunteer firefighter and Captain at Madera County Fire Station 11, shared with the assembled that her family — the Radmans — lived in the Stagecoach Stop from 1964 to 1973.
Their home had a red phone, which was the first fire phone from Mariposa Dispatch. Next door was an air raid siren, and when the red phone rang, someone in the Radman family would run over and hit the siren to call out local firefighters.
The building was later bought by Diann’s sister Lynette, who was married to Tom Wheeler at the time, and they opened an antique store. Last year, the Stagecoach Stop was purchased by Bandit Town (formerly Old Town) owner Jennifer McMillan, and will serve as a B&B in its latest incarnation.
The monument is the most recent contribution to the history of the west by E Clampus Vitus Grub Gulch Chapter 41-49. While the Clampers are well known for their copious merrymaking and love a good practical joke, they are first and foremost dedicated to the promotion and preservation of western history.
The heavy lifting on this project was done by Keith Stevenson, who served as Rock Stacker, engineer and project manager; Tom Ingram, assistant Rock Stacker; with “satisfactory” participation from Nick Northern, Joe Casares and Kurt Bridwell. The engraving was done by Gateway Memorial, and Academy Quarry provided the stone at a cost characterized as “they practically gave it to us.”
On Sunday, the enthusiastic crowd celebrated over a century-and-a-half of North Fork history and raised a rousing cheer as the Noble Grand Humbug performed the baptism by firewater.
With history having been celebrated, former owners and residents having shared their stories, the newly-minted monument standing proudly on its foundation, and the obligatory dedication with a bath of the finest whisky on hand, the Brethren declared their work to be “Satisfactory!” and everyone repaired to the Buckhorn Saloon for the next part of the day’s festivities — the declaration that the saloon is now an Official Watering Hole for any passing red-shirts in need of refreshment.
As the band of merry-makers gathered in the Buckhorn, they raised a glass to saloon owner Curtis Kirk, who passed away in 2008 and was a member in good standing of the Grub Gulch Chapter. The Clampers had been in conversation with Curt about a North Fork monument near the Buckhorn, but with his passing, the project had languished — until now.
Humbug JJ Skeen presented the plaque identifying the establishment as a Clampers Official Water Hole to long-time Buckhorn bartender Kenny Hoy. Owner Alice was on the premises, but with the place packed to the rafters, she was busy cooking up a storm in the kitchen.
E Clampus Vitus (which actually has no known meaning other than in Dog Latin) operates under the motto Credo Quia Absurdum, which is generally understood to mean, “I believe it because it is absurd.” It is a fraternal organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the heritage of the American West, especially the history of the Mother Lode and gold mining regions of the area.
During the gold mining era, everybody in town who had money was either a Moose, an Elk, a Mason or an Odd Fellow. The Clampers were sort of a low-key organization started to fit the needs of gold miners, who were poor people who didn’t make a lot of money.
If a miner was injured or killed during the course of his work, the family would become destitute, so the Clampers would supply money to these families, pay their mortgages anonymously, and drop off food at their house.
“It was a benevolent organization, supporting the “widders” and orphans. Especially the widders,” explained past Clampers Historian Steve Varner, asserting that the Clampers had been around so long that indeed Adam, of Adam and Eve fame, was a Clamper.
“Other noteworthy Clampers throughout history were Ulysses S. Grant, Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), John Studebaker, Ronald Regan, Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts,” said Varner.
In 1849 a Missouri man by the name of Joe Zumwalt brought Clamperdom to California. He settled in Hangtown over by Placerville and the first chapter was started in 1851 in Mokelumne Hill.
“As the gold mining era slowly faded away by the turn of the 20th century, there was only one chapter left and it finally went away. But then in the 1930s, a couple guys in the Bay Area resurrected it. The Yerba Buena Lodge was started and it has grown ever since.”
There are now over forty chapters in the western United States, dedicated to preserving the history of the West. In fact, North Fork’s own local dentist Dr. Ed Fey is a Clamper whose father Marshall started the chapter in Virginia City, Nevada.
“We’re here to research history and celebrate history,” said Varner. “We build monuments; there are probably a thousand monuments up and down the west coast. It’s a good organization.”
E Clampus Vitus may have started as spoof on such institutions as the Elks, the Masons and the Odd Fellows, but they truly do live up to their mission of promoting and preserving history. Built on a “tripod of masculinity, comradery and frivolity,” they are committed to having fun while they’re at it.
For some very good reads and witty stories of the Gold Rush Days and all the work ECV does to preserve the history of our area, visit their website and spend some time. You’ll learn something and have a good laugh or three in the bargain, and be invited in with this message:
“Welcome to the official site of E Clampus Vitus. Spend a little time here and enjoy the work of a frivolous band of gentlemen who place California History above all and work at preserving and recognizing the important sites throughout our great state of California as well as Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Washington.”
There are dozens of ECV monuments in the area, keeping mountain area history alive, and just waiting for a visit from you.