AHWAHNEE – Back in the Gold Rush Days, a good prank or a practical joke brought much needed relief to the realities of what was a very hard life.
The “Clampers” still love a good bit of fun, but they are also dedicated to the promotion and preservation of western history.
E Clampus Vitus, Grub Gulch Chapter 41- 49, gathered on a beautiful Saturday morning — Oct. 12 to be precise — to dedicate and celebrate a new monument, honoring the life and legacy of John Charles Shay.
So just who was John Shay, you may ask. Clampers Historian Steve Varner shared the story with the assembled Red Shirts, Poor Blind Candidates and various others who were assembled along Road 600 at Canary Cottage on this fall morning.
In 1898, Shay left San Francisco (and his wife) with all his earthly belongings, to search for gold in them there hills. He took a train to Madera, made his way to Raymond, got a wagon and pack mule and walked on to Grub Gulch.
There he shared a shack along the creek with two other adventurers for a while, and after losing his shirt in his quest for gold, Shay homesteaded 160 acres, built his blacksmith shop and brought his wife from San Francisco.
He built a house in 1901, that became known as Canary Cottage, named for the golden finches that fly through the area.
Shay serviced the numerous wagons, stages and horse travelers that passed through on their way to Yosemite.
He grew crops, fruit trees and grapes, made some wine now and then, and raised hogs and cattle along with his blacksmithing chores.
In 1903, when he heard Teddy Roosevelt would be traveling by his place, Shay saluted him with a volley of rifle fire from his porch as the president passed by with John Muir on their way to Yosemite. “Imagine doing that today,” quipped Varner.
After some years in the Gulch, Shay decided that life in the country wasn’t quite as friendly as it had once been, and he returned to the “city” to live out the balance of his life. Shay died at his ranch in Madera in 1936.
In the 1920s, the place was bought by the Evert Hinshaw Co. who ran a stage/bus stop, providing gasoline, oil, home cooked meals and pies, room rentals, and operated “Standard High Sierra Saddle Tours.”
The Elam family bought the property in 1928, and their descendants, the Thomes, still live on the land and are ranching to this day.
Several members of the Thome family were on hand this day to share memories of the early days on the ranch, including Ken and Beverly, a brother and sister who grew up on the land. Both left for life adventures of their own, but have returned to the foothills and Canary Cottage.
When the Clampers approached them about the monument many months ago, the Thomes were thrilled with the idea and came on board right away.
As Beverly said to those assembled, “I am the lucky recipient of all this history and these memories,” and she was happy to share.
After many emotional thank you’s to all who worked so hard providing yet another monument to the history of the area, the dedication was completed with the official christening, and the call of “What say the Brethren?” To which hands were raised and the answer returned loud and clear — “Satisfactory!”
Whereupon they adjourned for a round of requisite merry-making.
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, visit their website and spend some time. You’ll learn something and have a good laugh or three in the bargain. You will 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.