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Clampers, Blacksmiths, Red Shirts And More

AHWAHNEE – Take a peek back in time to the days a hundred years ago and more, as the history-loving Grub Gulch Chapter 41-49 of E Clampus Vitus dedicates a monument at an old blacksmith shop and cottage located off Road 600.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, from 10 – 11 a.m. local “Clampers” are meeting to honor the legacy of John C. Shay, his blacksmith shop and home.

The residence, known as Canary Cottage for the large number of yellow finches remembered there, is adjacent to the shop, just north of the old gold mining town of Grub Gulch.

The public is invited to attend the dedication ceremony.

E Clampus Vitus monument at Golden Chain Theater - All Clampers - photo courtesy of ECVThe Clampers plan a gala event coinciding with their annual Fall Doins, including speeches and celebrations from the present owner of the property and neighbors recounting stories of the past relevant to the house and shop.

The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) is a fraternal organization dating back to the gold mining era and is dedicated to the study and preservation of Western Heritage, especially the history of the gold mining era.

E Clampus Vitus monument at Golden Chain Theater - photo courtesy of ECVAccording to Rocketdyne engineer turned Clampers’ historian Steve Varner, San Francisco resident John C. Shay moved to Grub Gulch at the end of the 19th century to mine gold. Shay ultimately opened a blacksmith shop to service the stages and horse travelers on their way to Yosemite. Shay lived in the house until he returned to San Francisco in the 1920s.

Clampers have installed hundreds of monuments and plaques at historical locations around the mountain area from Fresno Flats to the Golden Chain Theatre to Jones Store and as far away as Mammoth.

Standing looking at one of their granite and concrete markers, it’s hard to image the monument is there thanks to a group of individuals with titles like Gut-robber, Rock-stacker and Grand Humbug.

It’s important to note that the organization’s name, E Clampus Vitus means…nothing. Their motto remains “credo quia absurdium,” or “take nothing seriously unless it’s absurd.”

E Clampus Vitus monument at Golden Chain Theater Steve Varner on left - photo courtesy of ECVAccording to another Clamper historian, Carl I. Wheat, the ritual greeting was the “raising of both hands to the ears, with thumbs against ears and fingers extended.” The reply was a chest thump.

The Clampers organized themselves into a group during the mining days in mid-19th century gold country, and set about to mock the existing system, spoofing more serious fraternal organizations like the Masonic Lodge and Odd Fellows. The off-beat Clampers coalesced to have camaraderie, fun and to take care of the widows and orphans of miners. They stuck together amidst a lot of hazing, jesting and prank-pulling and helped each other out.

Today, “Clampers” often wear red shirts as homage to the red long underwear miners used to wear. They’re still a fraternal organization, one that strives to preserve history.

E Clampus Vitus monument location Canary Cottage John Shay - photo courtesy of ECVThey make an effort to carry out two dedications every year in the western United States, and the Shay house is the first location that holds a building someone lives in. That someone is a descendant of John Shay.

The dedication of the Shay monument will come in the midst of a closed initiation ritual for new members of the Clampers, who must be recommended in.

There are about 40 active members at this time, and they will take a break from their meeting to attend to the granite marker and the ceremony surrounding it.

Varner and the rest of the Clampers already have their eyes on properties they may want to designate with historical markers in the future.

E Clampus Vitus Hildreth property - photo courtesy of ECVThere’s a stage stop behind the old Black Hawk Lodge that might be on the Clampers’ list.

Another possibility exists where the old town of Hildreth was once located, over near Minarets High School in O’Neals. It’s rumored a wealth of gold bullion is buried under a tree there, somewhere. Now, who to know better about that than a Clamper?

Anyone with questions is encouraged to call historian Steve Varner at (559) 642-6246.


  1. Kellie, awesome article! WOW!!! Thanks for this great write up that portrays our group in a positive light. Hope you can make the dedication in October. Thanks again!

    Steve Varner

  2. So, who are the knuckleheads that are putting up the signs that say ‘No Trespassing’ and under those words in a form of a half circle ‘fremont’ ?????

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