MADERA COUNTY – While the frivolous band of gentlemen of E Clampus Vitus, affectionately known as 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.
On a bright summer morning the last week of school, a contingent of the Grub Gulch Chapter #41-49 gathered at Dixieland School just west of Madera to dedicate their latest monument, celebrating 100 years of educating the children of this ranching district.
Historian Steve Varner welcomed all in attendance, including his cohorts in the red shirts, the Red Hat ladies, parents and staff, and of course the young students of Dixieland School.
Since the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus is not something with which an individual of grade school age is likely to be familiar, Varner gave them a brief history lesson before unveiling the monument.
“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. They were poor people who didn’t make a lot of money.”
Varner explained that if a miner was injured or killed during the course of his work, the family would become destitute, so the Clampers, in their role as a fraternal organization, 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 Varner.
To give the kids some context as to just how long the Clampers have been around, Varner asserted 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. “Even Mr. J’s grandfather was a Clamper.” This widened some eyes in the young audience, knowing that their principal of six years, Mr. Kliff Justesen, had ties to this illustrious group of red-shirted men.
In 1849 a Missouri man by the name of Joe Zumwalt brought Clamperdom to California, Varner told the assembled. Zumwalt settled in Hangtown over by Placerville and the first chapter 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.
“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.”
With everyone up to speed on the history of the red shirts, it was time to unveil the historic addition to the Dixieland School. With much fanfare, and many accompanying “ooohs” and “aaahs,” a brand new kind of monument was unveiled.
This is the first time the local chapter has dedicated a bench, and they are keeping the mold to use at Dairyland School next year.
Now, this fraternity is not really sure if it is a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society,” but monuments are traditionally dedicated with a baptism by whiskey. However, in deference to the locale, being a school and all, this day was celebrated with a dousing of milk.
“The principal was scared to death that we were going to pour some good libation on the monument, and we kidded him about spiking the milk with vodka,” said Varner.
After thanks and handshakes all around, the kids crowded around the new addition to their school to have their picture taken.
Gateway Memorials in Merced did the engraving on the plaque, and Cornerstone Granite in Raymond gave the Clampers a great deal on the granite slab. The men doing the heavy lifting for the project included Mason Clark, the Rockstacker, Kurt, Patrick, Cy, JJ, Robert, Greg, Justin, Richard, Tony, Brian, Stinky and Steve.
The frivolous band of gentlemen from E Clampus Vitus Grub Gulch Chapter #41-49 then assessed their work and as always, the Brethren declared it “Satisfactory!”
For some fascinating reading about the history of the West, and some good laughs along the way, visit the E Clampus Vitus website.
Engraving on the plaque reads:
“In February of 1913 residents of the Dixieland Farming District realized the need for a local school. They petitioned the County and the resulting school was named Munich, which came from a group of residents who migrated here from the town of Munich in the Dakotas. During World War I, public sentiment convinced the County to rename the school Dixieland. The small school house became the social nucleus of the neighborhood. The Women’s Club met here. Monthly dances with live bands were hosted, and people came from surrounding areas to attend the Christmas festivities. Today, the school continues as the centerpiece of the community.”
The next planned monument for the Grub Gulch Chapter will be in the historic Hildreth area, just east of O’Neals.
An interesting update on the John Shay Blacksmith Shop and Canary Cottage dedication last October – Following a lead in Zelda Dubel’s book on Cedarbrook, Historian Varner tracked down John Shay, and learned that he is buried in Forest Lawn Glendale.
“When I went to Southern California for my granddaughters graduation last week I went over to Glendale and found Shay’s headstone,” says Steve. “That finishes the story!”