May 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Ella M. Cain--Bodie Schoolmarm and Historian

by Peggy Lee

            It was a clear, warm, and sunny day in July of 1960 when we met Ella Cain. Our family had come to visit Bodie, that ghost town we had heard so much about. Bodie had the reputation, and a well earned one, of being the wildest gold camp in the West and we had learned that there remained a great number of buildings still standing, that we were wanting to see. We were on vacation and staying in a cabin at Mammoth Lakes so we took the shortest route from that direction which took us up the Cottonwood Canyon road off of highway 167, the road to Hawthorne. This road of course was not paved and very rough, and along the way the muffler on our Mercury sedan broke loose. This did not make my husband happy.

The Bodie schoolhouse as it appears today. (Photo by Martin Cole)

             This was before Bodie had become a state park and you could still drive into town. Luckily we spotted a long piece of wire lying beside the road and that looked like a good temporary fix for the muffler, so we parked up on
Green Street very close to the school building, and my husband got to work fastening up the muffler. 
             While he was working on that I noticed that the school door was open. I took our children with me and entered into the schoolroom. Mrs. Cain was seated at the front behind the teachers desk. She stood and welcomed us and told the children and I to be seated at the students desks. She was very friendly and asked if we had ever been to Bodie before, and then she proceeded to tell us some of Bodies history, and also that she had been teaching here in the early 1900s. She showed us books and globes and many other items that had been in that room for many years. There were flags and maps, lunch boxes, and even paper mache Jack-O-Lanterns left from some long ago Halloween celebration. She seemed to enjoy the visit as much as we did but we, reluctantly, had to leave. We spent another hour or two walking around the town till we realized that it was time to head back to our cabin. We vowed to come again, and that promise has been kept since we have visited Bodie almost every year for over forty years. It seems as though every time we come we learn something new about that wonderful old town.

Ella Cain

            The large two story wooden building with the belfry on top was not the first school in Bodie. The first was most likely the one opened in March of 1878 on Main Street that was taught by Belle Moore, the wife of Ben Butler who owned a saloon also on Main Street. [i] Then there was one located about two blocks higher up on Green Street, it is said  that a disgruntled student who did not want to go to school set fire to it. This newer one had originally been the Bon Ton boarding house that had been run in 1879 by Mrs. C.A. Ratjohn.  Some of the early teachers were a Mr. Cook and a Mr. McCarty. The school was of the one-room type with students of all ages and grades. Some of the older ones were even 16 or 17 years old. [ii]
            Ella Cain was born  in Bodie in 1882 as Ella Margaret Cody, daughter of  Michael Joseph [iii] and Catherine (Shaughnessy} Cody. She had two sisters, Mary and Katherine, and  three brothers, Ralph,
Edmond,  and Mervyn. Her maternal grandparents, James and Margaret (Dunn) Shaughnessy were both born in Ireland and immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut. They answered the call of the California gold rush, and went by boat to Panama where they crossed the Isthmus on mule back, then went  by sailing vessel to San Francisco. Catherine, the first of their six children, who would become Ella's mother, was born in the little mining camp of Howland Flats, Sierra County, in 1862. 

Ella Cain and Mary Cody

            They later moved to Virginia City and opened a hotel which burned in a big fire in 1875. In 1879 the family joined the rush to Bodie. Here Catherine married in 1881 M. J. Cody. [iv] who had  come from Lake Geneva Wisconsin . He had been appointed under President Grover Cleveland to be the first Land Office Receiver in that part of the west. [v]  He was stationed in the Land Office, in 1885-86, which was housed in what is now known as the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel and Bodie Store located on the northeast corner of Main and Green Streets.  His duties were to register applications for the purchase of government land and to receive money for the sale of the land. The land office was ordered removed to Independence in 1886 and Mr. Cody did not wish to move there so that ended that job for him. [vi] Both before and after that time he worked in the mines. In an earlier incident, he narrowly escaped death in an accident that occurred in the Mono Mine. [vii]
            In 1888 Ella's father was elected Sheriff of Mono County, so the family moved to
Bridgeport, the county seat, where she grew up and attended the local schools.  When she was 14 she was sent away to school for several years to learn to be a teacher. In 1900 she returned to Bodie to teach as the intermediate teacher in the grammar school, which employed three teachers. [viii] She was only 18 years old at that time. In 1904 she married David Victor Cain, [ix] son of the Bodie pioneers, James Stuart and Martha (Wells) Cain.
            David Cain's mother went to
Carson City in June 1880 for the birth of her first child. She later had three other sons and one daughter. Jim Cain started out in the lumber business there in Bodie. Later a lease in the Standard Mine paid off with a rich ledge, from that time on everything seemed to go right for Jim Cain, and he then bought the Bodie Bank. He later was instrumental in getting electricity to Bodie, and other sites in Mono County. He eventually became the town's principal property owner. The J, S. Cain house is still standing on the northwest corner of Park and Green Streets. [x] It is one of the nicest and best kept houses there. It has had almost constant occupation by the family or caretakers and more recently park rangers.
            Ella and David lived in a house located on the southwest corner of
Fuller Street and Green Street, across Green St. from the Methodist Church. This house had been built in 1873.They had three children Helen, Ruth, and David Jr. In 1913 before David Jr. was born the family moved to Aurora
to take care of Cain interests there. [xi] They remained there four years before returning to Bodie in 1917.
            All along during the years Ella Cain lived and taught in Bodie, she felt the need to write the story of her hometown and she began taking notes whenever there was a gathering of old-timers. She later did some serious researching and began working on her first book, The Story of Bodie, in the mid 1930s and it was finally published in 1956.  Her wonderful collection of photos that were included show many houses and buildings wearing a coat of white paint that has long since disappeared. At the time that we met her she was working on her second book, The Story of
Early Mono County . These were the first books written about Bodie and most likely the most trusted. She said in her books that the ghost town of Bodie will in the near future become a State Park, as it did in 1962.

A window at the Bodie schoolhouse. (Photo by Roger Vargo)

            Ella Cain died at age 83, on
January 28 1966 in Bridgeport where she and her family had been living for years after they left Bodie. She was buried in the Bridgeport Cemetery next to her daughter Ruth who had died in 1958. She was survived by her husband David, son David Jr. and daughter Helen, their families and two sisters. [xii]
            The town of Bodie had two disastrous fires, one in 1892, and the last one in 1932, both of which destroyed many buildings, both business and residential. There were other fires too that took out one or two buildings at a time. Then as the mines played out and the wars came people began to leave town and it quietly folded up except for a very few persistent residents. The Cain family ended up owning what was left and they hired caretakers to live in town year round to be sure that the remaining buildings were not vandalized. Members of the Cain family took turns relieving the caretaker for a day off now and then, and it was on such a day that we came to Bodie and met its most famous teacher and historian Ella Margaret (Cody) Cain.



[i] >From Bodie 1859-1900 by Frank S. Wedertz

[ii]  From Ella M. Cain's book The Story of Bodie. Pg. 183

[iii]  Mrs. Cain referred to her father as M.J. Cain His full name, Michael Joseph is found in a Shaughnessy Family Genealogy  by Dick Kurt 

[iv] From Ella M. Cain's book  The Story of Early Mono County, pg iii  And  pg vi in her Story of Bodie. And also from Dick Kurt's genealogy Shaughnessy Family Bodie Pioneers  (Dick Kurt is a grandson of Ellas daughter Helen)

[v] pg 185 Story of Bodie

[vi] pg 185 Story of Bodie, and Frank Werdertz book Bodie 1859-1900  also California State Park  brochure Bodie state Historic Park

[vii]  pg.190 Wedertz book

[viii] pg iv  Story of Bodie

[ix] Story of Mono County pg iii

[x] Location of buildings found in the State Park Brochure  and Guide to Bodie an historical illustrated map

[xi] Story of Mono County pg. iv

[xii] Obituary from Bridgeport newspaper.

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