FAT HILL DIARY Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Diary From the Old Fat Hill
by Cecile Page Vargo

Thanks to friends and caretakers, John and Roxie Bowden, and town owner, Mike Patterson, of Cerro Gordo, I got the opportunity to celebrate my Big 50 on the old Fat Hill, and experience day to day life there for two weeks in May of 2002. The following are excerpts from the journal I kept during my stay:

May 8, 2002 

The guys went off to visit the White Sides Mine in Mazourka Canyon, where friend Cat, and her dog Ripley met them for explorations. Friend Mayet Cole, and her daughter Resa, helped me settle into my room in the upstairs of the American Hotel where I would be living for two weeks. I guess you can say we appropriately "Martha Stewart" the place with comforters and quilts from home, a few throw pillows, some old Cerro Gordo bottles with dried flowers on top of the trunk that held my clothes, and a picture of Roger and I that was taken on the porch of the hotel, as well as a picture of the first Ecological 4-wheeling tour we did to this wonderful old ghost town. Wrought iron hooks hold my collection of various denim jackets, a large country blue kitchen towel hides my port-a-potty when not in use. My journal, my Cerro Gordo history books, a few magazines and lighter reading sit atop the trunk as well. 

Downstairs, in the big hotel kitchen, I have my laptop for phone connections and sit on a stool at the built in dish hutch writing here. It's cold and windy today but the sun shines through the lace triangles on the kitchen windows, and I have beautiful views of Owens Dry Lake where I sit. 

We have had a weekend of birthday celebration and partying for those 3 or 4 of us who had May birthdays. Roger took us on town tours, drove us to the Burgess Mine, and to the Swansea Salt Tram, via the old Swansea Grade, and he cooked tremendous meals for us here on the modern restaurant style stoves that sit next to the original cast iron cook stove. Everyone agreed Cerro Gordo is truly heaven on earth! The spirit of Jody Stewart who envisioned Cerro Gordo as it is today and saw her dreams come true, watches over all of us, filling the town with warmth and love. Even those who did not have the pleasure to know Jody, felt her spirit. 

As Jody would have appreciated we had some powerful female energy on her mountain: Cat, Roxie, Carmen, Myrt from Jawbone Station, a friend from work, and myself. Beautiful moments with Roxie and Carmen and I behind the old ice house, making a non-alcoholic wine toast to Jody and pledging to keep her spirit alive. Cat and friend Pam, and I took hikes up the hill above the existing town buildings to the old miners cabins, and pondered over the souls that once lived there. We also hiked to the mill and to the hoist house, envisioning the days with all of the mining operations were alive and working. What a noisy, dusty place this must have been!

The last two days with the population dwindling from 23 to 5, I have had time to enter in my diary, do a couple of town tours for drop in visitors, talk with those participating in a 5 hour photo workshop, and watch them set up their pictures, and I have done quiet hikes around the town. We also began preparing for Jody's memorial service, and are spring cleaning the hotel kitchen. As I scrubbed down the original cook stove yesterday, I wondered what stories it could tell me and tried to imagine the incredible heat that must have come from that stove 24 hours a day. I also tried to envision the maids and cooks hustling and bustling around, cooking, cleaning, perhaps gossiping as they went about their business. There are pictures on top of the old cook stove of the original restaurant staff in this old kitchen. Amazing to all of us, one cook could be a reincarnation of Roger who has now been declared the new cook of Cerro Gordo. Surely, both he and I have been destined to be here on the mountain and a part of its new history.

Its a new day here on the mountain, cooler and windy. I'm going to take my hike around town, then come back to continue our spring cleaning, then hopefully get some time in my room to journal and be quiet with the good spirits that live in my room. I have adopted the hotel cat, Skinny, and he keeps me company up there. 

May 12, 2002 

This has just been a time of being a part of the little community up here and getting ready for Jody's memorial. I take a hike up to the hoist house and to the Swansea Grade every morning and every night, always looking down at the rocks and the dirt beneath my feet to see what stories the mountain has buried. Four or five hours of the day I continue spring cleaning the American Hotel kitchen and dining room. I feel honored to be a part of the history of this 1871 hotel in such a way. Its a small part, but I am privileged to get to play that small part.

In the evenings, after my second hike of the day, I retire early to my room, and turn on some relaxing music and just let myself drift into thoughts of Jody and all of the wonderful restorations she has accomplished here. I also say a quiet prayer for Mike and family and friends who sorely miss her now that she is gone. I pray for the future of Cerro Gordo, that it will continue on for our grandchildren to know what life was like in a time period they might not otherwise be able to picture. The wind is usually howling above my gentle music, and the building creaks and moans, a reminder of the good spirits still surviving here on the mountain. 

May 21, 2002

I got back from the 1800's and the old Fat Hill on Sunday evening. It will take me a while to get used to the 21st century again. My time there was peaceful and meaningful, as I literally became a part of the little community there. I worked with caretakers John and Roxie, their son and daughter in-law, Jody's husband Mike Patterson and his family, and volunteers to prepare Cerro Gordo for Jody's memorial service. We got the whole town sparkling clean inside and out, planted flowers in nooks and crannies, old ore carts, rusty old buckets, and filled vases in the hotel. It was beautiful. Over two hundred people, the most the town had seen in many many years, came to celebrate Jody's life. The weather even cooperated, and was sunshiny, warm, and only breezy as opposed to the strong winds that had been predicted. Only about 100 people fit into the American hotel for the actual service, so had weather been bad, it would have been a disaster. Our numbers overflowed onto the lobby, the deck, and the old creaky porch. The service itself lasted about an hour and a half. Two ministers spoke, and others offered their words of love and friendship for Jody. Two senators spoke, and presented Mike with an official document listing all of Jody's accomplishments. In addition to her restoration efforts on the old silver mining town, Jody was a regular on the tv show Password, a realtor, and she worked with one eyed pilots in the Cyclops program at Edwards Air Force base. She also had this magical way of making everyone feel like you were the most important person she had ever met. 

Mike, John, and Don Becker, spent two days at the cemetery building the rock cairn that cemented in the urn that holds Jody's ashes. A granite cross reading simply, Beloved Jody is atop the cairn. A bench sits before the cross for one to rest from their hike to the cemetery, and to contemplate Jody's life and all she had accomplished. One can share the wonderful view of the little town of Cerro Gordo on one side, the Owens dry lake and the Sierra Crest on the other. Following the last words for Jody at the American Hotel, everyone was invited to walk up the hill to the cemetery. An antique Maytag washer on the porch, was filled with assorted colors of carnations. Roger and I watched as one by one everyone took a carnation, and hiked up the hill to pay their respects. Those who couldn't hike, were allowed to drive up the private road. Roger and I had already had a private moment at the cemetery the night before the actual service; the first besides family to pay respects.

One of the distinguished guests at the memorial, was Remi Nadeau, the great great grandson of the original Remi Nadeau, who ran the freight wagons pulled by mule teams that took silver down to the sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles and supplies back up to Cerro Gordo. Remi Nadeau III, is the author of several historical books. We did not know what Remi looked like, but finally found a gentle older man, surrounded by people asking him questions, on the front porch of the hotel. We waited until the crowd subsided, then got a chance to have a private talk with him. I sheepishly asked him if he would sign my copies of the "Silver Seekers" and "Ghost Towns and Mining Camps", and he said he would be delighted to. I hurried upstairs to my room and grabbed my copies, then went down to the porch. Remi Nadeau and I sat on the porch of the old American Hotel at Cerro Gordo and talked about our love of history and the desert while he signed my books. I was just in heaven at that moment. We talked about my favorite story, which Remi writes of - the hat party when the old miners celebrated a legal victory over the mines, and everyone threw their hats into a big bonfire on the street, then ran across to Victor Beaudry's store and raided it for more hats to prance around town in. Remi pointed out Victor Beaudry's smelter down the hill, and I smiled and told him I knew. We pondered over what it must have been like when his great great grandfather took those mules up and down the old Yellow Grade road over and over again. After a bit, Remi excused himself, and he and his wonderful wife, took their carnations from the old Maytag washer and began their procession to the cemetery to pay respects to the modern day pioneer woman of Cerro Gordo, Jody Stewart. 

The most profound thing about the whole Memorial to all of us, other than the love and common bond we all had for Jody and for her ghost town, was that we were all actually participating in another significant moment of history. In fact, I realized that my whole two weeks on the Fat Hill, was a part of history, as I cleaned that old hotel, as I slept upstairs in one of two restored rooms with walls so thin I could hear my neighbors, David and Doris sneeze, and as I helped give town tours to the daily visitors sharing that slice of history with them. I thought of the miners who did not have the luxury of the private rooms, but had to sleep in a communal dormitory in the hotel, instead. I thought of the sounds of the equipment that went on day in day out, the dirt and the dust from the constant winds and the traffic on the roads, and the black smoke that constantly came from the smelters giving Cerro Gordo the nickname Old Smokey back in those days. I recorded it on my laptop in this old 1871 hotel, and realized the irony of it all. The miners would have marveled at the funny suitcase typewriter that could instantly send messages anywhere in the world. They would have been surprised at the shell of a town Cerro Gordo had become in the year 2002, but they would have been pleased that pieces of it were still alive for their great great grandchildren and many more, to experience. What an amazing time for me to help to be a part of this wonderful town!

On Sunday, May 19th, I packed everything into the Forerunner and Roger drove me back down the Yellow Grade Road into Lone Pine. My first time off the mountain in two weeks. I imagined myself in a simple dark dress, with a straw hat tied around my neck to protect my face from the dust as I road down the Yellow Grade in an old wagon driven by horses. I felt like the country girl going back into the big city. My first site of the tiny hamlet of Keeler at the bottom of the Yellow Grade, at the shores of Owens dry lake, shocked me. Here was life; human life, greenery trees, buildings,; more than I had become accustomed to on the old Fat Hill. In Lone Pine it was odd seeing houses that were actually painted, and not weathered for one hundred years. We pulled into Carl's Jr. for my first hamburger and French fries, and sat down at a booth to enjoy. The sound of the air conditioning unit, and the loud hum of all of the voices talking at one time, actually hurt my ears. I also was fascinated that the 30-40 mph winds howling outside the building were only a vision from the glass windows, and could not be seen or heard like they had been from my American Hotel room. It was the 21st century again, and I would soon be headed down to Los Angeles in record times that the old freighter Remi Nadeau could not have conceived of. I hated to say goodbye to Cerro Gordo, but know that I will have other opportunities to be a part of the town in the future. 

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