December 2006 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts






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Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at:

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

A Miner's Saturnalia

 by Cecile Page Vargo

          During the ancient days of Roman yore, the period of December 17th through December 23rd was dedicated to the temple of the god, Saturn. This celebration, known as a Saturnalia, was one of the largest and most important public festivals of the day. The traditional winter solstice customs included overeating, drinking, merrymaking, and general tomfoolery. Early Christians dubbed the word saturnalia as orgy.

Saturnalia  by Antoine-Francois Callet (1741-1823). Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

          According to Louise Clappe, author of The Shirley Letters, in December of 1851 the good male citizens of the Sierra Nevada foothill community of Rich Bar took it upon themselves to resurrect the ancient Roman Saturnalia to cure the mining camp’s doldrums. This group of young, womanless, men, tired of being walled in by sky-kissed hills in dark damp cabins during torrential California downpours, began their revelry on December 24th, and continued on through most of January.

          It all began at the Humboldt Hotel that Victorian Christmas Eve. New proprietors had just taken over and it was time for not only Christian holidays, but Roman ones as well. Red calico decked the bar and the bowling alley was lined with new coarse white cotton cloth. Broken lampshades were replaced with new ones. Mules traversed down the hill with casks of brandy and baskets of champagne. The hotel was lucky to have a real floor that was washed for the first time just before the festivities would commence.

         As the sun set, loud “hurrahs” came from an army of India rubber coated Rich Barians. A 50 year old man with a tremendous snow-white beard, dubbed as “The General” led the parade, waving a fire lit lantern to show the way. The crowd settled in at the Humboldt by nine o’clock that evening for an oyster and champagne supper. Great toasts, orations, and musical crooning accompanied the meal.

            Dancing went on through the night into the next, and the next until the dancers turned to drunken heaps along the newly washed bar room floor after four full days.  Some of the men were said to have barked like dogs, some roared like bulls, and others hissed like serpents and geese. Even the never before intoxicated, were inclined to imbibe for the Saturnalia.

          A mock vigilante committee was formed by the drunken miners. The poor unfortunates who stood outside were taken by a constable and those who could still stand on their own two feet to court. At the court they were charged with something amusing, and sentenced to treat the crowd. Prisoners succumbed cheerfully to their fate.

          As the week progressed most of Rich Bar was too tired from the Roman Saturnalia celebration to cause much trouble and all was relatively quiet. New Years came around and the revelry broke out in even worse fashion, spreading to the communities of Smiths Bar and the Junction. For three weeks this went on until fiddlers fiddled themselves into their respective graves. Oysters, brandied fruits, claret and port wine supplies were exhausted, as were the mining camp men. The ancient god, Saturn, was appeased for another winter.


THE SHIRLEY LETTERS From the California Mines, 1851 - 1852
by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe
Santa Clara University
Heyday Books

Saturnalia - Wikipedia

Real Riches of the Season

by Susan Butruile


A Mountain Thanksgiving

 photography by Roger Vargo


Every year, or so, friends and volunteers gather in the American Hotel at Cerro Gordo to renew old friendships and share a festive meal organized and cooked by Mary Grimsley.


Outside the American Hotel, Jean and Marla relax in the warm afternoon sun (L) while Mike and the guys perch on a rail.


Inside the kitchen, Mary (center) and the kitchen crew talk and prepare side dishes while Miss Priss, the hotel mouser, dozes on a sunlit tabletop.


Mike's son, Shaun, expertly places cranberry sauce on the table (top) and gets table setting directions from Sheila (left).


As afternoon temperatures dip into the 40's, guests move inside to capture the warmth of the hotel's National wood burning stove.


As mealtime nears, Mike and Shaun pose by the kitchen door, while inside the kitchen Marla wrestles with the scalloped potatoes.


The chow line forms to the left.


After dinner, some of the group pose with Sheriff Mike outside the American Hotel. Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved.                           Powered by