Sierra Sun Times
Faces of the Clampers - By Linda Gast
Dedication of the Monument at the Mariposa History Center and Museum
E Clampus Vitus is a men-only organization which flourished in the California mining camps during the Gold Rush days. After many years of being dormant, it was revived in the early 1930's, and has chapters throughout the West. It has been described by Carl Wheat, a San Francisco historian who helped to revitalize it, as the "comic strip on the page of California's history."
It is said the organization originated in West Virginia in the 1840's. A blacksmith, tavern keeper and state legislator by the name of Ephraim Bee is credited with organizing the first chapters of ECV with the purpose of poking fun at the then popular secret societies which had often denied membership to many ECV members.
When gold was discovered in California, Joseph Zumwalt brought his family from Kentucky to join the gold miners, and in Mokelumne Hill established the first California ECV lodge. In spite of their boisterous ways, members helped many widows and orphans left in need by mining accidents. There are almost no records of such charities, because, as one historian put it, "The trouble was that during the meetings, none of the brothers were in any condition to keep any minutes and afterwards nobody could remember what had taken place." Between 1850 and 1885 there were more than 50,000 members, but as gold and silver mining decreased, the lodges faded into obscurity.
In 1930 E Clampus Vitus was revived and continues today with Orders throughout California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. According to the by-laws, all members are officers and all offices are of equal indignity. The motto is "Credo quia absurdum" which means "I believe because it is absurd".
The latter-day members of this organization attempt to uphold the traditions of fellowship, good spirits, and fun. The modern “CLAMPERS” are dedicated to the care and protection of the wider and the orphan. Ken Davis, an enthusiastic Clamper, added “But especially the Widder”
The Phoenixmasonry Masonic Museum has instructions on becoming a Clamper , “ It is not an easy task! Certainly a man may express a desire but he must be invited. Clearly, the prospect must have a genuine interest in western history. Other requirements have been listed as a good sense of humor, a relatively thick skin, a cast iron stomach, an open mind, a flare for the ridiculous, and an appreciation of absurdity. If the invitation is accepted, the candidate is presented by his sponsor at a doin’s and must survive a time honored ritual at the hands of the Grand Imperturbable Hangman. It is also important to know that an invitation is only given once. If refused it is never tendered again. But who, we ask, would refuse such an honor? After all, among our members are college professors, truckers, U.S. Presidents, clerics, sheriffs, mechanics, miners, judges, laborers, pilots, bartenders, senators, carpenters, lawyers, plumbers, entrepreneurs, authors and just about anything else you could think of. Each treated the same or, as we say, with equal indignity.” In the words of a noted Brother, "Clampers are not made, they are born. Like gold, they just have to be discovered."
Documentation in the museum goes on to say that, “ Modern day E Clampus Vitus combines a dedication to preserving western and mining history with a never ending quest for fun. And, lest we be untrue to our heritage, a liberal dash of the absurd is added for good measure.” In both California and Nevada the Clampers are the largest historical organization. They have erected many hundred historical markers and plaques to commemorate sites, people and events that played a role in our western heritage but might otherwise be lost or forgotten. Many of these plaques are recorded in state and national registries. Before a plaque is erected the subject is clearly identified, documented and researched. The research work alone, often taking a year or more to complete, involves many people spending long hours digging through libraries, official records, newspaper files and interviewing people. The work is, of course, voluntary. A single large cast granite plaque, typical of that used, frequently cost a thousand dollars or more to erect.
Following such a dedication, or’Plaquing’ as it is called, there is a traditional party still called a ‘doin’s’. As one writer noted, “these party gatherings of red shirted pranksters lead to the organization’s reputation as either a "Historical Drinking Society" or a "Drinking Historical Society". While there is no denial that distilled and fermented beverages freely flow, the group is officially and vehemently opposed to public intoxication and require that those who partake have a Brother of sobriety holding the reins".
All photos and articles - Copyright Linda Gast
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