[Doug Noble • March 15, 2014]
Some time ago Steve Crandell, who owns Steve Crandell, Historic Prints on Main Street in Placerville, came across an interesting old advertising poster for an event in Placerville. “When I saw it I knew I had to have it,” said Crandell, “I had never seen one like it before.
“It had a picture of an old saloon with people dancing and said it said, ‘Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown’ and ‘Placerville Days of ‘49 Mining Camp, May 21 to July 5.’ I knew it was something special. It wasn’t in perfect shape, but since most of these kinds of posters were thrown away when the event was over, it was amazing to find one at all.
“It was printed using an old process called stone printing, that was only used commercially up until the 1920s or so. I figured it might be really old, maybe even from the 50th celebration of the discovery of gold in 1898 or at least the later 100th celebration in 1948.”
It turns out that the celebration was neither of those events, but a very special, six week long event that took place in 1931.
Like 1930, 1931 was predicted to not be a good year for the country. The Great Depression was affecting everyone in all walks of life and things looked grim. That is probably the reason that the California State Chamber of Commerce and California Newspaper Publishers Association came up with the idea to make 1931 the “California Fiesta Year, Bringing Happiness to the World.”
In October of 1930 three members of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce attended a meeting of the state chamber in Sacramento where local communities were encouraged to came up with an idea for an event with a “ ’49er” theme. At the next meeting of the El Dorado Chamber, one of the attendees commented that “Although Mariposa, Woodland and Stockton have plans for events, the northern part of the state is looking to Placerville to stage the biggest ’49 celebration. After all, old Hangtown is the home of ’49.”
In November of the same year, the County Chamber announced that there would be a one day event on May 23, 1931 as a special feature of entertainment for the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythia, who were meeting in Sacramento that week. It addition, there would be a ten-day celebration ending on July 4 as the “principal ‘49er observance of the summer in Placerville.” They then offered a $5 prize to the person who could come up with the best slogan for the event, using the word “Hangtown” in it and invited bids from private citizens for the staging of the event.
At their next meeting the County Chamber announced that W. J. Tracy of Pacific House had won the slogan contest with “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and accepted the plan and bid from L. J. “Doc” Anderson, to manage the affair.
The final plan was to call it the “Hangtown 49er Homecoming, Celebration” with the theme “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and it would last for seven weekends, starting on May 21 and ending on July 5th. On five acres next to the Marcus P. Bennett, Jr. Memorial Park they would build a Gold Rush style “Hangtown Camp” with a saloon and casino, an outside dance floor, and much more. For races and games they would use Bennett Park.
Posters, such as the one Crandell located, were printed, “in the old manner on a coarse grade of wrapping paper, which used to be known in some sections as ‘butcher paper’” it said in the April 17, 1931 edition of the “Mountain Democrat.” These were widely distributed and a later edition of the same newspaper mentions that they were posted in Sacramento and San Francisco, and as far away as the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego.
Stickers were also printed, along with 5,000 programs as an advertisement. The stickers were perfect for putting on packages and letters to friends outside the county and the programs fit easily into a regular envelope.
A delegation of local citizens led by the Native Daughters of the Golden West met with California Governor James Rolph who was so delighted with the idea that he arranged to have both houses of the State Legislature recess so that the delegation could meet with them to promote the event. As a souvenir, the governor was presented with a paperweight containing a golden butterfly created with flakes of gold from the gold mine James Marshall had opened in Kelsey. The governor also agreed to attend the event and June 13 was scheduled to be “Governor’s Day.”
A. B. Gray, the secretary of the California Tourist Association, and former editor of the Mountain Democrat, visited communities with posters in hand, promoting the event, and for the first time ever banners advertising any event, let alone one in Placerville, were allowed to be hung on the Ferry Building in San Francisco and several bridges between Sacramento and that city.
To raise money for all of this the Chamber of Commerce scheduled dances at four different locations in El Dorado County: Coloma, Diamond Springs, Smith’s Flat and Georgetown. Organized by Max Baer, these were not just dances, they featured two different orchestras for both old fashioned and modern dancing. Costumes were encouraged and prizes were awarded to the best dancers: small covered wagons for the ladies and gold nuggets for the gentlemen. There were also dance exhibitions along with local fiddlers, and similar musicians, for entertainment. Admission was $1 for men in ’49er costume and $1.50 for those in regular clothes. Admission for ladies was free.
Season tickets good for admission to all entertainments the six weekends of the event went on sale for $1.50 the week of March 30 through April 4 and were sold by a “corps of high school students.” The tickets were similar to the stickers that had been printed and people were encouraged to wear the ticket and “show you have co-operated.”
Local and regional businesses and organizations also donated money, materials and volunteers to help and it was decided that if there was a profit from the event, the money would go towards the building of a County Pioneer museum in Placerville.
After two months of hard work the work at “Hangtown Camp” was completed and the event opened the evening of Thursday, May 21 with a free dance for the season tickets holders (others, 50 cents). On Friday, May 22, the celebration started at 4 p.m. with band concert at the Bell Tower by the El Dorado County Band, followed by a treasure hunt for gold nuggets. At 5:30 a huge parade started at Ivy House (Cedar Ravine and Main Street) and wound its way along Main Street and then up Canal Street to the just completed Hangtown Camp. 800 members of the Knights of Pythias Grand Lodge were the special guests and everyone was treated to performances by the Diamond Springs School Quadrille Club, the Hangtown Quadrille Club, old time songs and fiddlers and a “hanging” of Irish Dick Crone, performed by the Lions Club. This was followed by a Jitney Dance with the Lee Loveless Orchestra until midnight. (A Jitney dance is a “pay-as-you-dance” event where the men buy tickets for a nickle or a dime and then find a partner for a dance. The word “jitney” was used to describe the five cent fare for a bus ride, the bus also being known as a “jitney.”)
Saturday, May 22 opened at 11 a.m. with the County School graduation at the high school, followed by a concert by the Sacramento Girls’ Band at the Bell Tower. At 1 p.m. there were horse races (local horses only allowed) at the Bennett Park race track, trick riding and fancy roping demonstrations by Ed and Tillie Bowman and the arrival and departure, both east and west, of the Pony Express, which had been scheduled for every day of the event. At 2 p.m. there was a baseball game between El Dorado High School and Preston School of Industry and then at 5 p.m. a second concert by the Sacramento Girls’ Band at the Bell Tower. At 7 p.m. the High School pupils performed a Spanish Minuet which was followed by a quadrille by Smith Flat School. The Phillips Orchestra ended the day with a Jitney Dance beginning at 8 p.m.
On Sunday, May 23, the events started with a horse race at Bennett Park along with more trick riding and fancy roping by the Bowmans. At 1:55 p.m. the Pony Express arrived and departed and at 2 p.m. they held the first heat of the Hangtown Terrapin Derby (the Sportsman’s Store in Placerville provided 100 numbered turtles). At 2:30 p.m. a baseball game between Placerville and the Celtic Athletic Club was held, with with Jitney dancing starting at 3 p.m.
The following weekend the members of the American Legion were the honored guests and events opened at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 30 with a Memorial Day parade to Union Cemetery where exercises under the auspices of El Dorado Post No. 119, American Legion, were held. At 1 p.m. Hangtown Camp opened with horse races and a visit from the Pony Express. At 2 p.m. there was the preliminary American Legion Turtle Derby and at 2:30 Placerville and Sacramento Legion Juniors played baseball. This was followed at 6 p.m. by a concert by Sacramento Post No. 61, American Legion, band. At 7:30 p.m. the evening program opened with old time fiddlers, and exhibition quadrille and another hanging of “Irish Dick” Crone. Saturday’s schedule ended with dancing and a carnival starting at 8 p.m.
The celebration resumed on Sunday at noon with a parade of American Legion drum corps. At 12:30 there was a drum corps competition followed by more trick and fancy riding, and roping by the Bowmans. After the arrival and departure of the Pony Express and the “Jim” Fisk turtle derby, Placerville and Sacramento’s Celtic Athletic Club played baseball. This was followed by a band concert at 4 p.m. and at 5 p.m., a jitney dance, which lasted until midnight.
On the third weekend, the Sacramento Region Council, State Mining Association and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, who came by train, were the special guests. The program opened at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 6, with the usual visit of the Pony Express and then a huge “Pioneer Parade,” from Placerville to Hangtown Camp. At 6 p.m. the public was invited to a banquet hosted by the Sacramento Region Citizen’s Council and the El Dorado Chapter of the California Mining Association at the Shakespeare Club House. The dinner, which was one dollar a plate, was followed by talks from members of the two organizations and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. At 7:30 there was a exhibition of old time dances by the Sacramento ‘49er Club and at 8:30, public dancing.
The program for Sunday was fairly simple, with the visit from the Pony Express, a baseball game, old time fiddlers and, at 7 p.m., public dancing.
Saturday, June 13, was “Governor’s Day” and was hosted by both the Native Sons and the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Governor James Rolph and party were first given a tour of points of interest in El Dorado County before the event opened at 2 p.m. with the Pony Express visit. At 3 p.m. the Preston School of Industry Band gave a concert at the Bell Tower. At 4 p.m. the governor led a Pioneer Parade through Placerville to Hangtown Camp, which was complete with floats and music by both the Preston and El Dorado County bands. At 6 p.m. there was an open air banquet for the governor and invited guests hosted by Placerville Parlor No. 9 of the Native Sons. This was followed at 7:30 p.m. by an addresses by officers of the Native Sons and the governor, followed by a waltz quadrille by the Marguerite Parlor of the Native Daughters, a quadrille by the Hangtown Quadrille Club and another hanging of “Irish” Dick Crone. Starting at 8 p.m., dancing and a carnival ended the day.
On Sunday, June 14, a caravan of vehicles left for Coloma where the Native Sons’ held an open air initiation. At 11 a.m. there were special ‘49er church services at the Federated Church. Preaching from the pulpit was the more than 90 year old Rev. James Newell, D. D., of Los Angeles. Reverend Newell was not new to Placerville since he had been the pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Placerville from 1868 until 1878. The anthems and hymns were sung from books published in 1849 and the scripture was read from Rev. Newell’s Pulpit Bible published in 1856.
At 1 p.m. Hangtown Camp opened and at 2 p.m. the Pony Express arrived and departed, followed at 2:30 p.m. by a baseball game between the Santa Clara and Placerville parlors of the Native Sons’, the Bowmans and a concert by the El Dorado County Band. At 5 p.m. there was a rodeo followed at 7 p.m. by public dancing.
The fifth weekend of the event was dedicated to John Mohler Studebaker, a pioneer in Placerville who made wheelbarrows for the miners. It opened on Saturday, June 20 with the arrival of an automobile caravan, including, one would guess, Studebakers. At 12:30 p.m. there was a barbecue, followed at 1:30 by a sports program, at 2:00 by the Pony Express and at 2:30 the Bowmans. At 3 p.m. there were more horse races and at 8:00, old time songs, solos, quartets, group singing and another hanging of “Irish Dick” Crone. The evening’s events ended with public dancing to Frank and His Gang starting at 8:30.
Sunday, June 21 opened at 2 p.m. with the Pony Express and then, at 2:30 a baseball game between Placerville and Diamond Springs. The evening ended with events at the El Dorado Saloon and Casino.
The sixth weekend was sponsored by the El Dorado County Grange, the Placerville Den of Lions and the Twenty-Thirtians. The honored guest was the Governor of Nevada, P. B. Balzar.
Saturday was Nevada Day and Grange Day and opened with a ‘49er parade featuring the El Dorado Grange at 1 p.m. At 6 p.m. there was a Dinner at the Shakespeare Clubhouse in honor of Governor Balzar, sponsored by the Lions, Grange and 20-30 clubs. At 8 p.m. there was an evening program at Hangtown Camp featuring old-time songs heard through the Texaco public address system. At 8:30, public dancing.
Sunday, June 28 was 20-30 Club and Lion’s Day and opened at 9 a.m. with a 20-30 golf tournament. At 2 p.m. the Pony Express arrived and departed from Hangtown Camp and, at 2:30 a baseball game between the Sacramento 20-30 Club and the Stockton 20-30 Club. This was followed by a rodeo at 5 p.m. and public dancing starting at 7 p.m.
The final weekend, sponsored by the ’49er Committee, actually opened on Friday, July 3 with a public dance and a Whiskerino Contest with judging at 8:45 that evening. All competitors in the contest had to be clean shaven on January 1, and several had grown very long beards in six months. Prizes were $30 for first place, $20 for second and $10 for third. The best dancers that evening received a gold nugget.
On Saturday, they ended the event with the usual dance in the evening, along with a carnival. It was also announced that evening that the County Chamber would maintain the dance floor through the summer for public dancing, not as a part of the event, but to “assist in clearing up details of the finances of the affair.”
All in all, it was a wonderful event that brought together hundreds of members of the community and also brought thousands of people to El Dorado County and Placerville to relive and enjoy the “Days of ’49.”
PARADE PICTURES – Courtesy of Steve Crandell, Antiques and Historical Photographs, Placerville, CA