Yesterday I had a slam-bang family trip, saw The Folks, and my husband and son rode some great mountain bike trails.
My relatives looked the same – six feet under. I don’t have many living relatives, and the old ones have a hard time making the trek. When they do, they are hardly in any condition to get out around town and take in the sights. So, after I drive my family up to the saddleback and dump them along the trail, I drive back to town, park in a shady spot in the commercial district, and spend a pleasant hour or so ambling up to the cemetery and back.
My hillbilly relatives were miners. Grandpa George left Gramma Mahala behind in Illinois and headed for California in 1849. This was a man who was driven by fear of poverty – he was an immigrant with a wife, but no inheritance. He would be a laborer forever if he stayed, so he struck out for California. Over a year of backbreaking labor, he struck a payoff in a coyote hole above Nevada City. Coyote hole mining, depicted in the first minutes of “There Will Be Blood,” was a dangerous and exhausting job – you looked for a vein, and you took your iron digging bar and your sledge hammer and you opened it up. Oftentimes you used some blasting caps to open it up a little more. The Empire Mine in Nevada City started as a coyote hole, and turned into one of the richest mines in the world.
My gramps did okay, although, one of the first things my gramma heard back in Illinois was that he’d lost one eye in a blast. That didn’t stop him. Within a year, he had money to buy a ranch and go back to Illinois to get his family. During that time, he also received his naturalization paper, making him a US citizen. That document still hangs, all yellowed with time, on the wall in our family house.
My grandfather had come by boat, all the way around Cape Horn. I only know that he joined a group in Virginia and they hired a ship, that was pretty common at the time. I’ve seen his name on the “manifest,” or passengers list. That’s all I know – he was literate, but not literary, never wrote a diary. I know nothing about his trip, but I can speculate given the accounts of others, and I’m sure it was a nasty ride. For one thing, ship’s captains were an odd lot, some of them colorful figures given to gambling, racing other captains for big cash prizes. It was a common trick to take the shorter but oftentimes more dangerous route through the strait of Magellan. This saved not only time but fuel and drinking water, which could be crucial.
I’m assuming that trip was too hair raising. When he came back for Gramma and the kids, my gramma Mary a newborn, they only took the boat as far as Nicaragua. There was a popular crossing at the Isthmus of Nicaragua, by canoe and mule, and there may have been a short train line, I can’t remember. My grandma Mahala was carrying three young children, my gramma Mary a newborn. A fourth had died of a fever while his father was in California. She carried her toddlers in saddlebags on her mules and carried Mary in a shawl like the native women. At one point she was knocked off her mule by a low hanging tree branch, but without missing a skip she got back on her mule with Mary at her breast.
That’s why my grampa George had married her. One of the only stories we have from him is his first sight of Mahala. He was working at a blacksmith shop on contract – he had shipped over as a contracted laborer. She brought in a string of her father’s wagon horses to be shod, carrying her shoes tied together across her mount’s bare shoulders. That really turned my grampa on – bare feet! “I knew she was the gal for me!” And she sure was.
She was a big woman, born and raised to make children and run a farm house. She brought a lot of stuff, that’s for sure, including the folding dining table that sits in my kitchen, leaves and all. She would need that gi-normous table in the years ahead, little did she know – she would go on to have six more children. All of them would have children – Mary alone would have eight children.
They took a steamer up from Nicaragua, a river boat to Marysville, and from there another mule train. They came to one of the worst towns in California. A year previous, a woman had been lynched by a mob in the center of town for the murder of a popular local man. This and lots of other “colorful” incidents gave the town a bad reputation – at one time, a top contender for state capital, it was also one of the only towns up there that had a stable enough economy to survive into modern times. They lost the bid for state capital because of their tawdry reputation.
My aunt, who was superintendent of schools in the area for about 30 years, told in her autobiography about towns she had lived in as a child, thriving towns of 500 or more people, that were completely vanished by the time she grew up. She lived in Poker Flat as a child, and her mother had taught the last school at Summit City before that town was abandoned to the elements. Gramma Mary was 16 years old, with a year of teaching under her belt, when my grampa George loaded her onto a mule train for a town that was literally on top of a mountain, the weather so severe even the stone buildings built in it’s heyday have disappeared. Not even a stone foundation remained in many of these towns when my Aunt Belle rode through to inspect the county schools only 50 years later.
Aunt Bell was my great gramma’s sister, the family Idol. She never married, gave herself to the public service, was a pillar of the Methodist Church (meaning, one of the ladies who cleaned and cared for it), Superintendent of Schools for 30 years, and she served on the election board and other public boards right up until she stepped off a curb in front of a car in Newcastle in 1954, at about 85 years old. Not only our family, but the town, were devastated. I can still get the old ladies at the museum to bust a tear over that, and some of the old men too. They loved her, she was their school teacher. She held socials in her home, she knew how to pull taffy. She taught the local children fine handwriting. She also took in her nieces and nephews every summer.
Our family has scattered. Gramma Mary was the only one of Mahala’s children to stay. She and my grampa JD had eight children, and they spread out too. When my grandmother was 5 years old and living in Auburn with her family, a handsome man came to their gate and told her, “Young lady, please tell your mother that her brother Henry is home from Alaska.” Henry had left 20 years earlier as a young man, off to the family business – the gold strike in Alaska. Like a lot of people, he was not lucky with a pick, and decided instead to run a trading post. That worked out so well, he didn’t come home for almost 20 years, sending word from time to time just to let the family know he was still alive. He stayed, married, and added to the family lineage.
But nobody kept track of the cousins who’d strayed. We even lost my gramma Mahala for a while, simply forgetting where she was buried. We knew that after grampa George had died, she’d gone to visit her children, and died while she was away. Town was snowed in, so she had to be buried in the town she was visiting. Nobody remembered. Old people get sketchy and lose confidence in what they think they remember.
My mother became a cemetery buff, and this she passed on to me. I can hardly pass a Gold Country cemetery without stopping to look for familiar names. My husband drove me all the way to Sierraville, on a tip from Cousin Flo. I’ll tell you what, Sierraville is UP THERE, at the Yuba Gap. We found the cemetery, and we looked and looked. It’s pretty spread out among the scrub. I found my Cousin Amy and her husband Lafe, and next to those graves, the ground fell off, and I thought, “Oh, crap, my family’s been washed away, and Gramma too!” I told my old relatives that, and they believed me. We started thinking about getting ahold of the cemetery people, but we found out, the lady in charge was in her 90′s, and her memory was fading. We gave up.
Then one day, my cousin Flo, in her 80′s, was visiting the family graves closer to the old house, where she found a mason jar with a picture and a note. It was my cousin Rich – we’d never heard of this guy. But, he knew stuff only a cousin would know, so Flo invited him to meet the rest of us at the old house. She used to spend a couple of weeks there every summer, all the cousins would drop in and spend a few days, reminiscing the summers spent with Aunt Belle. The stories they told – “barefoot in the Sierra” – but not a one of them could remember how to open a gooseberry! We called this “The Cousin Reunion,” because these were the children of gramma Mary’s eight children. No matter how far these went, whoever they married, however many children they had, they always found their way back to the little house on Hwy 49.
But we never had known what had happened to the descendants of gramma Mary’s siblings, until that day we met Rich. His grandmother was my Aunt Ida, Mary’s sister. She had married a fellow who worked for a logging company, and moved off to Sierraville – considered far away in the 1920′s, especially in winter. A typo in the family book gave us the wrong last name, so when we stumbled upon her grave and those of her husband and many children and grandchildren, we didn’t realize it. We didn’t realize, there among this huge family, was my gramma Mahala. And families grow quickly apart – Ida’s children and grandchildren scattered toward Quincy and Graeagle, my side all migrated toward the valley below. My grandmother grew up in Auburn, and married a rice farmer from Glenn. My grandmother was a letter-writer, she tried to keep up. She would also try to reminisce to us, counting the old names on her fingers, trying to remember who married who and moved where. We were too little to pay attention.
But, I felt this weird twinge when Rich came looking for us. I must wonder, where are the others? Rich found them as far away as Independence. Rich had always been curious, so when he retired from PG&E, he just went looking for them. Found them in the phone book and called them up, had some good times looking over family photos, and got some family records to fill in the missing links.
Rich brought other cousins, including Janet, who lives in Greenville. We got to talking, and she said, “My son lives in Chico – he pounds nails,” meaning, he did construction. Within a few minutes, I found out, one of my husband’s longest running co-workers was my cousin.
Which reminds me, when you come from a big family in a little tiny town, you should probably have a good knowledge of your spouse’s family history before you get married. Like they say in the hills, get a blood test! I heard a good joke at the museum – it’s hard to solve a murder up there because everybody has the same DNA, and nobody has any dental records.