Celebrating Odd California History Between Drinks





TWAIN HARTE, Calif. — Strange where a road trip can begin: a dorm room, a bar stool or Page 283 of the W.P.A. Guide to California.

It is on Page 283 that a reader can find the barest mention of The Order of E Clampus Vitus, one of the oldest and oddest entities in a state known for having a few, a Gold Rush-era organization whose goofball sensibilities are offset by a single, serious pursuit: a tendency to plaque all things historical, an obsession that continues to this day.

With little more than mortar and their ever-present red shirts, the Clampers, as the organization’s members are known, have placed more than 1,000 bronze, wood and granite plaques throughout California, from the remote stretches of coast to mining towns like this one, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The group’s handiwork appears on roadsides, lakesides and at the sites of former brothels, breweries and ballrooms. Jails and forts have been plaqued, and so have whaling stations. Historical drinks have been commemorated — and, no doubt, imbibed — along with ghost stories, stories of heroism and plenty of tall tales in between.

“It’s a common saying that no one has been able to tell if they are historians that like to drink or drinkers who like history,” said Dr. Robert J. Chandler, a senior historian at Wells Fargo Bank and a proud member of the group’s San Francisco chapter. “And no one knows because no one has been in any condition to record the minutes.”

Whether a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society, the Clampers claim tens of thousands of members in 40 chapters across seven Western states, though nowhere are the group’s strange ways more alive than in California, where members are said to have included Ronald Reagan; John Huston, the film director; and Herb Caen, the famous San Franciscan master of the three-dot journal. Some Clamper membership claims, of course, can be suspect. It is true, however, that many noted historians have been members, as is the current director of the State Office of Historic Preservation...

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