Twain in the Gold Country

When Mark Twain’s name is mentioned, steaming paddle boats on the Mississippi River comes to mind. He is, after all, the author of what has been called the “Great American Novel”, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The setting is firmly placed in the Antebellum South. So why is it that on Highway 49, near Tuttletown, there is a historical marker (No. 138) with Mark Twain’s name on it?

It was in California’s Gold County that the 30-year-old journalist, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) spent the winter of 1864-65 in a cabin up on Jackass Hill. The cabin belonged to the Gillis Brothers, who where local miners. Maybe this fact alone would be worth a historic marker on 49 but it is what he did when he went into town and visited the saloon in the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, ten miles north of Jackass Hill. What he did was presumably, have a drink and listened to a tall tale.

That tall tale became the short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, which was first published in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. This is the short story that is credited with setting Twain on the road to literary fame. It was in the rainy winter that he discovery his fortune as Twain noted, “right in the depths of [the miners’] poverty and pocket mining lay the germ of my coming good fortune.” He saw his 88 days in the Gold Country as the turning point of his life.

And so it was that I turned off Highway 49 and headed up a narrow road to the top of Jackass Hill. At the top was the Gillis Cabin. The building itself was surrounded by a fence, as if it was an animal at a zoo. The cabin itself is a replica of the original. The original succumbed to the plight of many wooden structures of the day: engulfed in flames. The chimney, however, is original to the time when Twain stayed here.

I set up my folding camp chair and sketched the cabin sans fence. I felt like I was sketching at the zoo. Except my subject stood stock still.

After sketching, I heading back down Jackass Hill and continued north on 49 to the town of Angels Camp. In town I sketched the frog historical marker which is across Highway 49 from the site where Twain first heard the yarn about the leaping frog of Calaveras County and also put Angels Camp on the map. All on account about a tall tale about a frog.

They really celebrate Twain’s short time in the area with Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee which is held in May. The frog jump contest just celebrated it’s 90th anniversary last May (2018). This event is held in Angels Camp and is billed as one of the oldest such events in California. It is billed as one of the oldest Faires in California.

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