The Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life of Jonas Winchester (Part 1)

Jonas Winchester was one of a kind . . . .

The year was 1871. Hope was in the air, in the tiny mining town of Monitor, California. “General” Jonas Winchester and his wife had recently arrived from back East. And word was that the Globe Gold & Silver Mine was finally going to be pushed in earnest.

The title of “General” appears to have been self-applied. Jonas had no military experience (at least none that we’ve been able to find). In addition to that confident title he also adopted an equally confident motto: “Push things.” And promote he did! Advertising flyers screamed about the Globe Mine’s prospects — its ores, they said, were “believed to be incalculable in quantity.” And best of all, they could supposedly be worked cheaply. Winchester assured investors he had “invested all his own fortune in the business,” and intended “to reside permanently at Monitor.”

But despite such bravado, things actually weren’t going terribly well for the Globe. It did have a mill, but the ore was yielding just $10 a ton. Its workmen being unpaid, both mill and mine were soon shut down. In April, 1871, Winchester candidly acknowledged to a fellow miner that there had been “too much coyoteing” going on. A family feud may have been part of the problem; Winchester  complained bitterly about the “treachery” of a brother. The Globe’s mill had also barely escaped a devastating fire, he said, and there was a “need for re-organization of its finances.” Prospects were looking gloomy indeed.

A little glorifying never hurts a mine’s image. Here, an ornamented cement front adorns the tunnel opening of the Globe. That’s Winchester himself in the white coat, posing atop the steps.

By July, however, the mood had switched from gloomy to gleeful. A rich copper vein had just been struck in the Globe, and there was “every indication of a mammoth copper ledge” just ahead. Early assays produced up to $75 in copper and $20 in silver, and ore as rich as 36% copper was said to have been found in the deeper levels. That summer, Winchester also had one more cause for celebration: his third wife, Laura, presented him with a son on August 10, 1871, born there in Monitor.

Continuing the work on the mine, of course, required a continued influx of capital. Winchester put his best literary skills to work in an 1872 prospectus, teasing investors with fabulous statistics. Capitalization of the company was now a rich $650,000. Progress thus far included a 5.5  x 6.5-foot double-tracked tunnel, “nearly” 1,500 feet long (a shameless exaggeration, as later facts showed). Rail had been extended conveniently from the mine to an adjacent 45’ x 60’ mill, which was almost ready to work the ore. “When finished,” the mill should be able to crush 40 tons of ore a day. A 30-horsepower engine and boiler had already been purchased, and 500 cords of wood were on hand. Hoisting works had been erected, and the company’s claims crossed “some half dozen or more veins.” The promised return to those willing to invest? “25% per annum in gold.” How could you go wrong?!

By fall, the Globe again found itself unable to pay its bills. But Winchester’s glowing advertising evidently did the trick. Frank Winchester (a son by Jonas’s first marriage) arrived in Monitor in October with enough cash in hand to pay off the debts of the Globe. And, as an added sign of confidence, Frank signed a contract to extend the tunnel another 100 feet. Frank quickly departed for the East again, but his father, “General” Winchester, remained behind at Monitor as mine superintendent.

Winchester may have been a terrific mine promoter, but he’d apparently had little experience running a silver mine before. What he lacked in practical know-how, however, he made up for with sheer bravado. And on top of his naturally boisterous personality, Winchester was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He firmly believed that he had been personally chosen by the “Ancients” to run the Globe, and that the spirits would guide him to make the mine a success.

1867 advertisement for a “world-renowned Astrologer and Somnambulistic Clairvoyant” named Madame Remington.

Spiritualism was a quasi-religious movement that depended on mediums to communicate messages from the spirit world to convey wisdom to the living. Seances and “table-rapping” sessions were in great vogue in the 1860s and ’70s. Even newspapers in such remote outposts as Silver Mountain and Monitor carried advertisements like those of “Madame Remington” and “Madame E.F. Thornton,” promising to send readers a picture of the “very features of the person you are to marry” — for a mere 50 cents, remitted to the medium by mail.

Winchester, a firm believer in Spiritualism, was convinced that a band of “Ancients” could speak to him through mediums. The leader of this spiritual band was supposedly an Atlantean named Yermah, while Yermah’s wife was the towering six-foot “Queen” Azelia. Winchester went so far as to name his newborn son Yermah, and a subsequent daughter, born in September, 1873, after the spirit Queen.

Jonas Winchester and his wife Laura on the front porch of their home in Monitor, about 1871. Laura is probably holding son Yermah, named after the “Chief” of the spirit band.

Winchester wasn’t alone as a devotee of Spiritualism in early Monitor. Fellow resident O.F. Thornton (no relation to the clairvoyant) corresponded regularly with both psychics and fellow Spiritualists, including one William H. Sterling. “The Spirit World is on our side, and they will take care to bring us success at the right time,” Sterling assured Thornton in one letter in September 1871. Meanwhile, Spiritualism may also have had a practical application. Sterling confided to Thornton that he was using “Spiritual topics” to persuade an investor to sink money into Thornton’s Good Hope mine.

The opportunity for profit from this connection with the “Ancients” was not lost on Winchester, either. In early 1871, he reached out to acquire rights to a set of “spirit pictures” drawn by a pair of San Francisco mediums while in a trance. There was profit potential in selling the images, he was convinced.

Despite the helpful advice of the “Ancients,” Winchester’s stewardship of the Globe was roundly criticized. One aggrieved investor concluded that Winchester’s “reckless and incompetent manner of doing business would prevent forever any success, no matter how rich or extensive the mine should prove.” Winchester was simply a “reckless spendthrift,” he added, notwithstanding supposed selection “by the Ancients as the only man in the world” for the job.

The main street of Monitor, about 1871. This is one of the photos Winchester had made to promote his mining endeavors.

Winchester did manage to push the Globe’s tunnel some 1,000 feet into the mountain, with several side-drifts. A steam furnace and boiler were installed in a separate building at the mouth of the tunnel, and the steam conducted in insulated pipes to an engine and pump located in an underground chamber. Marketing genius that he was, Winchester also had a series of beautifully-detailed photographs taken of the mine and surrounding settlement to help induce investors to continue to float the operation.

Despite the massive work done on the mine, the Globe’s stout 4” Cornish pump eventually proved unable to keep up with water flowing in. The boiler’s steam capacity also proved insufficient to work the pump and the hoist. By the end of 1873, work at the Globe was abandoned. As one mining report concluded, the mine’s sad history had been one of “difficulties, delays, expenses, and disappointments.”

Winchester and his family finally shook the dust of Monitor from their feet in November, 1873, and moved west to San Francisco. He brought along his “well-magnetized desk” to their new abode (perhaps magnetism helped the spirits to focus). Soon he was hawking those “spirit pictures” he’d acquired in a new “Spirit Art Gallery.” Winchester managed to bring in about $6 a day from his gallery, at least for a time — enough to cover costs, though not enough to afford him a salary. Ever upbeat, he claimed to a friend he was simply happy to “re-enter upon civilized life.”

Yermah, “Chief of the Atlantians,” was supposedly the head of the Spirit Band. This is an example of the pencil-drawn “spirit paintings” reproduced in Winchester’s gallery.

Winchester’s  Spirit Gallery featured reproductions of pencil portraits of 28 of the “prehistoric and ancient spirits.” These included “Yermah” and other natives of Atlantis from 16,000 years ago, plus the “progenitors of the Mississippi mound builders, and the architects of the lost cities of Central America. In case you’d never heard of  Atlaneans, there was also Confucius, Gautama, Jesus, and Mother Mary. Included in the mix was a “Hindoo Necromancer and Alchemist” from 8,000 years ago who, by the way, had discovered the Elixer of Life. Not to be overlooked: a Magician priest from Ancient Ninevah, and another learned Egyptian from the time of Moses. Visitors to the Spirit Gallery could acquire a photographic reproduction of these sketches: just 50 cents for a card-size picture or $1 for a larger cabinet card. Such a deal.

A solicitation for subscribers penned by Winchester in 1874 promised that the “locked-up knowledge of prehistoric ages” would soon be opened, thanks to the “lost arts and occult powers” of the ancients communicated through “highly-developed” mediums. “Let a cordial welcome be given to these ancient spirits,” he wrote, who come “offering the priceless boon of knowledge.” The spirits were prepared to share “an outpouring of ancient lore which will bless mortals and point the way to an era of brotherhood which shall no longer be a dream of Utopia but a living reality.”

“Priceless” that ancient wisdom may have been. But the spirit pictures proved a commercial dud. In May, 1874, the local press in Monitor noted Winchester’s current “financial impecuniosity, resulting from his late adventure in the ‘spirit picture’ business.”

1875 advertisement for Winchester’s patent medicine.

Perhaps aware of the benefit of diversifying, Winchester had his finger in more than one entrepreneurial pie about this time. In addition to the spirit picture business, he also was engaged in selling a patent medicine, under the catchy title of Winchester’s HypophosphiteHis own signature was prominently featured on the label.

Winchester’s patent medicine was hardly a novel idea, but it made use of all the recognized ingredients for snake-oil-style success. As one tongue-in-cheek article advised readers in 1872, the “Recipe for Getting Rich” from a patent medicine was:

Get any simple stimulating compound or tonic, or take cheap whiskey and color it, adding any cheap stuff to give it a medicinal taste. Adopt any name you choose, the more nonsensical or mysterious the better. Get up fanciful bottles or boxes or labels. Look out that the package, contents included, don’t cost over 5 to 8 cents. Invent 50 to 100 or 1,000 wonderful cures wrought by your medicine, giving names in full, with residences, date etc., but be careful not to blunder into giving any real name of any person living in the same place. If you connect with your medicine a touching story about some old mythical person, or Indian, or South American, all the better.
This magazine advertisement ran the same month as Winchester’s death: February, 1887.

Eventually, Jonas Winchester took up “fruit-growing” near Columbia, California. And on February 3, 1887, the wild and crazy life of Jonas Winchester finally came to an end. He was 76 years old. His obituary described him — accurately — as energetic, warm-hearted, and a man of high intelligence. He was laid to rest in the Odd Fellows graveyard at Columbia, Tuolumne County, California.

As for Winchester’s family, his obituary reported that in keeping with Winchester’s own Spiritualist views, the family “rejoice in the assurance that the dear patriarch still watches over the loved of home, and will see that no evil attends their footsteps.”

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So, just how did Jonas Winchester manage to get to Monitor in the first place? Ah, that’s a wild and crazy story in itself! Tune in next time for the rest of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story!

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Copyright K. Dustman 2019

Six Great Gifts Just for Memoir Writers (Plus 3 Helpful Tips)

’Tis the season (or soon will be) for gift-giving. And don’t forget those upcoming New Year’s Resolutions. (Hope yours will include writing!)

Whether you’re thinking about a gift for a fellow writer, or perhaps a motivational gift for yourself, here are six fun gift ideas. And keep reading to the end for three helpful writing tips to keep your inspiration level high through the holidays!

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     Find a notebook that inspires you.

Notebooks to Take Everywhere: Every writer needs a handy notebook to keep them at all times — because you never know when inspiration will strike! Check out  hundreds of artist-created notebooks  on  Threadless.com – including this charming “PalmPlants” design. From silly to crazy to just plain beautiful, grab your favorite for between $10 to $20 bucks. Or if nothing strikes your fancy, upload a design and create your own notebook! (Wouldn’t that make a great holiday gift, too!)

Embossed archival photo album from Gaylord.com

Preserving Memories:
Gaylord.com offers tons of archival supplies that make great gifts for memoirists. They even devote a special section of their website to products for preserving family history. The Gaylord website includes helpful free tips and how-to videos, too. Just one gift possibility: their embossed leatherette photo album.

Pens & Ink:
Love the feel of a great pen? Ink & Volt is just one site offering beautiful writing implements for every taste and budget – including fountain pens ranging from $18 to over $150. Doesn’t the “Pilot” pen, shown below, look like something writer Erle Stanley Gardner would have used for his Perry Mason novels!?

A beautiful pen just feels good to pick up!
Buy a calendar – or make your own, thanks to Lemon Thistle!

Calendars for Writers:   Okay, you could buy a traditional “writer’s calendar” from Writer’s Digest. Or you could make your own! Here are five free calendar templates, courtesy of Lemon Thistle. (You can’t get better than free, right?) In addition to a spot for notes on the side, this one also includes a prominent box at the top for your goal. Great concept.

Amina Warsuma wrote about her amazing life trajectory.

A Memoir to Read by the Fire:
Amazon is full of memoirs to read. And there’s nothing like a great example as a teaching tool. Choose a memoir to read this holiday season — not only as something to enjoy, but as a sample to learn from and help you improve your own craft.

A couple of possibilities:  “Reminiscence: Life of a Country Doctor,” by Carl Matlock, about medicine in a small town back in the days when doctors made housecalls.  (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link to find the book).

Then there’s “My Stars Are Still Shining” by Amina Warsuma, about her journey from the streets of Harlem to a career as an international fashion model. (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link for the book).  As she puts it:  “I have felt throughout my life that people were my greatest asset as they suddenly appeared and disappeared in my life. I have wondered for years why I came in contact with wonderful and not-so-wonderful people. As I reflect back, there is a lesson I learned from each significant encounter and involvement.” Bet you can relate!

Help, tips and encouragement, just for Memoir writers!

Getting From Stuck to Finished:
And, of course (bit of shameless self-promotion here), our own “Writing a Memoir” book about the craft of memoir-writing makes a great holiday gift, too. Hope you’ll consider gifting a copy to someone you know who’s working on their life story! (Find the book here with our AmazonAssociates link).

And here are 3 Memoir Writing Tips!

These cold winter days are a great time to stay indoors and write, right? Try these three Keep-Going Tips — just for memoir writers!

1.  Picture Your Hero:  Choose someone who’s already written a memoir similar to the one you’re hoping to write. (Perhaps it’s the person whose memoir you picked to read, above!)  Post their photo or a picture of their book right over your computer. Remember: If they can do it, you can do it, too!

2.  Narrow Your Lens: A wide-angle lens is a great tool for photography. But it can be overwhelming as an approach for memoir. Instead of trying to figure out how to jam your entire life into book form, choose just one event, one place, or one person to write about next. How to pick just one? Your heart probably already knows what you most want to write about. Or, if you’re still stumped, jot down ten possible ideas as quickly as you can and throw them in a hat – then close your eyes and pick one. (The “quickly” part makes sure you don’t over-think this step.) Extra bonus from this exercise: Now you have nine more ideas just waiting for you!

3.  Talk It Out:  Sometimes we’re just not ready to start writing. Sometimes we need to talk about what we’re going to write, first. My theory: talking out loud and writing words down on paper use different parts of the brain. But once you can say out loud what you’re excited about writing, it unleashes new energy. Find a friend; take them to lunch; and describe what you’re working on and what you hope to write about next. You might be amazed at the fresh inspiration you come home with to sit down and write!

Well, that’s it for this month!
Please keep me posted how your writing is going!

And if you’d like to get more memoir tips every month, you can sign up for our free Memoir Writing newsletter here — and get a free Scheduling Tool, too!

Speaking of History: 4 Tips for Giving a History Talk That’s Actually Interesting

Show of hands: Who positively hated history class in school?

Virtual high-fives, my friend . . . history class was soooo boring!

Yet this is how crazy life can be: now I write books and give talks about it. So what’s changed?

Well, I finally discovered history isn’t about memorizing names, dates, and wars. Nope. It’s about people. Their loves. Their struggles. Their heartbreaks and successes.

Everyday life in days gone by

Right now I’m preparing a talk for a local historical society. Dreading it? More like totally jazzed! I get to introduce my audience to great people and great stories – tales they’ve likely never heard before.

Stories of sadness and stories of survival. About lives taking fascinating twists and detours. Dangerous times and surprising discoveries.

History is about mistakes as well as successes
Great history stories include mishaps and mistakes as well as grand successes.

Want to skip the yawns and keep your audience wide-eyed and eager to hear more about a historical topic? Here are four tips for the history teachers out there – or anyone fortunate enough to be speaking about “days gone by.”

  • Make it about people—because it’s the people-stories that really capture our hearts and imagination.
  • Use illustrations. Lots and lots of illustrations. Images that grab the imagination. (Wouldn’t you want to know what mission that gent at the very top was off to?)
  • Focus on forgotten or hidden history – not the names, dates, and snooze-worthy facts everyone already knows.
  • If possible, add something that connects those “old days” you’ve been sharing with your listener’s life today. Maybe your presentation includes a photo of an old building that’s now facing demolition. Ask people to consider helping to preserve it. Or perhaps you’ve shared facts or details that you discovered in an unpublished family history. Remind your listeners to think about getting their own life story down on paper, while they still can!

One last point: If there’s a “special sauce” that makes any speaker more fun to listen to, it’s speaking straight from the heart. Let your passion for history’s amazing tales come out. (Because, after all, if you’re not passionate, you can’t possibly expect your audience to be!)

I suspect that’s why I’m asked to speak again and again — because my own excitement is contagious. And that energy is definitely a two-way street. There’s nothing that quite beats the high of looking out at your audience and seeing eyes opening wide and hearts opening up – to history!

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. And yes, she loves talking about history! For more about Karen and other fun stuff she’s done lately, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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Treasure Out of Tragedy: A Tiny Reminder of Genoa’s Avalanche

Call it the Hand of Providence.  How else to explain a fragile ceramic figurine surviving one of the worst disasters to hit Genoa, Nevada — and making it through another 132 years, too?!

As you may remember, the Great Avalanche of March 17, 1882 wiped out several Genoa homes — and took at least ten lives. [In case you missed it, here’s our earlier story about the avalanche: http://blog.clairitage.com/2018/10/12/genoas-avalanche-of-1882/]  Casualties included Mr. and Mrs. Nimrod Bowers, whose bodies were discovered buried in the debris of their flattened home.

The Bowers* were a German couple who’d settled in Genoa in 1864, after crossing the plains with the same wagon train as the G.W.G. Ferris family. But the tragic avalanche wasn’t quite the end to the Bowers’ story.

Sometime after the disaster, neighbor Mary Raycraft Virgin was examining the ruins of the Bowers’ home. And there amid the chaos and destruction she discovered a small porcelain figurine of the Madonna and Child — nearly unbroken except for one tiny chip. Mary eventually handed down the fragile and beautiful statuette to her daughter, Lillian Finnegan, who in turn gave it to her aunt, Annie Raycraft, who later passed it to her daughter, Josephine Raycraft Hellwinkel.

Photo courtesy of Donna Hellwinkel.

Imagine how excited we were to learn that the statue that survived the Genoa Avalanche still exists! Today it occupies a place of honor at the home of Josephine’s granddaughter, Donna Jo Hellwinkel. And it’s just as beautiful today as the day that Mary Virgin rescued it from the ruins.

Delicate details on the figurine are embellished with gold, and the features of the faces are delicately tinted. There seems to be no maker’s mark to identify where the figurine was made. But the Bowers were Catholics, and this little religious statue could well have accompanied them when they emigrated from Germany. We’re so grateful that the family has allowed us to share this photo of the precious statue with you!

And that isn’t quite the end of the Bowers’ story, either. Somehow, the Hand of Providence reached out yet again as we were working on this story. Thanks to Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park, we learned that photos of Mr. and Mrs. Bowers themselves still exist, too!

All four photos of Mr. and Mrs. Bowers (approx 1880 and 1865) courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park.

The graves of Mr. and Mrs. Bowers at Genoa Cemetery are presently unmarked. But if you’d like to visit, they’re resting in Section F, Plot 15 — just downhill and a teensy bit north of Snowshoe Thompson’s grave.

Although the Bowers’ lives were cut short by the avalanche, somehow the “hand of Providence” made sure that these tiny pieces of their lives survived (as one newspaper story put it in 1947), “whole and beautiful and safe.”

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Grateful thanks to Marlena and Donna Hellwinkel and to Mark Jensen, Curator of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park, who kindly provided information and photos for this story!

*The Bowers’ names are spelled many different ways: Meinrod, Nimrod, and Minrod; and Bower, Bauer, and Bowers. It’s thanks to Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park that we know the name of Mr. Bower’s wife: Margaret. What luck that another Margaret — Margaret Gale Ferris Dangberg — wrote Mrs. Bowers’ name on the back of her photo!

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Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

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Discover the Odd Fellows Rocks

Ever visited the Odd Fellows Rocks? Most folks don’t even know they’re here. But they’re a fascinating and easily-accessible site along the old Emigrant Trail, near the top of Carson Pass!

Several jubilant emigrants paused here between August 25 and 27, 1849, after successfully ascending the infamous “Devil’s Ladder” — one of the most difficult stretches that overland emigrants faced in the entire overland journey. These pioneers honored the occasion by painting their names and the dates of their visit on the large clusters of rocks they found at the top.

Names painted on the rocks today include “C.C. Hammer” and “E.C. Farrary” — although a transcription from the 1930s lists them as “J.G. Hammer” and “F. G. Farren.” The names have been painted over many times in an effort to preserve them and it’s possible that transcription errors have crept in.

And yes, you can still see the pioneer’s names! Well, some of them, anyway. The original white-lead inscriptions have been painted over multiple times now, in an effort to preserve them. Some may have been corrupted a bit by this well-intentioned “preservation” effort. And unfortunately, time and erosion have erased some of the signatures entirely from the rock. But many full and partial names still remain. And oh, don’t we wish we knew what happened to each of those early visitors!

They’re called the “Odd Fellows” inscriptions because many of the writers also left the tell-tale three-ring symbol associated with the Odd Fellows’ motto: friendship, love, and truth. As for the passing emigrants themselves, we haven’t yet been able to trace the history of many of the rock-signers. But among the still-legible names is at least one emigrant whose later exploits we have been able to find.

R.E. Wilhoit signed this document as County Auditor in 1864, directing the San Joaquin Co. Treasurer to pay the County Assessor $23.21 for services from August to November.

R.E. Wilhoit was just 20 years old when he stopped at this spot in 1850 to add his lettering to the already-graffitied rocks. (Yes, Wilhoit was here a year after the original Odd Fellows group passed by.) At the time, of course, this young man had no way of knowing what his future in California would hold. But it turned out to be golden indeed!

Like so many eager emigrants, Wilhoit mined for a time at Mokelumne Hill and other Gold Rush towns before eventually moving on to Stockton in 1852. There he became a noted citizen, holding a variety of important public posts including stints as County Recorder, County Supervisor, and City Councilman. In later life Wilhoit evidently decided to “follow the money”: he became a banker. Eleven years after his difficult journey up Devil’s Ladder, Wilhoit married Delia Dwelley and together they would have six children. It was a future the 20-year-old probably never envisioned on that hot summer day when he paused to scrawl his name on the rocks in 1850!

A second emigrant whose name is still visible is F.P. Belcher, who also left us the date of his visit: “Aug 24, ‘49”. Although we don’t know this Belcher’s identity for sure, it’s possible this was the same F.P. Belcher who was born in 1830 and arrived in California with his two younger brothers by covered wagon from Woodstock, Illinois. That F.P. Belcher found employment as a freight hauler in the “truck and van business;” lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco before moving to Oakland; married a woman named Louise Hamilton; and had five children. If indeed it is the same person, he would have been about 18 years old when he left his moniker on this pile of rocks.

And who were “P. Slater” and “Ray Holms”? We have just one clue and no more: a 1930s listing identifies a “Peter Slater” as having written on these rocks.

There’s yet another tantalizing inscription tucked among the names: “McHenry County, Illinois” is written in at least two places. Perhaps this was the home county that some emigrants had just left; or it might have been the name given to their wagon train. We haven’t had any luck (so far!) in tracing any of the names with certainty back to that particular location. But that F.P. Belcher we mentioned, from Woodstock, Illlinois? Well, Woodstock just happens to be the county seat of McHenry County. Hmm.

Several early Carson Valley-ites also appear to have ties with that same McHenry County, Illinois, too. Pioneer settler Emanuel Penrod was said to have hailed from there. And Joseph Raycraft, Sr. married his wife Ellen back in McHenry County, where he owned a farm, before leading a wagon train west.

Two more potential but harder-to-prove connections:   newspaper records listing the  members of passing of emigrant trains tell us Ira Luther and J.A. Rhodes were among a Michigan wagon group planning to cross the Missouri River on May 16, 1849. That same day, the “Spartan Band” train — from none other than McHenry County, Illinois — was also assembled beside Missouri River. Included among the Spartan Band’s members was a man named James H. Van Sickle — certainly a familiar last name for Carson Valley folks!

Did early Valley settler Ira Luther join up with the folks from McHenry County on his journey west? And was “James” Van Sickle any relation of our well-known local Van Sickle family? That’s probably a “no” for Ira Luther, at least as far as joining an 1849 McHenry County wagon train for any length of time. Luther did own property in Ogle and Stephenson Counties, Illinois, roughly 70-75 miles from McHenry. But an unverified account by Ira’s son claims Ira contracted cholera in Missouri in 1849, finally making made the journey West in 1850 by schooner and rounding the Horn to land in San Francisco. So for now these are just tantalizing  possible further connections to McHenry County, Illinois.

We hope you’ll pay a visit to the Odd Fellows Rocks to see the pioneer names on the rocks for yourself, and check out their homage to McHenry County. (Directions to get there are given below.) Be sure to gaze down at the Devil’s Ladder itself while you’re there, and imagine emigrants hauling their wagons and animals up this incredibly steep climb. It rises an amazing 700 feet in elevation over a distance of less than a mile. For the true flavor of what that meant, here’s how the emigrants themselves described the experience:

After two hours’ hard work lifting at the wheels, whipping our tired teams, and using language not becoming church members, we gained a resting place and well did we need one. After a short rest we are again on the move; the way is now more smooth but very steep and crooked; a man to every wheel, and one to every horse and mule; a few steps and then a rest.” John Hawkins Clark, 1852.

The most astonishing thing respecting the road is that any man of common sense should have first thought of taking a wagon over it.” William Tell Parker, 1850.

Once successfully at the top, some emigrants tossed their hats in the air in celebration, making the “echoes of the Sierra Nevada acquainted with the mode of cheering in good society!” as one wrote in his diary.

Others simply left their names here on the rocks — a happy sign to commemorate their passing. They probably never imagined that visitors would stop by to read their names 170 years later.

The Emigrant Trail winds through the trees near the Rocks. It’s a serene and beautiful place.

Like  to visit the Odd Fellows Rocks for yourself? Here are directions!
Take Hwy 88 headed west toward Carson Pass. Just before you reach the summit, watch carefully for a paved road on your left and turn left (carefully!) onto this paved road. A day-use parking fee applies in this area, so look for the pay drop just after you make the turn. Once you pay the parking fee, follow the paved road the short distance downhill to a cul-de-sac parking area at the end. Be sure to pause here to read the interpretive sign (it includes great illustrations!) and admire the stunning overlook!

Stop to read the interpretive sign and enjoy the beautiful view of Red Lake below.

At the low end of the cul-de-sac, a dirt trail on your right will lead you into the forest where you can gaze down on a trail (on your left) — and see the near-vertical trail they called the Devil’s Ladder. It’s a great section of the Emigrant Trail to actually hike later, if you’re adventuresome enough!

This path to your left dropping down into the canyon below was known as the Devil’s Ladder!

To find the Odd Fellows Rocks, follow the trail on your right that leads upwards and away from the Devil’s Ladder. A short distance uphill, you’ll reach a rocky bench — and will spot the large pile of rocks with white lettering. (They’re above the cul-de-sac and overlook the spot where you parked.) This is the spot where thousands of weary emigrants and animals rested and regrouped after the climb.

Notice the brass plaque set into the rocks, placed by the Odd Fellows of California in 1941. Also notice the three interlocking rings of the Odd Fellows symbol painted on the rocks in two places in this photo.

Before returning to your car, take time to search out the Unknown Pioneer’s Grave, which is hidden in the trees between the Odd Fellows rocks and the paved road that you drove in on. This monument was erected to honor an anonymous pioneer who died here in the wilderness after months of arduous travel, never reaching the fabled gold fields.

Grave of an unknown pioneer who made it to California — but not to the gold fields. Like to see what this site looked like 50 years ago? Here’s a link to an old Frasher postcard of the grave from the 1940s!

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