Key in the Tree

You gotta love it when you stumble across a mystery. Especially two mysteries in one day.

Key in the tree.

On a recent drive up Highway 4 we found an old key, firmly embedded in the trunk of a tree. Just a guess, but it’s probably been there at least 50 years — long enough for the tree to almost completely envelop the body of the key. Who could have left it? What did that key once unlock? And why leave it stuck in a tree in the forest?

As luck would have it, another nearby tree trunk also caught our attention. This one bore blaze marks, possibly flagging the original old trail prior to modern Highway 4. What pathfinder left this mark? And how long ago?

Such great mysteries for future explorers to puzzle over!

 

Tree at top of the pass on Hwy 4, about two miles west of Kinney Reservoir.

Markleeville: Ghost in the Admin Building?

There’ve been a few ghostly rumors about the county Administration building in Markleeville. Today’s parking lot once was the site of an old house, built by Alvin Grover around 1899. Even back then Grover’s house wasn’t exactly new; it was constructed from lumber from an old schoolhouse that used to sit in the abandoned mining town of Monitor.

Although Grover’s house is long gone, according to several folks who’ve worked in the new Admin building, something never quite left. Some employees claim a mysterious “cold chill” occasionally swept through their offices. Others say they’ve heard footsteps late in the evening when the building should be empty, or saw doors close all by themselves. Most eyebrow-raising of all:  after one long weekend, workers returned to find the date on the postage machine had somehow managed to reset itself — back to 1929.

If there is a ghost, it apparently resided in the old Grover home long before demolition made way for today’s modern structure in the 1970s. One Markleeville native who remembers visiting the old Grover house as a child recalled seeing the ghostly image of a woman sitting on an upstairs bed, hair tied up in a bun, and wearing an old-fashioned high-collared blouse and long skirt.

Some speculate that the County’s ghostly resident was a lady known as Mary Gray, a diligent public servant for many years. Born in 1874, Mary served as the county’s Clerk/Auditor/Recorder, and owned and lived in the old Grover home in the 1920s. Although she sold the house to another Markleeville family long before it was demolished, it still belonged to Gray in that magical year of 1929.

 

#Markleeville #ghoststory

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Fiddletown Ghost

If this eerie Victorian doesn’t have a ghost, it should. Now tantalizingly rundown, this hauntingly beautiful Gothic Revival home was built in the gold rush town of Fiddletown around 1861.

Gold miner with pick and shovel.

No one seems to know who originally owned the house, but in later years it belonged to miner Isaac Cooper — a man with a Midas touch. Cooper first came to California with other eager gold-seekers in 1849 and, unlike many of his fellow prospectors, actually did quite well. Also unlike his compatriots, Cooper took his profits and ran — right back to Iowa, where he invested in real estate and soon became a Polk County civic leader.

But mining was still in Cooper’s blood. In 1875 he returned to Gold Country and purchased this amazing Victorian home. He also invested money in a mine located just outside of town, which proved to be yet another smart move: this mine reportedly produced a quick $3,000 in the 1890s with just a few days’ work.

Eerily, the glorious old house caught fire in 1975, exactly a century after Cooper purchased it. Although the home was partially destroyed, it has since been rebuilt.

You can find this beautiful and ghostly old home in Fiddletown at the corner of Main Street and American Flat Road, still looking as if it has secrets to tell.

Grapes

Our journey into vineyard-dom began just a week ago. A dozen baby grapevines finally made it out of the greenhouse and into the soil. And boy, were they ready!

Just planted.

So were the bunny rabbits, unfortunately. Most of the lower leaves disappeared that very first night as bunny salad. A quick trip to the hardware store for rabbit fence put an end to the Chez Cottontail Deli. But losing so many tender sprouts was depressing nonetheless.

Tendrils already hanging on.

Fast-forward just one week to more encouraging news: several of the newly-planted twigs have already grown an amazing six inches and managed to wrap their tendrils neatly around the horizontal wire! One week. Go figure!

Pretty soon we’ll have grapes in earnest, as we already do in the mature arbor. Bunnies, eat your heart out.

Mature Himrod vine

High Mountain Gardening

When gardening is an addiction, no expanse of perfectly-manicured green lawn is ever large enough. Yet another reason for expanding the greenbelt:  fresh edges for new flower beds.

The organized gardener’s dream.

As you can see, projects like this call for certain must-have gardening equipment. A mini-tiller to make short work of digging trenches. A handy roll-around metal tool tray to keep those sprinkler parts organized and at waist height (no bending over). A quad, of course (doesn’t every high mountain garden need one?) with its own dump-style trailer to haul away the rocks.

How many tools does it take to add a sprinkler run?

Soon we will have yet another beautiful swath of emerald-green lawn, edged in glorious flowers.

Thank heavens for the ride-on lawnmower.

Silver Lake Hotel

Chronicle, June 16, 1866

The ad announcing the opening of the Silver Lake Hotel in June, 1866 spared no adjectives. The air was “pure,” the scenery “delightful,” the lake itself “bottomless” and “abounding with delicious trout.” And if “sweltering mortals” from Sacramento and San Joaquin needed further inducement to travel the Amador Road for a visit, the proprietors urged them to escape in “these Cholera times!”

The Hotel’s proprietors, Hampton P. Wade and Samuel W. Evans, promised “strict attention to the wants and comfort of guests.” Nightly dancing parties were planned, with lessons given during the day for those desiring to brush up on the “latest styles of dancing.” Music would be provided by Messrs. Church, Jones and Busan, engaged for the entire season. Other amusements included hunting for petrified wood and shells (never mind that shells were probably not very abundant). And on the dinner table for every meal: fresh trout.

Visitors who planned to camp out were cautioned, however, to “bring tents with them,” as the earlier practice of cutting brush or perhaps felling a few trees to build a camping shelter would now be strictly prohibited.

Vacationing at Silver Lake was still going strong a decade later. In July, 1876 one party of happy fishermen made the news for reportedly pulling 1,400 fish from Silver Lake in less than 12 hours.

As for the hotel itself, photos show it survived into the early 1900s, although slightly the worse for wear.

Silver Lake Hotel, circa 1875. Courtesy of Amador Co. Archives.
Silver Lake Hotel in 1901. Courtesy of Amador Co. Archives.

 

Making a Hoop Skirt

Such a lovely drape to the skirt!

Those fabulous Civil War-era dresses came by their bell shape honestly — yards and yards of fabric, with some generous help from a hidden hoop underskirt. Sewing an overskirt is easy enough — so how hard could it be to make a proper hoop petticoat?

I started my adventure with an online pattern, found here. It was, well, a great start!

But after two days of trial and error (and a fair amount of hair-pulling), here is my own version of a Civil War hoop-skirt pattern, along with tips, suggestions, and a few mistakes to avoid!

Shopping List:

Fabric:  3 yards of strong cotton (avoid anything that would stretch easily), at least 32” in width

Bias Tape:  11 yards of 1-1/4” to 1-1/2”-wide bias tape (or use 1” tape and fold it open prior to stitching)

Boning:  11 yards of ¾” flat plastic boning (plumber’s tape was my solution! See photo below.)

Extra stiffening for bottom hoop:  ¼” flexible but firm plastic tubing (aka vinyl sprinkler line)

Lace Trim:  10 feet of 4” to 6”-wide lace (washable)

And (of course) Thread; Hooks-and-eyes; Buttons.

Cut out the three pieces as shown. (I used 16” for my A and B; next time I would probably make them 18” wide instead.)  For the waistband length, measure your waist and add four inches.

Cut out your pieces and run a basting stitch to gather the tops.

Run a double row of long gathering stitches at the tops of pieces A and B.

Pull threads to gather the top of piece B.  Then with right sides of A and B together, sew the top of B to the bottom of A, adjusting the gathers on B as necessary.  Press the seam up, and stitch again on top of the gathers to hold them in place. Then sew the lace trim along the bottom of Piece B.

Fold the skirt with right sides together, and stitch the back seam closed, leaving the top 5 inches open (unstitched).  Finish the edges of the 5” opening by zig-zagging the cut edges, and then fold the edges to the inside of the garment and top-stitch along both sides of the opening.

Fold the waistband in half, wrong side out, and stitch the two short ends.  Turn right side out and press so you have a straight line along the top of the band.  Mark the correct dimension for your waist (where the waistband will overlap), which will leave a tab of about 3 or 4 extra inches.

Attach one edge of the waistband to Piece A, with right sides together, adjusting the gathers as necessary to fit.  Turn the waistband right side out (turning the loose side of the waistband inside the skirt), pin in place, and then top-stitch on the right side, running your stitches all the way to the end of the tab.  Finish by adding two hooks and eyes on the square edge, and a button and buttonhole to secure the tab.

Turn the skirt inside out.  Stitch four rows of bias tape equally-spaced down the skirt, starting with a row just above the lace trim (at the bottom of Piece B).  Add a second row of bias tape about half-way up Piece B; a third row on top of the gathered seam; and the fourth row mid-way up piece A.  At the end of each bias tape row, leave 2” to 3” of extra tape loose at the back seam so it’s easy to insert the boning.

Note:  Be sure when you stitch down your bias tape that it leaves you an open tube more than 1” wide in which to insert the boning, or you’ll be fighting with it for hours!  (Voice of experience here!)

Insert flat plastic boning in each of the four bias-tape tubes, leaving about 4” excess at both ends to play with. Caution:  do not use the thin mesh boning material commonly sold at fabric stores; that may work great for corsets and other lightweight stiffening uses, but it does not provide the necessary stiffness for a hoop petticoat! It’s also horribly expensive (voice of experience again).

Bias tape on left (wider is better); black and grey plastic “boning” material (aka sprinkler tubing and plumber’s tape, with the packaging they came in); and roll of electrician’s tape to join the cut ends. At far right is mesh “boning” (black) sold in fabric stores — terribly expensive and it doesn’t work well for this purpose.

The best plastic boning material I found was polypropylene hanger strap (aka plumber’s tape), available at most hardware stores. It’s cheap; it’s tough; it’s waterproof; and it holds its shape.  For the very bottom row, additional stiffening will be needed; I added flexible vinyl ¼” sprinkler line, taping it to the flat boning material prior to inserting it into the bias tape tube.

Now comes the fun (actually not-so-fun) part — trying to get that bell-shape look just right! There’s no easy way to do it; it just takes trial and error. Adjust the length and gather of each row of boning until you are happy with the look. And (voice of experience again), don’t cut it until you are sure you have it right!

A kick to make — even more fun to wear!

Once you are satisfied with the shape, cut the boning to size, overlapping the cut ends by 1” to 2” and tape the cut ends using electrician’s tape to hold them securely. Then cut away the excess bias tape and hand-stitch each row closed.

Voila! A simple hoop skirt you can make at home to properly show off your Civil War dress creations!

The finished hoop skirt

 

 

 

 

The hoop skirt in action, under a Civil War-style skirt — made from an old bed sheet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Markleeville’s Mercury Hill

There’s a peculiar red streak in the cliff just south of Hangman’s bridge. Blink and you’ll miss it; today, most people drive by without a glance. But to Markleeville old-timers, this was where a valuable mineral resource was mined.

Look for the distinct red stain in the cliff. Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire

Back in the day, homes were roofed with simple wooden shingles. Jacob Marklee himself is said to have covered his entire cabin using shakes hewn from the local sugar pine. Wooden shingles were cheap, they were practical, and the material was readily available. But wooden shakes have an unfortunate tendency to shrink and to rot.

And that’s where this unusual deposit of red soil came in handy. The color at this site comes from cinnabar — a type of mineral earth laced with mercury. Old-time residents recall Markleeville homeowners mixing this red clay with linseed oil and painting the thick mixture on their roofs every year. It not only helped the shingles to shed water but also helped deter rot. The colorful result: all of the houses in Markleeville once had pink roofs.

Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.

The Native Americans, too, knew about this lode of red pigment. The local Washo used it to make ceremonial paint to adorn their faces and bodies. Washo chief Captain Jim was said to have painted his face and body with red and black paint when he defended the sacred cave just up the old road from this site. It is quite likely he mined the red pigment right here.

Interested in exploring more Markleeville lore? Check out our Self-Guided Walking Tour of Markleeville, available at www.clairitage.com.

Markleeville Cave

The year was 1864. William A. Johnson, road superintendent for Carr & Co., was building a new toll road from Markleeville to the booming mining camp of Silver Mountain. There was just one obstacle in his way: Captain Jim, a Washo Chief. The new toll road, it seems, was passing too close for comfort to a cave long used by the tribe as a shelter in winter, and as a ceremonial spot for their medicine man.

Superintendent Johnson was impatient to finish his wagon road, but the Washo chief knew the value of the location and demanded a stiff price for the site: fifty dollars. And on that point he was adamant: “No pay, no road.”

According to the local newspaper, Captain Jim laid in an abundant supply of pine nuts, acorns, and grasshoppers, and took up residence at the cave. He painted his face and chest with red and black paint, kept his bow at the ready, and slug a fox-skin bag filled with arrows across his back.

Finally, the road superintendent brokered a meeting, and a pipe of peace was smoked. The agreed-upon purchase price was handed over, and a large plug of tobacco thrown in to sweeten the deal. Capt. Jim would permit the new road to be built.

Johnson departed for Markleeville to write up their agreement. But as it turned out, he wasn’t going to acquire such an important right-of-way quite so cheaply. As a contemporary news account explained:  “During his absence, Captain Jim distrained and disappeared — and so did Johnson’s overcoat valued at $25.”

Traces of the old wagon road are still visible beside the cave.

This historic Washo Cave is still visible today, along with traces of Johnson’s original old wagon road. To reach it, follow Highway 89 about 1.3 miles beyond the bridge at Markleeville and park at the pull-off before Hangman’s Bridge. The trail to your right leads the short distance to the cave.

According to one long-time local, this cave also saw more recent use: located out of sight and a convenient distance from town, it housed a temporary bar during Prohibition days. The cave also briefly sheltered at least one run-away prisoner from the Markleeville jail. The fast-thinking inmate had engineered his escape by pulling the door of his cell closed and the jailor simply forgot to lock it.

Large enough to stand up in, the cave shows evidence of many fires — and many bats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julian Maisterrena

He was a big man with a large moustache and outsized energy.

Born in 1874 in Villa de Maya, Spain, Julian Maisterrena was a Spanish Basque who came to this country at the age of 19 with his pockets empty. Julian worked in sawmills and as a sheepherder, and tucked his meager salary away. Before long he was the proud owner of a band of sheep of his own. Then two bands. Then nine.

Markleeville isn’t usually thought of as “sheep country.” But it was to Julian. He bought the Mayo Ranch southeast of town, and also grazed flocks on the lush meadows of the old Monroe Ranch across the creek. In all, Julian owned over 1,000 acres in Alpine and held thousands more through grazing rights. And he brought a veritable circus to Markleeville every spring, courtesy of the V&T Railroad.

Julian’s home ranch east of Bellota stretched some 4,900 acres. Every year when it was time to move the sheep up to summer pastures in Alpine, the flocks would be driven on the long trip beginning at Clements, up Pipi Valley, over Echo Summit and then down through Hope Valley to their pasture at Markleeville. But Maisterrena wasn’t about to leave the rest of his ranch behind. Instead, he arranged for his entire stockyard to be shipped along each year as well: 100 head of cattle, an equal number of pigs, goats, and horses, and flocks and flocks of chickens and geese were all loaded on rail cars to make the journey.

Just think of the logistics:  ranch hands had to travel with the animals aboard the train to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Sacks of feed and barrels of water were needed to sustain the animals for the trip. A summer “kitchen” and all its equipment and supplies had to be packed up and loaded aboard as well. And the journey wasn’t over once the V&T engine chugged into Minden; everything then had to be ferried another 25 miles to the summer camp at Markleeville. Once they arrived, there was all the work of tending so many animals: horses to be shod, harness to be mended, hay to be cut, and hungry help to be fed.

Camp fare for Maisterrena’s sheep hands included (of course) abundant ham, bacon, and sausage. There was homemade bread, baked at the camp in dutch ovens. And everything would be washed down with homemade wine. It was no easy task for the hard-working cook, who also was tasked with gathering and chopping all the firewood, hauling the water, and tending a camp garden.

Julian was a ranch man — he didn’t drive a car. Instead his transportation consisted of a pair of fine white horses hitched to a black buckboard wagon. He favored crisp new Levis and dapper Stetson hats, and puffed on Optimo cigars (which were “the best,” he said). He carried a black valise at all times for important paperwork, and carried his money in a drawstring leather bag. While in Markleeville, his “office” was the bar at the Alpine Hotel, and he could be found there most mornings, doing business and playing cards, with a glass at his elbow.

Julian suffered a stroke at his Markleeville camp during the summer of 1943, and by December, he was dead. His estate included over $200,000 in assets — the equivalent of millions today. It took several years, but the estate was finally probated. Julian had no children of his own, but with assistance from the Spanish embassy, his hard-earned fortune was distributed to his relatives in Spain.

Even today, people who grew up in Markleeville still remember those summers when Julian and his sheep came to town. “In the evenings, you could hear the Basques singing over across the river,” remembers one local lad. “Everybody in town could hear it. It was like drawing a moth to a flame, we kids just migrated up there. They’d hand you a big water glass, and pour it with wine.”