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October 16
1853 - Sarah Gifford, community leader and wife of Newhall's first railroad station agent, born in England [story]


Commentary by Linda Castro
| Thursday, Nov 23, 2017
Figure 5.
 

Traveling through our desert, one often sees roadside markers that are typically constructed of concrete or rocks with a metal plaque on the top or front. Some are marked with the letters “ECV” on the back or on the ground.

If you take the time to stop and read these plaques, you will discover that many of them were erected by an organization called E Clampus Vitus, often times in cooperation with a federal land management agency or other groups.

Seeing this name on so many roadside plaques in the desert can only cause a curious person to wonder – what is E Clampus Vitus? What does the name of the organization mean? What is the history of this organization? What is its mission?

Figure 1

When you start looking for the answers to these questions, you soon learn there are not too many straight answers. To begin with, nobody claims to know what the name of the organization means. The name is apparently made-up, nonsensical words. Not surprisingly, their motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which, in Latin, roughly translates to “I believe because it’s absurd.”

If you try to research the history of the organization, you will find some interesting details – most of which are obviously tall tales, due to their absurdity. One is that the organization started with Adam in the Garden of Eden, claiming that the “unimpeachable unwritten works of St. Vitus (say that the organization) was founded by our Clampatriarch Adam himself in the Garden of Eden, and that the original Staff of Relief, which figures so greatly in the Clamper ritual, was a branch that Adam broke from the Tree of Knowledge and smuggled out with him, hidden beneath his apron, when he was driven from Eden.”

Figure 2

At least a handful of facts appear to be undisputed about the organization. It is a nonprofit historical organization with chapters in eight western states, although they are not well-known outside of California. Members of the fraternal organization are called Clampers, and the chapter presidents are given the ceremonial title of Noble Grand Humbug. They claim their purpose is to be a historical drinking society or a drinking historical society, the debate over which has never been resolved. They describe their objectives as “taking care of the widows and orphans, but especially the widows.”

Figure 4

The organization requires potential Clampers to have “a sense of humor, an interest in Western history, an open mind, and a cast-iron stomach.” If a man has those qualities and strikes up a friendship with a Clamper or two, they may invite him to join the organization. This invitation will be extended only once, and if it is refused, it is never tendered again.

It appears as though E Clampus Vitus was brought to California in the mid 1800s. The first attempt at establishing a lodge in modern-day Placerville failed, but a second attempt to do so finally caught on at Mokelumne Hill (approximately 50 miles southeast of Sacramento). The organization became popular because it afforded the young men at the mines with a perfect excuse for horseplay. Furthermore, it ridiculed the stuffy secret fraternal, benevolent and political societies such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, and in the mid-1850s, the Know-Nothings, which were so important in the Gold Rush days.

The Clampers’ work can be seen throughout our desert. If you visit Burro Schmidt tunnel in the El Paso Mountains, you will see one of their markers at the entrance of the tunnel (Figure 1). While cruising along Route 66 east of Amboy, you will see a marker along this longest stretch of undeveloped Route 66 that highlights the history of the route and its demise (Figure 2). Off-roading groups that make trips on the Mojave Road, will come across remnants of the Southern Nevada Railway that have a marker erected next to them at the intersection of the Mojave Road with Lanfair Road in the Mojave National Preserve (Figure 3). A plaque marking the Harry Wade Exit Route, used by a group that escaped the fate of the 1849 caravan (also known as the Death Valley 49er’s), can be found on Highway 178 between Baker and Death Valley National Park (Figure 4). The Clampers have also been part of the plaques that have been placed at each of the World War II training camps in our desert, such as Camp Iron Mountain and Camp Rice which are both found along Highway 62 between Twentynine Palms and the California-Arizona border (Figure 5).

Figure 5

There are many more E Clampus Vitus markers to be found throughout our desert. The Clampers claim to have plaqued hundreds of places “from ghost towns to saloons, from bordellos to ranchos, from heroes to madmen.” The next time you visit or pass by a somewhat obscure place that has some kind of historical importance and see a small marker with a plaque, more than likely, E Clampus Vitus had some part in putting it there.

One might come to the conclusion that these drunken “frat boys” are merely a bunch of lunatics who belong to an organization just to have an excuse to get together and drink. Perhaps that is true for a number of them, but they seem to have a passion for history and educating and inspiring others about it, which is a great goal and accomplishment if you ask me.

 

Linda Castro is a nature enthusiast and animal lover. She is the Assistant Policy Director for the California Wilderness Coalition and serves on the board of the SCV-based Community Hiking Club.  Her commentaries relate to California’s deserts.

 

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3 Comments

  1. George Palmer says:

    The Clampers had a “clubhouse” in a little (hydraulic) mining enclave called Humbug in what is now known as Malakoff Diggings near Bloomfield CA in the mountainous area near Nevada City, Local lore describes the social group as an mild protest reaction of the mostly poorly paid miners to the mine owners who had become massively wealthy during the CA gold rush. Perhaps a place to “blow off a little steam” at the end of a long, hard workday.

  2. George Palmer says:

    Re. My previous comment, The town name I posted was Bloomfield, CA…..it is actually N. Bloomfield. Sorry.

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