Clampers chapter leaves its mark on Truckee
The group known as the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus – the “Clampers” for short – has been known to be many things. And while there is some doubt as to how ancient the society may be, its honor has never (well, rarely) been questioned.According to Dr. Albert Shumate – a prominent Clamper who has since passed on to “The Golden Hills,” as Clampers like to say – in a 1991 article entitled “The Mysterious History of E Clampus Vitus”: “It is claimed ECV is a historical drinking society; others claim it to be a drinking historical society. The debate continues; it has never been solved.”Shumate maintains that the history of ECV is somewhat murky because at all of their meetings, no one was in any state to take minutes, and after the meetings, no one could be found who remembered what had happened.What is known about the group’s origins, according to local Clamper Leon Schegg, is that “E Clampus Vitus started out as a spoof of more pretentious organizations back in western Virginia in the 1840s or possibly as early as the 1830s.”In jest?By all accounts, the group was conceived by a barkeep named Ephraim Bee, who drew up elaborate rituals in mockery of the secret societies prevalent at the time, such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows.Brought west during the gold rush by a man named Joseph Zumwalt, the group soon found an enthusiastic following among the miners in California who hadn’t been allowed to join the more pretentious societies of the times. Clamper lodges eventually spread throughout the west as miners followed the newest gold strikes until around 1915, when a lodge in the Marysville area became the last known Clamper organization in the state.
In the 1930s, historians in San Francisco decided to restart the group as a historical society while retaining the satirical spirit of the original group and as many of the facetious rituals as could be discovered. Again, the Clampers found an enthusiastic following and chapters began popping up in Los Angeles, New Mexico, and eventually throughout the historic Gold Country towns of California.”The original E Clampus Vitus went to the rescue or the relief of the widows of miners who died,” Schegg said. “The Clampers would get together food and take care of the widows and orphans. They did that kind of as a social service for the miners.”Humbugs of history But by 1932, Schegg said those services weren’t needed, so E Clampus Vitus grew into more of a historical group to relive and retell the stories of the Gold Rush. In Nevada County, the Chief Truckee Chapter of ECV was founded in 1963, and since that time the group has researched and installed commemorative plaques at 37 historically important sites in and around Truckee.Schegg, who was initiated into the Chief Truckee chapter in 1975, has been active in the group ever since, even rising to the status in 1982 of Noble Grand Humbug – the sarcastically pompous title given to chapter leaders despite the group’s commitment to the idea that “All members are officers and all officers are of equal indignity.”Schegg was recently involved in the rededication of the historical plaque at the old Train Depot in downtown Truckee. The plaque is dedicated to Theodore Judah who engineered the Transcontinental Railroad route through the Sierra.”It’s a fun organization. It’s been associated a lot with saloons and drinking, and there are quite a few Clampers who do their share,” Schegg said, while duly noting that “there’re also a lot of teetotalers in it.”
And while drinking, fraternizing and retelling history may be the cornerstones upon which the modern day ECV is built, the group also does its part to support the communities whose histories it celebrates. “The Clampers have evolved and we’re trying to help support communities too. We have a lot of chapters in the smaller Sierra communities that can be helped by the tourism. We don’t buy a lot of the trinkets in the town, but we keep the liquid assets flowing,” Schegg said.According to Schegg, the Clampers have dedicated more historical markers throughout California than the state of California has; often for subjects that might otherwise be overlooked, such as ghost towns or elaborate hoaxes from the gold rush days.Prominent Clamper markers around Truckee include the China Wall plaque located on Old Highway 40 below the Rainbow Bridge, a plaque dedicated to Tamsen and Elizabeth Donner near Alder Creek, and plaques commemorating historical sites such as Hooligan Rock, Hobart Mills and the old Truckee Republican office.Sidebar:Clamper by-laws:1. All members are officers.
2. All offices are of equal indignity.3. Etc., etc.Clamper mottos: “Credo quia absurdum” I believe because it is absurd.”Per caritate viduaribus orphanibusque, sed prime viduaribus” Protect the widows and orphans, especially the widows.Clamper symbol: A braying jackass designed by Holling C. Holling in 1941.* taken from “E Clampus Vitus Now & Then: The Replete History of ECV” by Seth Slopes. Published in 2000 by the Old Timers Museum, Murphys, Calif.