The terror attacks in Paris have turned the thoughts of many to France and the sordid history of the French republic. I am always a little shocked when I read detailed accounts of the French revolution. The atrocities are so recent (just 200+ years) – and so obviously motivated by secular ideas still widely held – that it all hits very close to home.
I don’t usually think of the present French regime as being unapologetically in continuity with Robespierre and Jacobinism, but maybe I’m wrong about that. In any case, it probably wouldn’t take much for our most “progressive” leaders to excuse or even condone these atrocities. Just a manufactured “crisis” that renders the “intolerant” intolerable.
Yesterday, November 16, commemorated the first mass drowning of 90 Catholic priests in the Loire River in 1793. The total number of priests, nuns, and other “royalist sympathizers” cruelly executed by drowning in subsequent weeks is unknown, but scholarly estimates range from 1800 to 9000. Read the Wiki article for details.
We recently made some changes in our family vehicles, trading in our 12 passenger van for a Dodge Grand Caravan; trading in the GMC Canyon for a Ford Taurus for the older children to drive at college; and purchasing a Chevrolet Suburban to replace the big van and serve as my work vehicle.
Due to the Suburban’s many excellent features (8 passengers, 4WD, adequate storage, smooth handling, 31 gallon fuel tank, etc.) I have referred to it several times as our “get out of Dodge vehicle” should we ever need to flee in the middle of the night as refugees in the direction of, say, Modoc County in mid-winter during a blizzard. Everyone would fit, including some food and clothing and maybe even a fiddle or two.
My dear wife, who speaks excellent English but is still unfamiliar with some English idioms, thought I meant “get out of the Dodge Grand Caravan” when I referred to our “get out of Dodge vehicle” … until an associate of hers at the pharmacy explained the saying’s hazy origin with Dodge City, Kansas and its legendary assistant marshal, Wyatt Earp.
The town of Durham, California, was founded by Robert W. Durham of Virginia, who inherited 240 acres of Rancho Esquon from his business partner, Samuel Neal. The town was planned by Robert Durham and his nephew, William W. Durham, in 1870 when the railroad came through, as a transportation and supply center for local farming operations. The Durham family and the town’s early pioneers are buried in an old cemetery just a few miles outside of town. I lived about a mile away from the cemetery in my boyhood and remember the place as being overgrown, neglected, and abandoned. According to a group of concerned citizens who restored the cemetery:
“In 1978, the defunct Christian Service Society deeded the cemetery to a private family. Over the years, weeds, brush and huge bushes of poison oak were rampant throughout the gravesites, and it became impossible for families to place flowers or visit the final resting place of their loved ones. When building materials appeared on top of the gravesites, the community of Durham became outraged. Residents banded together in a joint effort to protect and defend this sacred and historic site. In 1994, after many years of conflict and legal proceedings, the Butte County Board of Supervisors initiated eminent domain proceedings and subsequently approved an agreement designating the newly formed ‘Durham Cemetery Preservation Association, Inc.’ as caretakers. The non-profit Association was given the responsibility for restoration, repair and maintenance of the cemetery.
The monumental task of cleaning up years of neglect and disrepair was started immediately. The cleanup has revealed beautiful marble and granite grave markers which have not seen the light of day for decades. Other stones were repaired, and families contributed toward obtaining new stones for those missing or destroyed. Records of burials at Durham Cemetery had long since disappeared, so research was conducted to document evidence of those buried there.”
I had about 30 minutes to kill this afternoon and stopped by the old cemetery to take a few photographs. The place is now properly cared for and is obviously being used again by local families. The large monuments of the Durham family are the most most prominent graves in the cemetery, as they should be. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
I’m almost done reading this fine little book out loud to the children. We’ve been covering about two chapters a night for the past week. Californians should know their history, and this is a good place to start. General Vallejo’s critical influence in the founding of our state is often overlooked. Like Chico’s John Bidwell, he was genuinely a man of honor and decency. We Californians can be proud of his legacy.
Among his many notable contributions, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo founded three cities, named more than twenty counties, provided a vast amount of information for Bancroft’s seven volume “History of California”, and was a delegate to California’s constitutional convention. He has many living descendants who have remained in California and who continue the family tradition of service to the people of this state. Vallejo’s family home in Sonoma, Lachryma Montis (latin for “tear of the mountain”, which refers to an Indian legend), was donated to the state of California on the condition that the Bear Flag never be raised over the land. You see, Vallejo was rudely taken prisoner by yankee ruffians who raised the first “bear flag” and declared California an independent republic. (This independent nation status lasted 26 days.) The women of the family never forgot the indignity.
The Father of our country, George Washington, refused the suggestion of being America’s first monarch, and in any case he is believed to have been childless. However, his older brother Samuel has abundant progeny, and according to certain laws of monarchial legitimacy which I don’t quite understand, Samuel’s fifth generation descendant Paul Emery Washington of San Antonio, Texas, would be today’s rightful American king had George Washington accepted the venerable office.
“Of the 200 men that carry the Washington name, though, Paul Emery is the end result of two lines—a very rare possibility that makes him the likely heir.
That’s a concept that Paul would rather not think about. ‘I doubt if I’d be a very good king,’ he says. ‘We’ve done so well as a country without a king, so I think George made the best decision.’ His family, which includes three sons and one daughter, are fifth-generation descendants of George’s oldest brother, Samuel. But Paul would’ve been the ninth or tenth king of America depending on which of the lines you follow.”
When I was about 9 years old, I used to study a topographical map of California hanging on the wall of my grandfather’s den – one of those plastic maps with bumps and valleys. On that map I noticed a little town named “Mulberry” between Chico and Durham, supposedly located on a route we traveled frequently. I asked my mother and grandmother, on separate occasions, to take me there. We looked for it, but there were no signs of a town or anything else with the “Mulberry” name in that locale. For some reason this puzzled me greatly. My mother encouraged me to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking if any readers knew about the place.
What followed was astounding. The newspaper published my short letter, not realizing at the time that I was just 9 years old. Scores of long-time area residents responded with memories, anecdotes and photographs of the forgotten old Mulberry railroad station and the community that grew up around it. The newspaper devoted several full pages to these letters and pictures over the next few weeks. After this amazing outpouring of historical memory, my mother wrote a letter to the newspaper thanking them, and all those who contributed to the series, revealing that the original letter writer was her young son. Shortly thereafter the newspaper published a sentimental editorial lauding the power of childhood curiosity and supportive parents.
Thus began my lifelong fascination with small towns and their hidden stories. Like so many small towns – especially here in the West – Mulberry thrived for a short time and then faded away. Why? I began to pour over maps and found other places like this. Granny was often available to help me chase after these places.
On one of these maps I located Pulga, a little town on the Feather River, and Granny took me there. The road to Pulga was a narrow, winding, unpaved mountain road that eventually descended into the canyon and stopped at cluster of run down buildings and shacks. There was a “store” that also served as a post office and everything else, but it was closed. I suspect it was also someone’s home. A few dwellings could be seen in the surrounding hills, but they looked scary to me. If it weren’t for the clotheslines, you wouldn’t think they were inhabited. Not a single person was in sight. I wondered who lived here now … and who lived here 80 years ago? What did they do? How did they live? What was it about a railway station on the river that attracted settlers in the first place? Are the folks here now related to the original families? Why did this place feel so … strange? Like we were being watched?
Granny and I walked down to the river and had a picnic lunch. She had brought some coffee with her, but it was cold. She drank it anyway. Looking back I realize how kind she was to me, cheerfully indulging me as I worked myself up over inventing a new soft drink that would make us all rich – cold, sweetened, carbonated coffee! After this excursion, we both agreed that we had an uneasy feeling in that place …
Once, I asked Granny to take me to a town called Dingville. “Downtown” Dingville consisted of one small store and an unappealing coffee shop. We stopped in for lunch – the only customers, probably the only customers they had all week. I’ll never forget the waiter, an unshaven man in a dirty white t-shirt who so shamelessly flirted with Granny (she was widowed by then) that she was visibly shaken. But we laughed about it all the way home.
Not too far from here is the little town of Nelson, with a population of less than 100. It has one store and the residents look none too friendly. What is strange about this tiny little place is that it has a huge, beautiful park! How did that happen? Come to find out, Nelson was once a thriving settlement of 2,500 souls. On the north side of town was the vice district: saloons, brothels, gambling dens. As the story goes, the town was almost completely destroyed by fire. It is believed that Nelson’s battalion of “church ladies” deliberately set fire to the saloons. The fire unexpectedly spread to the rest of the town and destroyed the place. Nelson never recovered.
Places matter. What happens in a place tends to stay with it, somehow, entering the ground and the walls and the air – whether good or evil. The protagonists in a great spiritual war fight over territory. A priest once celebrated Mass for us in our living room. Before leaving he told us: “The angels never leave a place where holy Mass has been said”. When a priest blesses a home or building, if he is thorough, he will even sprinkle holy water in the closets and hidden nooks and crannies.
Small towns are interesting because people are interesting, and in a small town the people matter. I don’t romanticize them. Most small towns are not Mayberry. Some of these towns are crawling with ghosts, some are haunted by an evil past, some are plagued with old grudges and feuds, and some are refuges for scoundrels of all kinds. Others are healthy and happy places, God-fearing places, wholesome and friendly places, and it’s fun to try and find these little gems. But most are a mixture of things, and that mix is unique in every town.
Take Graysville, Tennessee, home to a settlement of Melungeons, an Appalachian people thought to be of mixed European, Indian and African ancestry. Their story is utterly fascinating, and whatever you might say about them, there is no place like Graysville anywhere else on this earth. I could read about such places for days on end.
To this very day, I continue to chase small towns. Yesterday I took the kids on a little excursion to the ridge community of Cohasset, one of many remote California mountain settlements that could easily be mistaken for a hamlet in Appalachia. Like the “hollers” back east, there is only one road in and out of the place. The history of the ridge is volatile and tragic and triumphant – its best and worst days seemingly in the past. Today Cohasset has a somewhat negative reputation in the valley, mainly due to an unsavory element that makes the news from time to time, but also because it is visibly quite poor. Recently, I asked a fellow who lives in Cohasset about his neighbors. Who lives up there? He said the ridge is a haven for the “far left” and the “far right” and not much in between. Perhaps so, but it’s a beautiful ridge with an established community that is proud of its heritage.