Fundraiser started after fire devastates home of ‘Alkali’ creator Rick Toles |

Fundraiser started after fire devastates home of ‘Alkali’ creator Rick Toles

If you want to help

Visit the GoFundMe page for Toles

Rick Toles was intent on getting a barbecue started at his Rough and Ready home when disaster struck.

The propane-fueled grill started to leak and Toles tried to pull it away from the house, but it was already too hot to maneuver.

“It started to sound like a jet engine and then, ‘KABOOM!” Toles said, the consummate storyteller.

“The fire leaped up the house and burnt pretty much everything,” he added. “It’s clearly a total loss.”

Toles frantically tried to put the fire out in his “stocking feet,” running back and forth with a hose so he could at least contain the blaze, said ex-wife Piper Devi. In so doing, he sustained burns on his feet and stomach, injuries he didn’t even notice initially in the adrenaline rush of trying to save his home.

While insurance will cover the cost of replacing the modular residence, which was gutted in the fire on Aug. 30, Toles likely will not see anywhere near the replacement cost of his musical instruments and the puppets he has used to entertain Nevada County’s children for decades.

As “Alkali, the last of the ‘49ers,” Toles has embodied Gold Rush history for generations of Nevada County residents. Decades of fourth graders have enjoyed his “first hand” account of life on the trail west in 1849, featuring instruments including the banjo, fiddle, bones, harmonica, button accordion and musical saw, as well as songs of the period.

As Alkali, he performs at state parks like Malakoff Diggins and in schools around Northern California.

“I’ve had teachers tell me they saw my show when they were in the fourth grade,” Toles laughs. “I’ve been doing it for 30 years now.”

Familiar face

Toles is also a familiar face every year at the Nevada County Fair. On the Tumbleweed Stage, Toles performs a ventriloquist act with his puppets, including Cornelius the Crow.

“I’ve been doing it for years and years,” he said.

Toles lights up as he describes some of the verbal and visual puns that get the kids laughing — like the alligator who is thirsty for Gatorade and the “magic drawing board” that brings drawn-on eyes to life.

“The kids just go nuts,” he said.

“And the adults, too,” Devi chimed in.

“It’s a show for children of all ages,” Toles agreed.

While Toles is trying to take the loss of his livelihood in stride, it’s clear that his emotions still overwhelm him from time to time.

“I’m still in shock,” he admitted. “It’s not the best of times for me at the moment… But this, too, shall pass.”

Devi and friend Stephanie Steyer have organized a GoFundMe for Toles, raising a little over $6,000 in the last week.

“He’s a musician and he’s lost the tools of his trade,” Devi said.

Toles said he has been quoted a $500 coverage limit for all his instruments, even though one steel guitar that was destroyed is valued at $3,500 alone.

“Rick has given so much music, laughter and love to the Grass Valley/Nevada City communities for many, many years,” Steyer wrote on the GoFundMe page, adding that in addition to money for basics like clothing and household items, “Rick will need to replace many of his beloved puppets, so he can continue to entertain all of us… soon.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email or call 530-477-4236.

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