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The Great Republic of Rough and Ready rejoins Union after 3-month ‘secession’ in 1850

The new Rough & Ready firehouse on Rough & Ready Highway, where the fire will serve breakfast inside the bays, and Ladies Auxiliary will also serve lunch.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Know & Go

What: Rough and Ready Secession Days celebration.

When: 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. June 29.

Where: Downtown Rough and Ready, Rough and Ready Highway

Why: Celebrates the three months in 1950 when Rough & Ready seceded from the U.S. and became the Great Republic of Rough & Ready.

How: Pancake Breakfast, Rough and Ready Volunteer Firehouse, 7 to 11 a.m., games, bounce house, water slide for the kids, music, crafts, a reenactment play, lunches by the fire auxiliary and grange.

Other: Free admission and parking. Also, Saturday night, June 28, a spaghetti feed is planned starting 6 p.m. at Rough and Ready Grange #795. ($10)

Rough and Ready has the dubious distinction of being “the only mining town in the country to have ‘seceded’ from the Union and then voted itself back in,” according to historians.

For three months in 1850, between April 7 and the beginning of July, the town, five miles west of Grass Valley on a highway that bears its name, voted itself to be an independent country called “The Great Republic of Rough and Ready.”

According to Nevada County historian Bob Wyckoff, the first order of business of the newly proclaimed Republic of Rough and Ready was to elect Col. E.F. Brundage, a veteran of the Mexican War, as president.

“The president-elect was not immediately available for comment,” Wyckoff wrote in “The Way it Was.”

“But a spokesman for the chief executive said the miners formed their own country because they felt that ‘there were just too danged many federal laws that us Rough and Readyans can do without.’”

Most historians add that the law that irked Rough and Ready residents the most was a proposed gold mining tax.

“The government was taxing gold mines,” said Uhl “Red” Sagraves of Rough and Ready. “Everybody was pretty damn independent in those days.”

Sagraves, 81, is most well known for playing a rowdy named “Slim” in the Rough and Ready Secession Days reenactment play, “The Saga of Rough and Ready.”

This year’s Secession Days celebration is from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. June 29, in downtown Rough and Ready (a “Spaghetti Feed” pre-celebration is 6 p.m. Saturday, June 28, at Rough and Ready Grange No. 695).

The Union will run a full schedule of “Secession Days” events in the Prospector magazine on Thursday, June 26.

According to Sagraves, the town voted to rescind the secession after a group of miners were denied alcohol for their Fourth of July celebration because they were “foreigners,” he said.

“Some miners went up to Boston Ravine, off Allison Ranch Road, to get booze,” Sagraves said. “They wouldn’t sell to them because they said ‘You don’t belong to the U.S.’”

Not being able to properly celebrate July 4 was a deal-breaker, according to the Rough and Ready Chamber of Commerce.

“The town gathered again and decided to rejoin the Union — just in time for the Fourth of July celebration,” the Chamber says in its newsletter.

Wyckoff quoted one of the men who had supported the secession but who changed his mind.

“‘But,’ reasoned one of the men, ‘we’re not part of the United States. How can we observe their Independence Day when we just had one of our own?’” as Wyckoff told it.

Chamber Executive Director Craig Ashcraft said the essence of the change of heart was clear:

“It was for want of a good party that brought The Great Republic back into the Union fold,” Ashcraft said. “And it is another good party that the town and visitors will enjoy during the annual Secession Days celebration on Sunday, Sept. 29.”

Rough and Ready Volunteer Fire Co. Capt. Matt Wright said he has gone to the Secession Days celebration since he was a child.

His father, Assistant Fire Chief Monty Wright, “dragged me to it every year,” Matt Wright said.

Now, Wright said, his father is cook at the firehouse’s popular Secession Days pancake breakfast, the fundraising kickoff for the fire department.

The department also runs baked potato booths at the Fourth of July celebration at Nevada County Fairgrounds and at the Nevada County Fair Aug. 6-10.

Rough and Ready gets its name from the 12th United States president, Zachary Taylor, a general during the Mexican War whose nickname was “Old Rough and Ready.”

The camp that later became the town was settled in 1849 by a company of men from Wisconsin led by Capt. A.A. Townsend. Townsend and the company, who were lured to California by the discovery of gold, had served under Taylor in the war and considered him their hero.

The company was named “Rough and Ready” in honor of Tayor, and the men gave the same name to their camp.

Unlike many Gold Rush towns and camps that disappeared when the gold ran out, Rough and Ready has hung on. From a bustling town that was the center of the region during the height of the Gold Rush to its 2010 Census population of 963, Rough and Ready remains proud of its colorful history.

“The West is dotted with the remains of scores of towns and camps that were and are no more,” Wyckoff wrote in “The Way it Was.” “Rough and Ready … refuses to ‘ghost’ and has hung tenaciously to life long after the last pan of gravel was washed for its gold.”

According to Sagraves, the town has also hung onto its name — despite efforts to shorten it.

After World War II, the town posted a petition to reopen the post office, which had been closed during the war.

“They said, ‘You can be Rough, or be Ready, but not both,’” Sagraves said.

The town didn’t agree, however, and ultimately got permission to reopen the post office and keep the same name.

The post office, established July 25, 1851, still serves the town and the surrounding countryside.

Rough and Ready, meanwhile, has been added to the list of California Historical Landmarks.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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