Looking backwards: NC in the ’20s
Born and raised in Nevada City in the early 20s is cause to remember, to compare the lifestyle of that time, the good with the bad, to compare the paragon of family values, showcase images that just maybe should be left alone. If I did that you wouldn’t know how it was “when I was a boy.”
In the history of the town came a time that was fascinating. To begin, let’s go back to a year long before Prohibition To 1856. The township had 156 families, 907 houses, two temperance divisions, an Order of Templars and “79 saloons.” Proof enough that gold wasn’t the only attraction that made the town famous.
Another blast from the past before, during and after Prohibition, which I remembered best is that whiskey quenched the thirst of the hard-rock miner. Let the good times roll. Stories from this era were many and sometimes amazing, but worth re-telling. This is one of them: Bootleg whiskey came to the county from the state of Nevada in a tank hiding in a casket. The hearse was never inspected for body content and was quickly on its way to Nevada County – never a problem. It was quietly whispered that the sheriff and undertaker were best of fiends.
Foul language wasn’t popular among the community. Four-letter words were not in vogue and rarely heard. A three-letter word such as “ass” was a contradiction of that time, but tolerated because, in fact, everyone had one. Miners in their free time often drank too much. One early morning, walking down Broad Street with my father, we came upon a miner, a friend of my father’s, drunk, lying in the gutter. “My goodness, what in the world happened to you?” The reply came slowly, “Robert, I’m sorry you and your boy see me in this condition, but please forgive me because a whiskey glass and a woman’s ass made a horse’s ass out of me.” At that young age, I never forgot what was said that early morning, and now neither will you!
I listened with boyhood rapture to the talk of the miners, especially when the subject was of the mystical “tommyknocker,” a fairy goblin belonging to the Cousin Jack and Cousin Jenny people from the mining towns of England. This figment of imagination, never seen but heard, was a vague myth. If a tool was misplaced or a shovel handle broken, weird sounds heard from nowhere, and many other unexplainable happenings occurring, it became the folklore of the hard-rock miner, many hundreds of feet under the ground. Please, the lonely miner would say to himself, “I can’t see your face, but I know it’s you. Down here, nothing matters but our dignity. Damn it – show yourself to this darkness where shadows are never seen. It’s lonely here. Talk and whispers are heard when silence prevails, but are soon faded and gone.”
Requirements for working underground never existed. No job descriptions were needed, nor were there performance standards. The only given was, “You worked like hell, or you were fired.” The only qualifications were a strong back, a weak mind, a hard head, a brave heart, a hungry stomach and sticky fingers!
“Rocks to the right of you, rocks to the left of you, as we go down where it’s damp, cold and into the deep bowels of the earth in search of gold.” Those were the first words beginning miners heard, as they descended down the shaft to the underworld of always darkness.
Underground was an eerie image of things gone wrong, a warlike zone caused by massive explosions a mess of shafts, passageways, inclining slopes, drifts and large open caves. All this honeycombed in every direction in quest of snowbank quartz veins that contained the gold. Men worked in a dark mystic world from the flickering light of a carbon lamp attached to the miner’s hat. The constant noise of compressed air drilling, the rumble of tram cars bearing ore and the end of the shift dynamite blasting. The smells of remembrance were the the oil fog from the drilling machine, and the pounding headaches from the smell of dynamite. The wasted rock piles were the outhouses of the inmates. Life underground was rough and hazardous. In truth, you were closer to hell than any man on earth!
Miner owners, salaried superintendents and shift bosses, and their rights of domain, did not include the well being of the miners. No way; however, in the last years before the death of the mines, safety had become a concern of management.
Mentions of gold triggered the imagination of any man, and the sum behavior of the sight of gold was the almighty dollar. Few men held the banner of honesty for all to see. Some did, and there were many of them, but sooner than not, others fell to the luster of gold fever.
Gold was at $20.57 an ounce until 1934, when it made a major jump to $35, which gave cause for little mines to open up, and gave much needed employment, helping to end the many years of depression. The miner was paid $5.76 a working day, six days a week. The mucker with the shovel gained $5.24. Fifteen hundred men worked the mines. Most roomed in boarding houses in both twin towns. The metal detector was yet to be invented. Pieces of gold no larger than a thumbnail were the ideal size that could lend the high-grade an easy way of departing the mine. How was it done? In many ways, in total simplicity, under the nose of the watchmen on duty. It was both simple and clever. The main ingredient was unpretentious, a little stick of chewing gum. Simply attach the gold, stick it to the hair of the armpit and below in like manner, where the moon never shines. Ride the skip up to ground level, take off working clothes, take a shower under surveillance, smile, be of good humor, depart, put on street clothes, and be on your way. Sure, there were other ways; the ingenuity of the miner had no limits. A few thermos jugs had false bottoms, especially for gold larger than an ounce. Gold was where you found it. Workbench men of the stamp mill combed their hair with minute flakes of gold, to be washed out at home and later sold.
Stalkers of the night were the middle men who knocked on the miner’s door and asked, “Got anything for me?” Paying much less than the official rate, they slipped away to another door. If the miner received $5 an ounce, it equaled a day’s work.
From here on, gold changed hands for another profit. The gold exploitation was pursued on a grand scale by individuals highly respected in the towns, who had much more than a passable relation with officials. Gold was melted down with a certain percentage of other metals, such as copper, in varying amounts. They had to be very careful because the “mint” assayed a fast print of exactness of where the gold came from. False mines were salted carefully with gold, to give an effect that lured Eastern money; it came, fortunes were lost, and fortunes made supposedly by men of unquestionable integrity.
Bawdy houses with red lights added spice and sizzle to the lonely miners, no doubt about that. It was an exchange between strangers who cared not to know each other at all. They were here today and gone tomorrow. Townspeople ignored these morally corrupt individuals as people of no value. If anyone paid attention, it was of little curiosity , if at all.
It was an age of innocence where wickedness never came to mind. Loyalty to families existed because they knew each other by sight, if not by name. Hello and good-night were said with a smile. A spade was a spade. That was it. Everyone relied on their legs to walk to town. Broad Street was everything; the attraction where all things came together. Men dressed like men, looked like men, and were clean shaven. Women wore dresses and looked like women. They really did. Boys were boys, and girls were girls, and they had more fun than anybody. It was great to be a he, and great to be a she. All of this “downtown.”
Church bells sang their song of Sunday prayers. Greetings were the moral support of the community. Each felt blessed to know each other, remembering members of families, longtime gone. Sugar Loaf and Banner mountains were preserved memories to look at. The stately Victorian homes of regal splendor from the past provided visions of deserved aristocracy. In parting, a few said good-bye, but more times than not you heard, “We’ll see you when the moon comes up over Banner.” This love of the old hometown never goes away when you remember how it was “when I was a boy.”
Norman Gates was born and raised in Nevada City and currently lives in Lake of the Pines.
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