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History of the Living History Community

Modern Settlement: A Woman's World

Mineral King's transition from a mining to a recreational community was not a sudden change nor was it a planned governmental program. From the mining boom days of the 1870s until the advent of air-conditioning, the cool mountain valley was a summer refuge for women and children escaping the hot, fever-ridden plains of the San Joaquin.

Girls on the gate, c. 1920

"Our camp is being deserted rapidly," Emma Crowley wrote her husband from Mineral King in late August of 1886. "The Pendergrass party rolled out early this morning. Leavitts will leave early tomorrow morning…Jim (Emma's young brother-in-law) is so lonesome that he can hardly stand to stay…"

It could be lonely being a young man in Mineral King after the silver rush years ended. Most miners had returned to paying jobs in the low lands or were off to new adventures in other parts of the world. Mineral King in the 1880s and 1890s was almost entirely a family retreat.

Many of the community's shops, stores, saloons and hotels were converted into family residences. And more families camped in tents at Atwell's Mill or at Sunny Point across from Harry's Bend in the valley.

Beginning in June until after the 4th of July celebrations in San Joaquin Valley towns, men escorted their families up the Mineral King road in "buggies", on the horse drawn stage or in freight wagons, hauling all the staples needed for a two or three month stay in the mountains. The men might visit their families occasionally during the summer, but it was a long two day trip each way. There were casual delivery and mail services by those who did go up the road but they were intermittent, so the responsibilities of Mineral King living lay almost entirely with the women. They became a large, extended family, helping and caring for each other's needs with a constant sharing of supplies with friends.

"Carter came last night and brought everything except the sweet potatoes," Emma wrote. "He let us have 12 pounds of some that he brought for himself. Jim got a nice hind-quarter of venison. The butter man came, and I got two rolls of butter. Mrs. Trauger sent me a bag of green corn and beans, so you can see we are living fat and fine…"

Even so, it wasn't easy. Daily chores consumed most of the time. Water had to be hauled from springs and creeks. Wood chopped and kindled for wood stoves and fireplaces. Floors swept almost daily, or the fine mountain dirt would cover everything. Outdoor privies called "chick sales" limed and cleaned. Kerosene lanterns scrubbed and filled daily.

Weekly baths and laundry were time-consuming efforts. Heating the wood stove to a point at which water could be boiled. Hauling large pots of it to washing tubs. Scrubbing clothes on a wash board then bathing children in the same big tub. Rinsing, hanging the clothes to dry. Mending rips and tears that came with hard mountain wear. Ironing out the deep wrinkles with heavy cast irons that had been heated on the stove.

Cooking was no easier. Fresh foods, milk, venison, poultry and pork sides had to be taken down to and brought up from "cold boxes" in the river or stored in wet burlap- covered "California coolers" on screened-in porches. Everything had to be prepared from scratch, sliced and chopped, portions "gone bad" carefully cut out. Even the convenient tin-canned good had to be checked to be certain they were not tainted. Meal preparation could take most of a day. And when evening came, watch had to be kept for hungry bears that would break into coolers, storage containers and refuse cans strewing garbage around the camp.

Still, there was time for fun. There no longer were preachers, full-time doctors or big dances but the women got together often for card games, whist parties, candy making sessions, quilting bees, picnics, walks, evening camp fires, and visiting.

Fortunately, the children required less supervision than they did in their low-land homes. The Mineral King cirque contained no poisonous snakes or spiders and few poisonous plants, so the children were allowed to make the entire valley their playground. They gathered in groups, young and older mixing, a sense of freedom, exploration and responsibility accelerating their maturity and growth. There were hours spent by the river playing with little boats that fathers, grandfathers or older brothers might make for themselves and the little ones. Building rock dams, ports and miniature docks in the stream. Collecting Log Cabin syrup cans to use for ship cabins or for pretend houses in the woods.

There were more hours of playing in the willows, creating secret dens and play houses in their tangled growth. Hiding in them to experiment with smoking. Making pipes out of reeds and stuffing them with rank skunk cabbage (false helibore) leaves. Stealing matches to light them and suck and cough. Florence Montgomery recalled one little boy who smoked coffee one time and became very sick.

There were fish to be caught with line and hook hung on the ends of willow sticks using worms, hellgrammites and grasshoppers for bait. There were hikes to the lakes and horseback rides to be taken. Mock wars with skunk cabbage swords. Poker games on rainy days with beans used for bets. Earning a penny or two by opening the stock gate for wagons coming into and out of the valley. For one year, in 1891, spending those pennies at the Pogue and Sons store in Dogtown.

If life was not easy for the women of Mineral King in the 1880s and 1890s it was none-the-less a very happy and anticipated continuing experience.

These were the decades that entrenched the regulars who returned year after year to form the basis of the modern Mineral King community.

History of the Living Historic Community
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