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The Wild West, My Family Gold Mine, a Bordello Holiday, and Big Alma
Around the start of the last century, my grandfather and his cousin found gold on a slope an hour west of Mount Shasta, as the crow flies. They lost no time homesteading a hundred forested acres around their mining claim.
Not much gold emerged after that initial strike on Scott Mountain. No matter: each summer several families of Smiths and Van Nesses trekked some three hundred miles from San Francisco and Oakland to camp out while they worked the mine and fished the high lakes of Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Eventually they built cabins. According to my father, the boys used serial pints of firewater to induce “Indian John,” to do most of the heavy work.
My grandmother Anne and Grace Van Ness were best friends, small, sharp-tongued matriarchs dressed in no-nonsense jeans and gingham shirts, who kept their children, grandchildren and–to a lesser degree their husbands–in some kind of order. They went together to provision the camps in the little valley towns of Callahan and Etna. Most mornings there were sourdough pancakes on the wood stove, and most nights there was a lot of drinking and a campfire with marshmallows and tallish tales.
The families eventually ramified into two camps, separated only by a few hundred yards of creek and boulders. In time, notably after one Van Ness girl jilted one Smith boy, the families began to pull apart. The Van Nesses, although they generally had more money at hand than the Smiths, decided to sell off part of their half to lumber interests.
After the death of Granna Anne, the Smiths had their own problems. One cousin took over the mountain camp and let it be known that she had no use for professors like my husband, who had also been known to go fishing with a Van Ness elder.
After some ten years of summer exile, our enterprising son (also a professor, notably of Californian & Peruvian Indians ) decided to rent a small hotel in the Scott Valley, where our branch of the family could gather and make forays to the familiar lakes and swimming holes. The Collier Hotel in the town of Etna, with six bedrooms and several common rooms, served our needs perfectly.
We all assumed that our gracious inn was the former home of the late Randolph Collier, a California state senator known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous. A strapping fellow with a thatch of white hair, he had been able to secure regular servings from the pork barrel for his home county. He never saw a local bridge that didn’t need re-building, and the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 financed a surge of highway building that made California’s freeways famous for a time. (Note: my father, seeing the main chance to support his family after the war, became a highway engineer, although he had always disliked cars and driving.)
Just now, in the course of my usual desultory research, I learned that the Collier Hotel, with its gracious southern-style verandah, had been purpose-built in 1897 as a brothel. I’m supposing that the rest of the family may think this is rather jolly. Some of us grew up with Westerns where the heroine was Miss Kitty, the local madam with a heart of gold, or someone very like her.
The Collier Hotel’s latest hosts are a lovely woman, born a Karuk Indian, and her amiable husband, a Desert Storm vet. The Karuk, Klamath, and Shasta tribes are survivors. Countless Indians died in the western takeover of the Scott Valley. Though there were no Catholic missions in the north, perhaps the number who died of disease and preventive scalpings equaled those who died under the Christian fathers in the south of the state. (Children in California public schools still study the missions, but they do have more information than we did in the 1950s.)
Etna, an old ranch town in the Scott River valley, pop. 737 (down 50 from last census) has a barbershop, an excellent hardware store and a small supermarket. You might see a cow or more likely a deer wandering down Main Street. For a while there was a fine little Vietnamese restaurant in town, but the locals never warmed to it, and the family moved on. I didn’t need to ask: Trump is undoubtedly the local choice. Etna has no newspaper now, but in 1900 there were two, feuding of course. One editor called the other “a pin-headed cur”.
Some weeks later, back in the Bay Area, a journalist friend recommended a show on the American West at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, our prettiest and certainly our most pretentious local museum, sited dramatically near the Golden Gate bridge. Built at the whim of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the museum is a copy of the French pavilion in the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition, which was itself (tmi) a scaled-down copy of the Legion of Honor in Paris.
About the same time that gold was being discovered on Scott Mountain, “Big Alma,” the daughter of Danish (!) immigrants, was a popular San Francisco artists’ model. After sugar tycoon Adolph Spreckels made so to speak an honest woman of her, she went to Paris to consort with Rodin, Loie Fuller, and other arty types, and to buy bushels of art for her collection.
At another San Francisco museum, the De Young, you can view Ed Ruscha with his dependably wry perspective on the American West. Let’s leave it there, for now.