Period costumes, Tent City -- and baseball -- enliven Gold Rush Days

08/31/2013 12:00 AM

08/31/2013 1:31 PM

For the past 13 years, Sacramento resident Michele Emery has participated in Renaissance fairs. Friday afternoon, she found herself wearing a different kind of period garb.

Standing under a tent propped up on a grass patch in Old Sacramento, Emery wore 1850s-era attire as a group of elementary school students asked her questions about life in the California Gold Rush.

Most of the questions came from a teacher-supplied handout. But Emery said there was one frequently repeated question that was off script.

"Everyone is interested in our costumes, asking, 'Are we hot?' Of course, we're hot," Emery said. "If you're hot now, then times it by 10 because I've got on more clothes. I've got 10 pounds of clothes on."

In fact, 1850s petticoats – which her handmade outfit imitated – were so heavy that falling off a boat while wearing one almost always meant death, Emery said. Women weren't likely to wear them at midday, though.

"In that time period, because of how hot it was, we would not be out at this time," Emery said. "We slept during the day, and then did pretty much everything else at night. During the day, we'd be at home in our undergarments."

Perhaps, that is one of the few historically inaccurate touches at Gold Rush Days. The annual Labor Day weekend event intends to turn back time and convert Old Sacramento into an 1850s scene.

The transformation comes courtesy of nearly 200 tons of dirt. Workers spent late Thursday through early Friday paving the streets of the 27-acre historic district. Skits, activities, music and demonstrations also add to the scene.

Local elementary schools had a chance Friday to preview the event, which runs until Monday.

More than 2,000 students attended, according to Sidney Scheideman of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, which hosts the event. The children left behind their normal school day to visit Old Sacramento, as well as tents being occupied by historical re-enactors.

Jane Oetting was one of the re-enactors. She sat in a rocking chair as she taught bobbin lace making to a group of mesmerized children.

"Everybody is saying how beautiful it is, and how difficult it looks to make," Oetting said. "It's actually very easy to do. It just looks difficult."

Sacramento City Historian Marcia Eymann, a consultant for the event, is responsible for much of the period accuracy. According to Eymann, planning for the event began shortly after Christmas.

Tent City – a re-creation of Gold Rush-era town life – is perhaps the crown jewel of the event. It has gold panning, a medicine man and a saloon.

"The Tent City area is really accurate," Eymann said. "They work really hard to set up what it would be like if you arrived here in the 1850s and got off the boat."

According to Eymann, her main contribution this year was helping to develop a new interactive baseball skit, scheduled to occur multiple times throughout the festival.

"I like that we are bringing in something new," Eymann said. "So many people have said, 'Baseball wasn't here.' And I say, 'Yes, it was. It came with the Gold Rush.' "

Eymann said she had worked on an exhibit involving baseball while she worked at the Oakland Museum. At this job, she happened to learn the role the sport played in California's history.

Alexander Cartwright, a member of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club, traveled cross country to California in 1849. He brought the sport with him, and it quickly found popularity among men in the gold fields.

Sacramento organized the state's first baseball club that same year.

"One thing that I learned about baseball is that because everyone had a gun, it was really common for the audience to respond to different plays they liked or didn't like by shooting it up in the air," Eymann said. "So it was a very innovative audience It was their way of mid-19th-century applause, I guess."

The idea for the skit, which will involve crowd participation, came from there, she said.

Old Sacramento business owners expressed mixed emotions about the festival. Walter Delagarza, owner of Fun and Games, said the event always leads to a jump in revenue for his store.

Ann Khan, owner of Old City Kites, however, said the reverse tends to be true for her business. Friday morning, the store was nearly deserted. She said this is typical for the Friday and Monday of Gold Rush Days.

"There's more bodies, but there's not always more customers," Khan said. "People come down here for the event, not for the shopping."

Emery, who assists in Old Sacramento re-enactments every month, said the event is a fun opportunity to interact with children.

"It's been wonderful," Emery said. "It's been very exciting to teach them."


When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. today and Sunday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday.

Where: Old Sacramento Cost: Free

Information: (916) 808-7777 or

Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.


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