Living history at Empire Mine State Park

GRASS VALLEY Backstage – or, rather, in the cottage – the actors bustled about in full turn-of-the-century regalia, tucking stray hairs into billowy bonnets, adjusting bow ties and buttoning vests, retrieving props like the box camera and the silver tray to accept calling cards, setting out the oatmeal cookies in the kitchen for the young ones.

They weren’t in character, yet. But these volunteers have been portraying the inhabitants of the Bourn Cottage at Empire Mine State Park for enough Saturdays now to turn their characters on and off like the antique light switches in this, one of the first houses wired for electricity in the area. These aren’t card-carrying professional actors, anyway, just local folks with a yen for history and latent childlike desires to play dress-up and become historical figures.

Hey, we all have our hobbies.

Over in a corner, Max Fenson eases down into a hard-backed redwood chair, while his wife, Siri, paces in the entryway. They portray Mr. and Mrs. Starr, the mine’s chief engineer and his lovely socialite wife. Asked if they do theater, Max smirked and said in a raspy baritone, “No, just marriage.”

The room erupted in laughter.

“Oh, Max!” said Siri.

“I have friends,” interjected Pat Elliott, in a black frock with white apron, “who can’t imagine me playing a maid.”

Then there’s Michael Ireland, the “lead,” Mr. William Bowers Bourn II, scion of the mine and founder of PG&E. He has boned up on Bourn, one of San Francisco’s first bold-faced celebrity names, but looks a little uncomfortable in that constricting bow tie. He knows the script well, but fears what the audience might throw at him.

“If someone asks me something, maybe a date, I’m dead,” he said.

“Yeah,” Max added. “One of my fears is that a professional geologist or an engineer is going to show up as a tourist and question me as the mine superintendent. I guess my standard response is, ‘That’s proprietary.’ ”

There’s really no need to be nervous. Each actor has taken an extensive course about the history of the mine and the life inside the cottage, built in 1897 by noted architect Willis Polk, who also built the Filoli Estate in Woodside for the Bourns. They’ve studied a handout tracing the lives of each character, from high-horsed Mr. Bourn down to working-class Katie Moriarty, the housekeeper and cook.

“Of course, there can be some fun ad-libbing, too,” said Martha Rust, who plays Katie, replete with sheer white apron and a Jiffy Pop of a mop cap. “When people ask Katie if she has a sweetheart, you say, ‘A lady doesn’t discuss such things.’ You’ve got to remember the times, even the language. Now, I don’t have a good Irish accent, so I don’t try to pull that one off. But I do try to use proper speech, no slang. Try to keep it as real as possible, not say ‘cool’ or ‘awesome.’ That won’t work.”

Meanwhile, out on the porch, Empire Mine State Park interpreter Nancy Koring was briefing the first of a rotating group of patrons that soon they will be transporting themselves back to 1905 and into the humble, 4,400-square-foot abode of mine owner and magnate William Bourn Jr., so the men needed to take off their hats for decorum’s sake and no one should touch the interior redwood walls lest they stain the wood.

“Remember,” she said, “when you go inside, it’s 1905 – and you’re going to act like it’s 1905. It was very proper, when you came to visit, to present your calling card. That’s what I gave you when you gave me your ticket. When we go inside, the maid will have a silver tray. You put the card on it.”

“Hey, I’m an oil tycoon,” a man shouted.

Another read his card, then said, lugubriously, “I’m Mr. William Englebright. Says here I was a mining engineer, blah blah then a ‘U.S. Representative.’ That means I was in Congress. Great.”

The calling-card gambit proved not to be the only time that tour-goers were asked to interact. It’s part of the show for the characters to “engage.”

Living history, after all, needs to be lively.

“So often,” Rust said before taking her place in the kitchen to receive visitors, “the most fun I have is with the children, because, while the adults may have trouble transporting themselves back to 1905, the children have no problem doing that. They’re really open to the fantasy of being in the past.”

By the time the old wooden front door creaked open and the first visitors arrived, the cast was on their marks and smiling graciously. Mrs. Starr was shaking hands of the tourists, as if part of a receiving line, while Mr. Bourn bellowed with much bonhomie, “My, is this all one family?”

Once the dozen or so people filed in, the cast wasted no time in launching into its practiced banter, the dialog a mixture of historical facts with personal anecdotes.

“Libby,” Mr. Bourn said to Mrs. Starr, “I’m so disappointed, and I’m sure you are, too, that (his wife) Agnes couldn’t make this trip. But I got a telegram from George here, and it was quite short notice, and she couldn’t make it.”

Mr. Starr fiddled with the chain of his gold watch hanging from a vest pocket and intoned, “I know you’re a busy man down in San Francisco, William, but here’s the the reason why.”

Out popped a thumbnail-sized “gold nugget” from Starr’s pocket.

“Just 10 days ago, our night time supervisor, Joe Slate, found this nugget at the 3,000-foot level,” Starr said. “I think, William, next month, we’re going to make real money. Take a look at that.”

“Let me just put on my glasses. That’s gorgeous.”

“Look at that,” said Mrs. Starr, grabbing the nugget from her husband, “Wouldn’t that be a nice necklace?”

As the audience chuckled, Mr. Starr feigned irritability.

“No,” he said, “that’s going to be melted down turned into bullion and sent to San Francisco.”

Mr. Bourn then asked his “guests” how they arrived, via the narrow-guage rail from Colfax or by horse and buggy, if local. Someone whispered, sotto voce, “by car,” forgetting it was 1905. But Mr. Bourn ignored that and, like a trouper, didn’t break character.

“As you know,” he said, “it takes about 10 hours to get here from San Francisco.”

This time, a woman taking her two granddaughters on the tour piped up.

“Yes, you take the boat up from San Francisco to Sacramento, take the train to Colfax and the narrow gauge down here,” she said. Mr. Bourn’s look betrayed amazement that someone did the explaining for him.

“Uh, yes, that’s right,” he said, recovering quickly, “though I left (on the train) from Oakland.”

The actors didn’t know that this woman, Elizabeth Lowrie, was something of a ringer – or, at least, not your ordinary tourist. Lowrie’s grandfather, it turned out, was the real Mr. Bourn’s chauffeur at Filoli. This would not be the last the cast would hear from Lowrie.

Messrs. Bourn and Starr then bantered about the dining room table that Bourn’s beloved mother had shipped in from England and how the Cornish miners complained in salty language about hefting the thing into the cottage, then Starr, who came off a little ADD, quickly switched subjects.

“I’ve got to interrupt, William,” he said. “This young lady has something strange hanging from her neck. What is that, madame?”

The woman with the Nikon camera around her neck blushed three shades of red and failed to answer.

“Well,” Starr reported, “we’ve got cutting-edge equipment here at the mine. This is our latest. It’s called a camera.”

Mrs. Starr then lifted a box camera, a Kodak original, from the table and had tourists pose for portraits.

“The prints will be ready in about a month,” she said. “You can come back and get them. Fast service. Goes all the way to Rochester, N.Y., to develop.”

As Mr. Bourn led the group into his reading room, a handsomely ornate workspace, tourist Todd Baird, of Trinity County, turned to Mr. Bourn and commented, “So this is how millionaires lived?

Live, sir!” said Bourn, correcting the tense. “This is my current reading room. And, yes, quite nice.”

The 1905 verisimilitude extended to the kitchen, where the ebullient Katie Moriarty, Irish immigrant, went about her working day. She showed off the oven ($25, including shipping, from the Sears-Roebuck catalog), the newfangled cast iron waffle maker, the buzzer intercom that Bourn’s daughter, Maud, incessantly used, much to Katie’s irritation, on her frequent visits to the cottage.

But Katie was especially proud to show off the latest “upscale amenity and labor-saving device.” She enlisted a child volunteer to help.

“You there,” she pointed to a boy about 7, “see that button on the wall? Can you go push that for me, please? Yes, that little black button.”

Button pushed, and the room erupted into light from a burning incandescent bulb wired into the kitchen’s ceiling.

“Oh!” Katie trilled, perhaps stopping herself from using the 21st century exclamation, “awesome.”

“I never get tired of that,” she said, pointing to the fixture. “Electric lights are the thing of the future. I’m sure it’ll catch on.”