Sam McManis

Discoveries: E Clampus Vitus is big on monuments

Hipsters revel in being meta. You know, self-referential and, often, self-reverential. So when I heard there was a monument to historical monuments erected in front of this city’s courthouse, I figured it was the work of some merry band of oh-so-ironic pranksters in skinny jeans and thick Buddy Holly glasses.

Well, at least I was right about the “merry” part.

As for the rest, I was laughably off target.

The august and esteemed group responsible for the truly unusual statue of a drunken miner in midstumble, hat in hand and pipe in mouth, followed by the inscription, “Historical Monuments and Sites In and Around Mono County” and a list of 50 monuments on a chiseled map, is none other than the Bodie chapter of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus.”

What it may lack in irony this decades-old civic group certainly makes up for in spirit and spirits. A quick check of my high school Latin — oh, OK, I checked the group’s website — reveals the name to mean, roughly, well, it “has no known meaning.” But the order does have a real Latin slogan, “Credo Quia Absurdum,” which the website says means “I Believe Because It Is Absurd.” One more fact gleaned from the website: “The fraternity is not sure if it is a ‘historical drinking society’ or a ‘drinking historical society.’”

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, about these historical monuments the group keeps erecting throughout the eastern Sierra:

It’s part of the true aim of the organization, which is to preserve the “Western heritage” from Gold Rush days onward. E Clampus Vitus chapters have sprouted throughout California, Nevada and the West — members call themselves “Clampers” — and together they must spend a bundle on bronze each year for the plaques they cement in place.

In Mono County alone, you can barely go five miles along Highway 395 without passing by some spot commemorating something of note. Plaques range from the relatively tame (the Aurora and Owens River Wagon Road) to the lamentable (the demise of the Bridgeport Chronicle-Union newspaper) to the lurid (a site in Bridgeport where a Chinese merchant was accused of a cannibalistic murder of a Paiute Indian) to the fun (celebrating the slot machines in the 1930s at June Lake).

Hoping to find one of these notorious “Clampers” to explain their ways and rituals, I popped into the Bridgeport Hotel. I chose it because there was a plaque out front, telling folks that it was built in 1877 as a buggy stop on the route to and from the thriving gold-mining town of Bodie; that Mark Twain once slept there (man, Twain really did sleep around); and that a haunted “white lady” ghost roams the premises.

I made the right call. Just inside the lobby is the bar, which turns out to be the official watering hole for the Bodie chapter of Clampers. Walls are lined with framed photos of the gentlemen in full Clamper regalia, which mostly consists of donning a red shirt, jeans and some form of hat. The chapter’s “Instrument of Charter” granted from the “Grand Council of Venerable Clampatriarchs” also hangs prominently. It shows that the Bodie crew was founded in 1965. A black leather vest, accessorized by Clamper badges and, interestingly, a Grateful Dead button, hangs like some retired ballplayer’s jersey.

I then was joined by John Peters, the hotel’s owner and a proud Clamper. In fact, he’ll have you know, Peters is a former Noble Grand Humbug of the Bodie chapter. So I straightened my posture in the chair and minded my manners. Then I got down to some hard-hitting journalism, asking, “What’s the deal with you guys?”

“First, I need to tell you that I think our name comes from the Latin term, ‘Cling to life,”’ he said. “Anyway, it started in the pioneer days, kind of an alternative to the Masons and all that.”

“Are there secret handshakes,” I asked, probing further.

“Not so much,” he said, “but there is some cloak-and-dagger stuff. But, the point is, at its inception, it was to raise money for widows and orphans. In miners’ days, that was common, to have widows and orphans. Now, there are chapters throughout the west and some in the east. Our dedicated geographic area is Mono County. There’s another in Inyo County for Bishop and each chapter has its own name. The Bishop Chapter is called the ‘Slim Princess.’ I think it was named after a train or something.”

I could just picture the Bodieans snickering at those “princesses” down in Bishop, but Peters, consummate Clamper, kept a straight face.

“Every year, we initiate new members and build a monument somewhere to keep the history of whatever it is alive,” he said. “Each one tells a story about the people and the historical impact. Like, this place (the Bridgeport Inn) was built in 1877, still has rooms upstairs from the original building with antique furnishings. The monuments just preserve history for future generations. Otherwise, it might go away. A lot of the (plaques) are in sites that no longer exist.”

Great, great. A noble cause and all that. But I wanted Peters to spill about the “cloak-and-dagger stuff” he had alluded to.

“Oh, there’s just an initiation ceremony each year,” he said. “We have 700 members and each year we get about 30 new ones. Each year, we have what we call our annual ‘doin’s.’ In the morning, all the new guys learn songs and the history of the Clampers. We’ll have a public dedication of a plaque. Then we have our picnic and initiation. It’s all over in a few hours.”

But, how, specifically, are they initiated? Are we talking “Animal House” antics?

“They all get dirty and jump in a lake, but they survive,” he said. “We all wear red shirts to these things. But we do good work. All the cost of building the monument is beared by the chapter.”

Surely, some day, Mono County will run out of monument-worthy sites, right?

Hardly. These Clampers do their homework, as well as expand the definition of what counts as historical.

“You’d be surprised the kinds of things we have,” Peters said. “As you’re driving on 395, you’ll see a marker on Green Creek Road and there at the corner was a sanatarium, with a cemetery across the street.”

Perhaps the sanitarium site would’ve been a more apt spot for the drunken miner and “Monument for Monuments” monument. But I did not express that opinion to Peters. After all, he is a former Grand Noble Humbug, and respect must be paid.