I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s…Mark Twain, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
The Angels Hotel facade looks much as it would have in 1864-65, when a young Samuel Clemens would have been a guest here in Angels Camp, the sole incorporated city in modern Calaveras County, at the time a mining camp of approximately 4,000 – roughly the same as its current population. It was here, in this very building, that Clemens was to hear a story told of a man who trained frogs to jump, a story that would be the key to his future as one of America’s most celebrated writers, authoring some of the most read classics under his pen name: Mark Twain.
Samuel Clemens came to the Calaveras County area in 1864, fleeing San Francisco after putting up a $500 bond he didn’t possess for his close friend Steve Gillis. Gillis, who was arrested after a bar fight, told Clemens he intended to jump bail, offering his friend refuge at his brother Jim’s cabin in what is now Tuolumne County, just across the county line from Calaveras on Jackass Hill. Jim Gillis had a gold claim there, and though he would never strike it rich, his role in history would be assured.
The cabin is tiny, especially given that anywhere from two to four people would have shared it at any given time. What now stands, a brief five minute drive up Jackass Hill from Highway 49, is a replica, but built to the exact specs – and in the exact spot – as that shared by Gillis and Clemens for three months in 1864-65. Here, Gillis would entertain by telling stories in the evenings, in a style Mark Twain would adopt, with a folksy accent and vocabulary that would come to define Twain’s style and the perception of the early American west.
So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a tea- spoon and filled him full of quail shot filled him pretty near up to his chin and set him on the floor.Mark Twain, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
The documentary “88 Days in the Mother Lode: Mark Twain Finds His Voice” chronicles this period in Clemens’ life, using evidence from Twain’s autobiographies and notebooks – he kept diaries throughout the period, most of which survived – to illustrate both his life in Calaveras County and the development of the signature Mark Twain style, which would first be seen in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, a short story published in 1865. The story itself was not original, rather being a folk tale Clemens heard from a traveling storyteller named Ben Coon. Twain’s adaptation of the story was submitted reluctantly to his friend Artemus Ward, a renowned public speaker who desired stories for a book he was writing. The story arrived too late for inclusion, and so was published in a newspaper, and then picked up all over the nation. So began Mark Twain’s literary career, and though he would make little money from The Celebrated Jumping Frog, it would cement his style and make his reputation.
Samuel Clemens would return to San Francisco in 1865, and then would leave the west behind in 1868, never to return. However, the lasting impact on his life and career were to make this period a turning point, one he chronicled in Roughing It, released in 1872.
This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science.Mark Twain, Roughing It
And while his story of a trained frog in Calaveras County would be but a tiny part of his literary library, the impact it had on the region lasts to this day. Modern Calaveras County is very much the place Mark Twain built, and frogs feature prominently in most aspects of the area. Businesses are named after frogs, murals of frogs adorn the sides of buildings, and frog sculptures – many of them a bit outlandish, like the disco ball frog or the Shakespeare frog – can be found all over the county.
The highlight, though, is Calaveras County’s annual frog jumping competition, part of the Calaveras County Fair. Competition is fierce, with some entrants actually taking all year to train a frog. (For those who just want to casually participate, “loaner” frogs can be borrowed for the day, but must be returned to the wild following the event.) Jump length is actually the measurement of a series of three jumps, and annual winners are given stars along Angels Camp’s main street. The world record, set in 1986 by Rosie the Ribeter (great name!) is 21’ 5 3/4”.
While I have not yet been lucky enough to attend the event, it is wholesome fun worthy of a pilgrimage. Unique, charming, and celebrating a beloved American author’s first major break, this is exactly the sort of thing everyone should endeavor to be part of at some point. And yes, I will enter with a borrowed frog that I will name Yesterday Toad-ay and Tomorrow (patent pending).
Samuel Clemens spent only 88 days in Calaveras County, but it was a time that would forever change the landscape of American literature. It was here that he developed the signature style of Mark Twain. And it was here that a silly story of a trained frog would launch that persona into the stratosphere of the literary pantheon. A trip to Calaveras County to see the jumping frogs for yourself is a journey that every literary devotee should undertake. Just don’t steal my frog’s name.
Thank you to the Calaveras Visitors Bureau for hosting me for an incredible trip of exploring the fascinating history of Mark Twain and his celebrated frog!
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