The Angels Camp Museum is no ordinary small town historical collection, a fact apparent from my first step inside. A fantastically curated exhibit on Mark Twain, the region’s most famous resident, gives way to a hall full of old cars and carriages, which in turn leads to a replica of an old medical office (complete with original bottles with original elixirs in them) and an evolving saloon experience. But it is outside, in the courtyard between these widely varying glimpses into the area’s stories past that one gets the true idea of why Angels Camp and its namesake museum are so special. Here is the original water wheel that serviced a gold mine, the tunnels of which are beneath our very feet. A relic like this, still in its original position, points to something different, something wondrous about this place, more than any other I’ve visited. Angels Camp sits directly atop California’s mother lode vein, the rich catacomb of shiny metal that beckoned hundreds of thousands to places just like this to seek their fortunes. And that same spirit guides Angels Camp and Calaveras County today.
In the 1850s and 60s, the California gold rush inspired countless people to risk their lives to make their way west. Some prospected for gold. Some supplied those who did. Some left; others stayed. All had a couple things in common: a pioneering spirit to leave their homes and build something new, and a desire for the wide open spaces that had mostly vanished in the east. They came to places just like Angels Camp, a town of 4,000 or so where they would stay in the hotels, gather in the saloons to swap stories, resupply, and then head out to their claims all over the Sierra foothills. It is a life and a history that travelers want to experience, but don’t know how. Fortunately, here at the Angels Camp Museum, I meet Martin Huberty.
Martin is the Executive Director of the Calaveras Visitors Bureau, and the descendent of some of the county’s original pioneers. While none struck it rich as prospectors, the Huberty clan stayed, becoming ranchers, restauranteurs, judges, and filling other roles within an emerging post-gold civilization. Martin himself is a fascinating person, a filmmaker and former aide to the British royal family, not someone who one would associate with gold rush pioneers. And yet, he is just the sort of person who originally came to Calaveras, one willing to give up the comforts of big city life because life in the foothills beckoned, and because the desire to build something lasting – as he is doing with the Bureau, or with his home, a converted power generator building constructed on a local creek – is written in his generic code. While the world may have changed, and his SUV and cell phone make life a bit easier, the frontier spirit of Martin’s ancestors lives on, as it is for so many who continue to make this place their home.
Martin is my guide here in Calaveras, and I am not blind to how lucky I am. In the town of San Andreas, we visit the county museum, in which multiple walls are adorned with portraits of those bearing the name Huberty. We pass a roadside hotel his grandmother once owned, and even glimpse an old ad for the local ski resort featuring his aunt as the spokesmodel. And yet his story is far from unique. While many current Calaveras County residents are newcomers lured by cheaper real estate, a more relaxed vibe, and a long but doable commute to San Francisco, others are generational, or are becoming so, building for their descendants as Martin’s ancestors did for him.
While Angels Camp is the historical center of the county, the town of Murphys, about twenty minutes away, is the area’s modern hub. A narrow Main Street looks almost as it would have in the 1850s, crowned by the old Murphys Hotel. But where there once were saloons and shops selling supplies to prospectors, there are now wine tasting rooms and hipster clothing and candle outlets. It is, at the same time, both completely different and also exactly the same. Times change, but the soul of the place remains, supplying essentials and strong drink to those in need. Ale or mead just changed to wine, good wine at that.
Calaveras’ wine industry is a huge draw to the region, and the number of tasting rooms in town is dwarfed only by the number of wineries just outside. From Brice Station (you must try the ruby port here), a boutique winery higher in the foothills, to Hatcher (formerly Chatom Winery), a larger more commercial winery, and everything between, you’ll find good wine – and good people making it – here. Matt Hatcher tells me that the region is perfect for Spanish varietals, like their fantastic Tempranillo, a wine I don’t see often in California.
These winemakers are, like Martin, not exactly what one pictures when one thinks of the spirit of the gold rush. And yet, they are exactly that, workers of the land, people desiring to build both an industry and personal legacy on what remains a frontier. They are storytellers, eager to share both their labors and themselves with those who come in and sit down, as the saloonkeepers of the old west would have been. Come, visit, listen, share, and live that spirit with them.
My final evening in Calaveras County arrives, and Martin takes me to another local winery, Prospect 772, for a night of more wine, artisan flatbread pizza, and an Eagles cover band. There are a couple hundred locals here, most seeming to know each other, and all seeking to know Martin. I am greeted warmly, invited to share a table or a story. A tech CEO, a wine rater, a hotel GM, each shares his or her tale with me of leaving the faster pace of city life behind to find their own gold rush (figuratively, though literally for a few) here in the foothills. The scene could have been right out of the 1850s, locals gathering for an evening of food and drink, sitting around a campfire and singing. The music is better, as are the pizza and wine, but the soul of the gold rush is as prevalent as ever.
I smile, sing with my new friends as the band plays “Take It to the Limit,” and count my blessings. I came to Calaveras County to learn about the gold rush as a history project. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it was still happening, and that I’d get to experience it for myself. Instead of mineral wealth, these modern prospectors chase spiritual riches, building a life that any in the 1850s would have been proud of. I sip my red wine, bought for me by someone I’d never met until fifteen minutes ago, take another bite of pizza, and return to singing. Yes, Calaveras County has incredible natural beauty, and some fascinating history. But this warmth, this spirit, it is something transcendent. This is the real reason to visit this place, to experience the soul of the gold rush for yourself.
Thank you so much to Martin Huberty and the Calaveras Visitors Bureau for your generosity in hosting me, in showing me your home, and in teaching me that the gold rush spirit is alive and well. I will be back.
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