A walk through history: Mariposa

MARIPOSA -- In 1849, prospectors from around the world swarmed nearby streams and mountains in search of wealth. They carried off all the gold they could find but left a lasting imprint on this quiet community.

Today, though most area mines played out long ago, rich historical nuggets are waiting to be enjoyed at the Mariposa Museum and History Center, a fascinating treasure chest in the heart of this southern gateway to California's Gold Rush country.

If you enjoy looking for heirlooms, you'll love the center's eclectic displays, which exude the charm of a giant attic with all the boxes unpacked and items arranged in room-by-room order as they might have appeared in the late 1800s.

"About 98% of our things have been donated by Mariposa County residents," says Glennis Tribe, president of the history center's board of directors.

The artifacts include old guns, clothing, medical instruments, patent medicine bottles and household furnishings. All offer insights into 19th-century life, and many of the items have interesting stories.

A Winchester rifle in the sheriff's office, for example, was lost in the woods during a hunting trip in the 1880s and was found and restored by another hunter in the 1950s.

A soda bottle with a round bottom lies on its side on a table in the Bear Valley Saloon display. Although modern bottles are made to stand upright, 19th-century round-bottom bottles were designed to remain horizontal so their cork tops would not dry out and allow carbonation to escape.

On a recent sunny morning, some fourth-graders from Linwood Elementary School in Visalia watched with wide-eyed interest as history center docent Eleanor Keuning showed them some interesting things from the past.

"Here's a nice piece of porcelain," she said, removing the lid from what looked like a giant serving bowl. "It's big enough to hold a family dinner. What do you think they used it for?"

"Soup," said one student.

"To cook beans," said another.

Keuning smiled knowingly as she invited the students to imagine what life was like in the 1800s. "In those days, there were no bathrooms in houses. This is a chamber pot. People kept it under the bed, and if they had to go to the bathroom during the night, this is what they used.

"In the morning, it was the responsibility of the children to empty and wash the pots. Aren't you glad you live in the 21st century?"

"Yesssssss!" the youngsters agreed.

Keuning showed the students a writing slate and stylus from the late 1800s and explained how these primitive ciphering tools were used to solve math problems and complete homework assignments. Then she held up a pair of children's shoes that looked identical.

"Back then, shoes were made to fit on either foot," she said. "There were no left or right shoes."

Life in the gold fields was difficult, Keuning said. People came to California from many nations, but few struck it rich. Those who didn't find gold often started businesses in towns that sprung up near mining camps.

"They wound up mining the miners," she said.

At the history center's outside displays, the students learned how stamp mills were used to extract gold from ore and got a chance to pan for gold flakes in simulated sluice boxes.

The center has a five-stamp mill that was used at the Gold Key Mine, about five miles north of Mariposa, until 1953. The machine features five 1,000-pound weights that move up and down to pulverize quartz into a slurry from which gold flakes can be recovered.

Docent Ron Loya told the students gold was easy to find at the beginning of the Gold Rush.

"It was said a prospector could wash his face in a stream and take a quarter ounce of gold out of his beard," Loya said. "But placer gold in streams goes away fast, and then you have to find gold that's buried in the Earth."

Loya explained how gold-bearing ore was run through a crusher and then fed into the stamp mill, where the gravel-sized rocks were pounded into "mud."

Then he climbed to the top of the mill and, after the engine was turned on, used a small block of wood to release the stamps one by one. The heavy weights, raised by a belt-driven crankshaft, clanged loudly as they rose and fell in steady rhythm.

"The mills were noisy, and they ran 24 hours a day," Loya explained. "People were told they could find the mining camps by following the sound of the stamp mills."

It didn't take the students long to find real gold once they reached the sluice boxes. Docents Carl Johnson and Roger Matlock demonstrated how to pan for gold, and then each student was given a pan full of sand and pebbles that had been salted with hidden gold flakes.

Johnson held one of the pans under his nose and took a deep whiff. "Oh, man! Smell that gold!"

Ten-year-old Wyatt Tilley slipped his pan into the water and moved it around to work the unseen gold to the bottom of the pan. Then he dipped his pan forward again and again, splashing water over the sand and pebbles until almost everything had been washed away.

Gently, he tilted the pan toward him to move the remaining sand out of the way. Instantly, his eyes grew wide as a narrow band of gold flakes appeared at the bottom of the pan.

"Eureka!" Johnson yelled.

"How do you get more?" Wyatt asked.

Lane Hill, 10, found a pretty pebble in his pan and held it up. "What's this?"

"That's quartz," Johnson replied. "Put it in your pocket. That's what gold comes in."

Zoe Perez and Brooke Rivas, both 9, and Kylie Peterson, 10, grinned as they showed off tiny bottles holding the gold flakes they had found. All agreed that finding gold was "cool."

But they also found treasures among the museum's historical artifacts.

"I liked the chair owned by Jessie Benton Fremont," Kylie said, referring to a piece of furniture on display in the history center. The chair once was part of the furnishings in the Bear Valley home of explorer John C. Fremont and his wife, Jessie.

"I liked the Indian tepee," said Brooke, remembering a Miwok bark shelter, or umutca, which is on display in front of the history center.

Mariposa, 74 miles northwest of downtown Fresno, is an easy 90-minute drive through rolling hills and mountains that now are green with spring grass. Take Highway 41 to Oakhurst and then follow Highway 49 to Mariposa.

Gold panning lessons at the history center cost $6, $4 for children 16 and younger. A stamp mill demonstration costs $45. Advance arrangements are required for both activities.

If a stamp mill demonstration already has been scheduled for the day you plan to visit, you are welcome to watch, Loya said. Call ahead for dates and times of scheduled demonstrations.