Acknowledging Markleeville’s checkered past
R-C Alpine Bureau
It’s nothing to be proud of…or is it? The Snowshoe Thompson Chapter of E Clampus Vitus just built and dedicated a monument honoring the Hurdy House in downtown Markleeville. The Hurdy Gurdy girls who danced there were despised by some and loved by others. This dance hall tradition was started in Germany and expanded to the mostly male mining camps being established in the 1860s all over the American West.
“A typical Hurdy troupe was made of four dancing girls chaperoned by a married couple and two or more musicians. Patrons could get a cheap drink and procure a ‘dancing partner’ for the evening for 4 bits,” reports ECV Historian Jeff Loflin. During the year it was in business, this popular spot was open every night of the week.
A hurdy gurdy has a rosined wheel which is hand-cranked and rubs against the strings. This ancient and unusual instrument has a keyboard along with many drone strings, allowing a constant pitch to accompany the melodies played. The sound has been likened to that of bagpipes.
Most mining speculators were either passing through on their way to or from Silver Mountain City, which became the bustling county seat in 1864. It never matched the discoveries on the Comstock Lode in Virginia City though, and the county seat was eventually moved down to Markleeville.
The brethren of ECV were able to piece together documentation about this long unrecognized piece of local lore based on the research of historian and author Karen Dustman. In his highly praised presentation, Loflin referenced her fieldwork. This text was published in the first edition of the Alpine Chronicle on April 23, 1864, and subsequently reprinted in the Record Courier of Sept 8, 1933: “Hurdy Gurdy Arrival. Yesterday afternoon, four greasy, slab-footed women arrived here to fill an engagement at a Hurdy Gurdy Saloon which opens this evening. As there is a stringent law against these nuisances, it is hoped that the proper authorities will see that the law is enforced and the nuisance abated. The new arrivals will soon discover that our citizens are not of the hurdy-gurdy class.”
All of what is now Markleeville originally encompassed part of the lands lived on by the Washoe tribe. That changed in a very short period of time as new settlers came pouring in. It is thought that the town’s namesake Jacob Markley owned the plot of land the Hurdy House was built on, along with several other properties. As an interesting side note, although Markleeville was early to get a Hurdy House, a church building was never erected in Alpine County until the next century. 1999 to be exact.
Today the Hurdy Gurdy historic spot is part of the large lot where “Al’s got Gas, Bait, and Tackle” is located. They really do have all three of those commodities, and the gas is even available 24 hours. Owned by John and Karrie Baker, it is named after John’s mentor Al Moss. The Clampers (as members of E Clampus Vitus are known), worked closely with the Bakers to choose just the right place for the marker.
If you attend any gathering hosted by this fraternal organization, you will find yourself surrounded by a sea of men wearing red shirts and costumes of all sorts. At this particular dedication there was even a charming young goat. The Clampers love history because it is interesting, fun, and not to be disregarded (just as the Clampers are themselves). Every monument they design and build is christened by pouring beer over the top of it, accompanied by shouts of their signature phrase: “Satisfactory!”
Loflin says “E Clampus Vitus is dedicated to the preservation of the local history of the American West and shining a light on people and places that would otherwise be forgotten. The Snowshoe Thompson Chapter No. 1827 is especially active in the history of Alpine County, California and Douglas County, Nevada.”
Creating another stop along the Historic Markleeville Walking Tour, you can pick up Dustman’s guidebook at The Alps Haus Coffee Shop, the Alpine County Museum, or her website clairitage.com. Standing on the very spot where these “teutonic coryphees” plied their trade, I’m sure you will be able to conjure a very clear image in your mind of these previously overlooked girls.