STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
Early Social Life of La Grange
There was a “society” on the Tuolumne in the early 50's as well as on the “Stanislaw.”
It was in its infancy at La Grange that the beginning of the social life of the county budded, and later delightfully blossomed into full fruition during the wheat growing era and shed a delicious balm over the rural activities of the entire countryside.
Tinged with the flavor and exhaling the fragrance of the “days of '49” it was as enjoyable as it was breezy. A sociable set were the pioneers. In the rude habitat of the mining camp, among the bleak hills that surrounded the county's third capital, in a frontier town that existed afar from the currents of metropolitan life, they indulged in a gladsome pastime and followed the wand of pleasure as men and women have done in all ages, climes and conditions.
There was bustle and vivacity to the social life of La Grange in the '50's. Staged amid settings that symbolized the fashion of the time, it possessed an exhilarating freedom of spirit that was characteristic of the pioneer. It was sweetly romantic. None of the conventionalities of the moderns were there. It was indeed the halcyon period in the county's history.
The men and women who settled at La Grange and on the river below were for the most part people who had emigrated from the southern states. They brought with them to their new home the traditional hospitality of their former abodes, which gave a singularly admirable quality to the functions that occurred in the mining country, and which permeated the very life of the county for many years. Indeed conviviality and good fellowship were the inspiration of every social gathering and entertainment in these early days. Hemmed in by the surrounding hills and cut off from the outside world – a realm in itself – the first settlers of Stanislaus at La Grange created their own social life.
Among the interesting diversions of the jovial circle of La Grange at this period was card playing. Homely, simple affairs, the card parties were of the most enjoyable type – of the character that the grandfathers and mothers could approve even in this day. At the sumptuous home of an hospitable host on a wintry evening would gather the men and women, the belles and the beaux, the husbands and wives – the society folks of the settlement – and beguile the witching hours in the artless games of chance that were vogue of the time. With both sexes participating, the occasion was a round of pleasure. In the intermissions between games, there was a feast of reason and a flow of wit, for the program was interspersed with music, recitation and intellectual conversation. The discussion went to the large topics of the day – not to fashion, gossip and style. Invariably an elegant repast served by the host – the piece de resistance of the sociable – climaxed the end of the perfect evening of good fellowship and merrymaking.
The devotees of Terpsichore were well provided for in these early days. La Grange's dancing parties were famed far and near for their unfailing spirit of jollity. To the sweet and reminiscent strains of the mazy waltz, the lively schottische, the dainty polka and the noisy reel – those evergreen dances of the ancient regime so beloved by the old-timers – the pioneers frolicked over the glass-like floor and in the ecstasy of the music and the dream of the dance wafted themselves back to the unfading scenes of their youth in the Sunny South of the Snowclad North – to the rich memories of their boyhood and girlhood days ere they visioned the quest of the golden fleece in the strange realm of the Indian afar in the land by the sunset sea.
The dancing parties of La Grange were generally sponsored by the Masonic fraternity – the most social set of the camp. These affairs were indeed most delightful. If society failed to arrange them at proper intervals or if the occasion did not occur to create the pretext, an enterprising hotel proprietor would himself conveniently devise a grand ball and invite the entire population to participate. People from a distance of fifty miles attended – coming from Snelling, Mariposa, Hornitos, Chinese Camp, Sonora, Columbia and frequently from Stockton.
Daintily decorated the spacious dining salon furnished the ballroom. An orchestra from Sonora rendered music. The delicious midnight supper was an inviting feature, especially to the camp's bon vivants who did not trip the light fantastic. A rare scene of conviviality was thus spread as the vaquero and the miner measured wit with the belle and the housewife and the rough and ready pioneers bandied the bon mots and the jests and the stories across the festal board. An atmosphere of unalloyed joy hovered over the feast.
There was something of a social nature always occurring in the little settlement that gave joy to the life of the day. School exhibitions were the attractions twice a year when the parents and the pupils, under the guidance of the teachers, assembled in the schoolhouse and a program was arranged to illustrate the advancement in learning.
Recitations and essays and those short dramatic sketches that demonstrated the histronic ability of the pupils were staged in the schoolhouse. The parents of the mining camp displayed a keen interest in these affairs, while amongst the audience were found many a rough looking miner and vaquero who enjoyed the numbers and whose memory recalled his own school days in the long ago.
The church and the Sunday school occupied a prominent place in the life of the town. The circuit riders preached on alternate Sundays in the rural school houses – the sanctuaries of religious worship in the country. Camp meetings in the fall of the year in some lovely and well shaded grove on the Tuolumne or the Merced river attracted many. At these outdoor preachments, religion and matrimony vied with each other in interest. Dan Cupid usually carried off the honors to the great delight of the citizens. Among the matrons quilting bees were the custom and these were delightful get-together affairs.
The hustings proved a drawing card at all times. When the political speakers arrived in the settlement to discuss the issues of the day, the streets were usually thronged with the partisans. At this period prior to the Civil War, political feeling was at its height and there was a stampede to listen to the flights of oratory of the representatives of the clashing interests in statecraft.
During these meetings which gathered around an improvised outdoor platform from which the speakers addressed the audiences, there was intense excitement.
It was the custom of Lee and Marshall's circus to winter in California in the years of the 50's, and during its stay in the balmy climate of the Golden State to visit the towns of the southern mines. Flourishing La Grange was on its yearly itinerary. Its visit to La Grange was fraught with excitement and interest. When this circus arrived, all business from the digging of gold to the tending of the cattle and the tilling of the soil was suspended while the gaily painted clowns and the bedizened riders and all the other performers were domiciled in the town. Their advent transformed the city into one seething mass of pleasure seekers. While the youngsters were drawn to the amusement tent by the various features, the rough and grizzled miners and vaqueros found pleasure in fraternization with the beautiful women of the troupes.
Once in the year, generally in the springtime, the rodeo – when all the cattle were rounded up and branded – attended with much festivity, occurred, while the annual Stockton Fair attracted many to the slough city where the liveliest of times were experienced by the visitors from the mines.
The home life of the people of La Grange was pleasant. The town was small. The homes were generally large, two-storied edifices, substantially constructed of pine lumber hewn in the mountains, and suggested the southern style of architecture. The school houses were of the same nature and contained comfortable, handmade desks. The people were highly intelligent. On the tables of the households, the visitor would find a goodly assortment of newspapers and magazines, and there were numerous well filled libraries in the settlement. The parlors were embellished with beautiful pictures and paintings. When the county seat was removed to the town, it received the accession of all the county officials and most of the professional class which added in a measure to the society of the village.
The first formal social function in Stanislaus county was the cotillion party that occurred in French Bar at the La Grange House on the 14th of November, 1855. One of the most notable affairs in the county's early history, it was typically characteristic of the day. In the elaborateness of the preparations, in the personnel, in the costuming of the guests, and in the artistic decorations, it was the first ambitious attempt of society on the Tuolumne to find an appropriate vehicle for its demonstration.
Tradition has invested this revel of the pioneers on the banks of the Tuolumne in the infancy of La Grange and Stanislaus with a halo of sunshine and joy that grew brighter as the years ebbed from the happening of this auspicious event. Judges, lawyers, public officials, doctors, merchants, miners, vaqueros, farmers, legislators and artisans – the first settlers of Mariposa, Tuolumne and Stanislaus – the builders of counties and the founders of cities – were present. It was the delight of the grizzled old-times and the gray-haired matron, all of whom have now passed on, in the later period of the county's history, to recite to the listening youth the details of this wonderful event in the heyday of their Arcadia.
S. B. Ewing, proprietor of the hotel, acted as the host on this festal occasion. The spacious dining room was transformed into a dancing parlor and daintily decorated, the floral embellishments consisting of ferns and holly, tastefully interwoven with pine and cedar branches. When the hundreds of tiny colored candles fixed in the pendent candelabras were illuminated, they shed a rich and mellow light over the resplendent scene.
As the pioneer revelers entered this fairy-like apartment imagination imperceptibly suggested an ancient miniature Druidic grove amongst whose overhanging and surrounding foliage there scintillated myrids of fluttering fireflies. A small string band from Sonora furnished the music.
The women were gorgeously gowned in the richest of silk and satin dresses, ornamented with the most exquisite laces. They also wore expensive shawls that came from New Orleans, the most delicately designed lace gloves and white satin slippers. The men were arrayed in black broadcloth, stiffly starched, white pleated bosom shirts and polished boots, while here and there among them could be seen the blue swallow-tailed suit with brass buttons that some dandy had brought with him from “back east” or “down south.”
The dance continued until daylight, the favorite numbers being the waltz, polka, schottischce, mazourka, quadrille and the Virginia reel. Supper was served at midnight on tables that were heavily laden with turkey, chicken, roast pig and pastry made by the chefs who had migrated from Sunny France to the land of gold. The imported French wines gave zest and additional gayety to the occasion.
Among Those Present
The following pioneers, who in the later days of the county were well known to the newer settlers, were present:
Mr. and Mrs. John Calbraith, Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Wells, Mr. and Mrs. James H. Gardner, Mr. and Mrs. Theo. Ewing, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Snelling, Mr. and Mrs. Robert McGarvey, Mr. and Mrs. John Myers, Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Cook, Mr. and Mrs. George W. Branch, Mr. and Mrs. H. W. Wallis, Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Anderson, Mr. and Mrs. D. M. Pool, Mr. and Mrs. George Buck, Mr. and Mrs. Hoburn, Dr. and Mrs. King, Mr. and Mrs. Akerman, Mr. and Mrs. Laurie, Mr. and Mrs. Peck, Mr. and Mrs. William Crowson, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Murphy, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bloodworth, Mr. and Mrs. P. B. Nagle, Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Salter, Mr. and Mrs. I. D. Morley, Mr. and Mrs. Chase, Mr. and Mrs. B. D. Horr, Mr. and Mrs. Eli Marvin, Dr. and Mrs. Adams, Mr. and Mrs. H. B. Davis, Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Barham, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Gwin, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hoyt, Dr. and Mrs. Barfield, Colonel and Mrs. Thorn, Mr. and Mrs. Silas Wilcox, Samuel Pike, Mr. Robb, J. Van Dyke, Mr. Northrup, Miles Nesmith, W. L. Dickenson, William Thurman, G. W. Jacobs, Ed Tichenor, Adam Yates, J. D. Vedder, S. M. Miller, Sim Anderson, John Williams, William L. Murdock, James Burney, Norman Salter, William McFarland, James Booth, J. B. Booth, Dr. La Tour, Charles Dallas, Caleb Dawson, L. C. Davis, John Morley, John B. Hockett, William Akin, Colonel Casey, S. P. Scaniker, John Talbott, William D. McDaniel, Eli Morley, John Davis,
E. B. Beard, G. M. Hardwick, John Ruddle, G. W. Dickenson, Dr. Thomas, Mr. Boqueras, Colonel Manning, S. A. Merritt, W. Sutterfield, Dr. L. M. Booth, William H. Martin, George W. Coulter, Colonel Moore and Misses Fanny Anderson, Jennie La Tour, Sarah Dawson, Belle Dawson, McGee, Martha Bryant, Mary Booth, Beedie Laurie, Malinda Brown, Terrill, Bloodworth, Amanda Hardwick, Lizzie Davis, and Laura Sutterfield.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.