|Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 7|
Grass Valley to Smartsville. Sucker Flat and its Personal Appeal.
I was heading due west for Smartsville, just across the line in Yuba County. In four miles, I came to Rough and Ready, once a famous camp. Save for the inevitable hotel, now used in part as a store, there was nothing to suggest the cause of its pristine glory or the origin of its emphatic designation; today it is simply a picturesque, rural hamlet. In Penn Valley, a mile or two farther on, I passed a smashed and abandoned automobile, the second wreck I had encountered. I thanked my star I traveled afoot; heavy going, it is true, in places, but safe and sure.
Notwithstanding the ubiquity of the autocar, it is still a fact that between the man in the car and the man on foot is set an impassable gulf. You are walking through a mountainous country, where every bend of the road reveals some new charm; absorbed in silent enjoyment of the scene, you have forgotten the very existence of the machine, when a raucous "honk" jolts you out of your daydream and causes you to jump for your life. In a swirl of dust the monster engulfs you, leaving you the dust and the stench of gasoline as souvenirs, but followed by your anathemas! This doubtless is where the man in the car thinks he has scored. Perhaps he has. When the dust on the road has settled and you have rubbed it out of your eyes, once more you forget his existence.
But the very speed with which he travels is the reason why the man in the car misses nearly all the charm of the country through which he is passing. On this tramp I took forty-odd photographs, all more or less of historical interest. Riding in an automobile, many of the subjects I would not have noticed or, if I had, I would not have been able to bring my camera into play. On several occasions I retraced my steps a good quarter of a mile, feeling I had lost a landscape, or street scene I might never again have the opportunity to behold.
What is of far greater consequence, the man on the road comes into touch not only with Nature, but the Children of Nature! In these days, automobiles are as thick as summer flies; you cannot escape them even in the Sierra foot-hills. No attention is paid them by the country people, unless they are in trouble or have caused trouble, which is mostly the case. But the man who "hikes" for pleasure is a source of perennial interest not unmixed with admiration, especially when walking with the thermometer indicating three figures in the shade. To him the small boy opens his heart; the "hobo" passes the time of day with a merry jest thrown in; the good housewife brings a glass of cold water or milk, adding womanlike, a little motherly advice; the passing teamster, or even stage-driver - that autocrat of the "ribbons" - shouts a cheery "How many miles today, Captain?" or, "Where did yon start from this morning, Colonel?" - these titles perhaps due to the battered old coat of khaki.
All the humors of the road are yours. In fact, you yourself contribute to them, by your unexpected appearance on the scene and the novelty of your "make-up," if I may be pardoned the expression. At the hotel bar, you drink a glass of beer with the local celebrity and thus come into immediate touch with, the oldest inhabitant." After dinner, seated on a bench on the sidewalk, you smoke a pipe and discuss the affairs of the nation or of the town - usually the latter - with the man who in the morning offered to give you a lift and never will understand why you declined. Invariably you receive courteous replies and in kindly interest are met more than half way.
The early romances, the prototypes of the modern novel, from "Don Quixote" to "Tom Jones" and "Joseph Andrews," were little more than narratives of adventures on the road. "Joseph Andrews" in particular - perhaps Fielding's masterpiece - is simply the story of a journey from London to a place in the country some hundred and fifty miles distant. In these books all the adventures are associated with inns and the various characters, thrown together by chance, there assembled. Dickens unquestionably derived inspiration from Smollett and Fielding; nor is there any doubt but that Harte made a close study of Dickens.
From which preamble we come to the statement; if you would study human nature on the road, you must simply go where men congregate and exchange ideas. The plots of nearly all Bret Harte's mining stories are thus closely associated with the bar-rooms and taverns of the mining towns of his day. What would remain of any of Phillpott's charming stories of rural England, if you eliminated the bar-room of the village inn? In hospitality and generous living, the inns of the mining towns still keep up the old traditions. The card room and bar-room are places where men meet; to altogether avoid them from any pharisaical assumption of moral superiority is to lose the chance of coming in contact with the leading citizen, philanthropist, or eccentric character.
In the old romances it must be admitted there is much brawling and heavy drinking, as well as unseemliness of conduct. Yet in spite of the fact that hotel bars and saloons abound in all the old mining towns, the writer throughout his travels and notwithstanding the intense heat, not only saw no person under the influence of liquor, but also never heard a voice raised in angry dispute. Moderation, decency and a kindly consideration for the rights of others seem habitual with these people.
It is fifteen miles from Grass Valley to Smartsville, and I arrived at the SmartsviIle Hotel in time for the midday meal. Smartsville has "seen better days," but still maintains a cheerful outlook on life. The population has dwindled from several thousand to about three hundred. It is, however, the central point for quite an extensive agricultural and pastoral country surrounding it.
The swinging sign over the hotel bears the legend, "Smartsville Hotel, John Peardon, Propr." The present proprietor is named "Peardon," but everyone addressed him as "Jim." Having established a friendly footing, I said: "Mr. Peardon, I notice the sign over the door reads John Peardon. How is it that they all call you 'Jim?'" "Oh," he replied, "John Peardon was my father, I was born in this hotel;" - another of the numerous instances that came under my observation of the way these people "stay where they are put."
John Peardon was an Englishman. The British Isles furnished a very considerable percentage of the pioneers, the evidences whereof remain unto this day. The swinging signs over the hotels for one; another, the prevalence in all the mining towns of Bass's pale ale. You will find it in the most unpretentious hotels and restaurants. An Englishman expects his ale or beer, as a matter of course, whether at the Equator or at the Arctic Circle. When I first arrived in California in 1868, I drifted down into the then sheep and cattle country in the lower end of Monterey County. An English family living on an isolated ranch sent home for a girl who had worked for them in the old country. Upon her arrival, the first question she asked was: "How far is it to the church?" The second: "Where can I get my beer?" When informed there was no church within a hundred miles and that it was at least fifteen miles to the nearest saloon, the poor woman felt that she was indeed all abroad! Bereft, at one blow of the Established Church and English Ale, the solid ground seemed to have given way from under her feet. For her, these two particulars comprised the whole of the British Constitution.
Smartsville possessed a sentimental interest for me, for the reason that in the sixties my father mined and taught a private school in an adjoining camp bearing the derogatory appellation "Sucker Flat." What mischance prompted this title will never now be known. In my father's time, it contained a population of nearly a thousand persons; and judging from the manner in which the gulch and the contiguous flat have been torn, scarred, burrowed into and tunneled under, if gold there was, most strenuous efforts had been made to bring it to light.
I asked if there was anyone in Smartsville who would be likely to remember my father, and was referred by Mr. Peardon to "Bob" Beatty, who, he said, had, lived in Smartsville all his life and knew everybody. As Mr. Beatty was within a stone's throw, at the Excelsior Store, I had no difficulty in finding him. Introducing myself, I asked Mr. Beatty if he remembered my father. "To be sure I do," he exclaimed, "I went to his school, and," laughing heartily, "well I remember a licking he gave me!" He said that among the boys who attended that school, several in after years, as men, had become prominent in the history of the State.
Mr. Beatty - now a pleasant, genial gentleman of fifty-two - very kindly walked with me to the brow of the hill commanding a view of Sucker Flat, and pointed out the exact spot where the school had stood, for not a stick or a stone remains to mark the locus of the town - it is simply a name upon the map.
I mention this incident as being another proof of the extraordinary hold the Sierra foot-hill country has upon the people who were born there, as well as upon those who have drifted there by force of circumstances. It is forty-six or forty-seven years since my father conducted that school, yet I felt so sure from previous experiences there would be in Smartsville someone who remembered him, that I determined to include it in my itinerary.