The New York Times is running an occasional series keying off the famed WPA guidebooks to the states. I wrote about it earlier this year when the first installment retraced the steps of Washington's New Deal-era guidebook writers. The latest Times piece from Oct. 14 focuses on California, and a group devoted to covering the state with historic plaques: E Clampus Vitus, a California Gold Rush-era brotherhood that still flourishes today. It is said to be either an "historical drinking society or a drinking historical society" and boasts 40 chapters across the West, including one in Seattle.
The Times piece is worth reading for the history of the group, which was created by miners who weren't allowed into tonier fraternal organizations. I honestly had never heard of them until historian Walt Crowley's funeral last year. Crowley was a member, having joined shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. His fellow Clampers, as they are called, turned out for his memorial service in all their finery: beards, hats, shiny decorations, red shirts that are reminiscent of old-time long johns. The local group is the "Doc Maynard" chapter, named for one of the city's most colorful founding fathers. Appropriately, Crowley wanted to be buried near Maynard in Capitol Hill's Lake View Cemetery, burial place of various Seattle pioneers and celebs, from the Dennys to Bruce Lee. His wish was granted, and in late September his marker was put in place just West of Maynard's.
Crowley's HistoryLink colleague and fellow Clamper, Alan Stein, gave a wonderful eulogy at Walt's funeral. It included this passage about the Clampers:
Finally, there's one other avocation that Walt and I both shared, and it pertains to why I'm dressed the way I am. Back in 2003, while checking up on sites that linked to us, I came across a webpage for the Doc Maynard Outpost of E Clampus Vitus. Neither of us had heard of them, but from what we could tell they were an historical society made up of very strange people.
Oddly enough, a few weeks later they contacted HistoryLink, and asked Walt to speak at the dedication of a new gravestone for Doc Maynard, whose old stone had become illegible. We attended the ceremony, which included a gathering afterwards at a local pub where we learned more about the "Clampers" as well as the many historical restoration projects and such that they were involved in locally.
As it turns out, E Clampus Vitus is a not-so-secret fraternal organization that got its start during the California Gold Rush, when the miners discovered that groups like the Masons and Odd Fellows wouldn't let them join. In response, the miners formed their own benevolent organization — to care for the "widders and orphans." Along with wearing their red union suits, they attached tin can lids to their vests in lieu of medals.
When the mining days ended, E Clampus Vitus almost did too, had it not been "revivified" in the 1930s by academic historians in California, looking for a less serious way to celebrate their craft. The Clampers motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which loosely translates as "It is absurd, therefore I believe it." And while some say that it's a drinking historical society, others prefer to think of it as a historical drinking society.
You can't join E Clampus Vitus, you must be invited in. And you only get asked once. So imagine how honored Walt and I felt when we were approached by the brotherhood to become part of this esteemed organization. As Walt pointed out to me, "One: They love history. Two: They love beer. And Three: They're crazy bastards. How can we say no?" We didn't, and we were brought in.
Sadly, it wasn't long after that that Walt got sick. But even as he went through chemo, radiation treatment, and later, his laryngectomy, he helped out from behind the scenes on various ECV projects, and was one of our most loyal brothers.
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