Are you not a joiner because you hate rules and regulations? Having difficulty finding an organization that marries diverse interests — such as history and drinking? Do you, as did Groucho Marx, maintain that you wouldn’t belong to any club that would have you? Then have I got an organization for YOU.

It’s The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus and it’s apparently dedicated to our particular brand of California eccentricity which mixes equal parts thumbing the nose at serious institutions, celebrating individuality, having irreverent fun, and embracing an “alternate” history.

The plaque to the man many Clampers agree brought Clamperism to Gold Country. But then Clampers rarely agree on anything and cheerfully plagerise, exaggerate and just make up stuff on their various historical websites.

The plaque to the man many Clampers agree brought Clamperism to Gold Country. But then Clampers rarely agree on anything and cheerfully plagiarize, exaggerate and just make up stuff on their various “historical” websites.

E Clampus Vitus started in a tavern during the Civil War, spread like wildfire in the Gold Country and was  resurrected in the Thirties (where else) but in San Francisco. E Clampus Vitus members (who call themselves “Clampers”) say they can’t decide if they are a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society.”

And that’s how I found them, while looking at “historical” plaques in the Gold Country town of Murphys. I’m a sucker for historical plaques. I can’t pass one by. But as I found more and more of them on the buildings in Murphys, finally culminating in a complete wall of plaques, I started to notice something different. These plaques weren’t placed there by the California Historical Society or the Society of California Pioneers. And the plaques seemed to be commemorating things like the site of bordellos and saloons and record-breaking tobacco spitting contests.

Wikipedia has a great and very humorous Clamper history here. But let me give you the highlights.

Mocking the solemn rites and costumes of fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Moose and Elk Lodges, Clampers abide by these rules. Or don’t:

*Clamper “regalia” are red miners shirts or long-johns, Levis, bushy beards and home-made medals forged from old tin cans.

*All members are officers and all officers are of equal indignity.

*The Clamper motto, Credo Quia Absurdum, is a shortened form of a Latin phrase that means “I believe it because it is absurd.”

*The society’s flag, always carried during parades, is a hoop skirt. Attached to it are the words “This is the flag we fight under.”

*Regular meetings are required to be held at any time before or after a full moon.

A Clamper in full regalia. (Thanks Wikipedia.)

A Clamper in full regalia. (Thanks Wikipedia.)

Members also swore to help widows and orphans (especially the widows). This was was the one pledge they took seriously. In the rough and tumble world of gold mining, Clampers took care of their own, even to the point of snowshoeing out to remotely camped members to bring them Christmas dinner. The modern incarnation is also dedicated to placing plaques to “historical” events and places that might otherwise be, shall we say, overlooked by more mainstream historical societies.

There are more than 40 chapters of E Clampus Vitus operating mostly in the West. They even march in local parades. And they are really active with those plaques.

I want to join. After all, any club that counted Mark Twain as a member is the club for me!

So now you are all asking, “Can I be a Clamper?” Here’s the good news taken from one of the most prominent “Clamps”, the Mountain Charlie Division:

 

How could you not belong to a club that included Mark Twain? It may have been at a Clamper meeting that Twain heard the story that he'd craft as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County".

How could you not belong to a club that included Mark Twain? It may have been at a Clamper meeting that Twain heard the story that he’d craft into “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.

“The prime requisites to becoming a Clamper are a good sense of humor, an interest in Western history, an open mind, and a cast iron stomach. If a man has those qualities, and strikes up a friendship with a Clamper or two, he may find himself taken in to (and by) the Ancient and Honorable Order. But one can’t simply walk up and say, “Can I be a Clamper?” It is for the Brethren of ECV to invite prospective members to join. And if a man is asked, he should know that the invitation is only given once. If it is refused, it is never tendered again. But a man of any intelligence and character so invited would hardly be likely to turn down such a signal honor. And remember, as the Brethren of E Clampus Vitus maintain, “Clampers are not made, they’re born. Like gold, they just have to be discovered.”

 


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