The Mother Lode; rich in gold, 49’er history, and splendor that was a significant part of my life growing up in, what was then, rural California. My family and grandparents spent countless weekends during the 1950’s driving around the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and panning for gold in many of the mineral rich streams and rivers that ran through the area. A do-it-yourself dad and grandfather also built their own sluice box, and found plenty of that shiny metal to make their efforts worthwhile.
During our gold mining travels, we explored every gold rush town, ghost or thriving, encountered along the way. I loved all of them. Each was as individual as its name, and provided an imaginative child with hours of old west drama. Seriously, how could one not be inspired by places named Angels Camp, Rough and Ready, Fair Play, Copperopolis, Shingle Springs, Big Oak Flat and Volcano?
The one town, though, where I had my most memorable experience was Jenny Lind. It is situated on the banks of the Calaveras River. Beginning as a mining camp in the early 1850’s, it became a bonafide town within a year, boasting general stores, hotels, saloons, a post office, and churches for its over four hundred residents.
When we visited there, it was pretty much a ghost town. I do not recall actually finalizing my plan, but by the time we arrived, I knew what my intentions were. I was going to march into the old saloon, order a sarsaparilla, and view a painting of famous singer, Jenny Lind. Naked Jenny Lind. Hanging over bottles of alcohol behind the bar in the saloon. It was an ambitious plan, but I knew it could be done.
I had overheard my parents and grandparents discussing the town, Jenny Lind, and how it had been named after a Swedish opera singer, very famous in the 1800’s, who was brought to the U. S. by P.T. Barnum in 1850 to tour for a year or so. They also said there was a painting of her in the saloon that the miners liked to look at while they drank. Because she was nude. There was a lot of tongue clucking and shocked comments by my grandmother over that bit of information. I remember how baffled she was that a world-famous singer would not only pose nude, but allow her painting to be displayed in a dirty little town like Jenny Lind, to be stared at by dirty little drunk miners. She just did not understand.
It did not matter to me that Miss Jenny Lind could sing opera, or that she had toured the United States to sell-out audiences everywhere she performed, and that she made thousands of dollars for P. T. Barnum and herself, all of which she gave away to charities in the United States and Sweden. What I cared about was we were going to visit her namesake town, and I was going to take a look at that famous painting.
Our Jenny Lind Saturday finally arrived, and we got there around mid-morning. We walked around town looking at the old buildings, enjoying being somewhere with such colorful history. It only took me one spin around the town to locate the saloon. It was going to be so easy, because we kids were held with exceedingly loose reins no matter where we were. At the first opportunity, I would simply hang back from the rest of my family, pretend to study something interesting, and then make my way to and through those swinging doors, and straight into the bar.
That is exactly what I did, and as I casually walked up to the bar, I reached into my jean’s pocket, and pulled out the allowance I had been saving for just that moment. I reached the bar, hopped up on a stool, and spoke in my most confident voice, “Sarsaparilla, please”. The bartender looked surprised at me for just a second, and then smiled as what I initially thought were hands of law enforcement grabbed my arms from behind, and lifted me off the bar stool. I whipped my head around to see my dad, my really angry dad. Of course, he asked what I thought I was doing in there, as he forcefully directed my reluctant self away from the dream of a sarsaparilla and a naked painting. Stammering and protesting were not helpful, and as I was being dragged out of the saloon, I twisted my head as best I could, and saw a rectangular framed painting in back of the bar. There she was. A reclining lady, all her private parts covered up by flowing, gauzy looking cloth, and holding some kind of bird in her extended hand.
It was neither revealing, nor shocking in any way. Her arms and legs were bare, and her hair was hanging loosely over her shoulders, instead of being pinned up, as was the style in gold rush days. She just looked like someone who was getting into or out of bed, or maybe was lying around on a hot summer day. It was a serene, restful painting that appeared reasonable and inoffensive. The bird was a bit of a puzzlement, though. I never did figure out why it was in the painting.
At the time, being forced to exit the bar in so unbecoming a manner caused me to focus and prepare for just how much trouble I was in, and exactly what my dad had in mind to teach me about doing things without permission, and putting myself in danger. Interestingly, that day he surprised me with a stern warning to never, never do something like that again, and let me off the hook. He even went back into the bar, and bought all of us a bottle of sarsaparilla, which we drank in the shade of a huge old oak tree across the street from the saloon.
I swear, to this day I can remember how that ice-cold drink tasted, how that aged town sounded and smelled, and how much I appreciated the mercy my dad showed me as we sat, and he let me describe to everyone what the painting looked like. My grandmother was particularly relieved, and kept saying she knew such a fine lady, as Jenny Lind, would not have exposed herself like that. Sitting under the shade of that oak, telling my family about the painting, made me feel as though I had been on a great adventure into the past, and had come back to share it with those I loved. I am not sure of all the words I used, but everyone seemed entertained, and interested in all the details.
So it really does not matter these many years later that we find opera singer, Jenny Lind, never made it to California, nor that her namesake town could have been named after a local doctor named John Y. Lind, or even a braying mule whose owner used Miss Lind’s name to mock the sound it made. Those details are not nearly as much fun or interesting as the day we explored gold rush history, drank sarsaparilla under an oak tree, and I redeemed a lady’s reputation from a scandalous rumor. The lady in the painting was not the opera singer, nor was she nude. My family was very relieved to hear a description of a more modest painting, and the Swedish Nightingale once again was held in especially high esteem by my grandmother, whose opinion was the only one that really mattered.
Jenny Lind, you owe me one.