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Neighbors Find Nothing Funny About Mark Twain's Cabin

January 30, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

JACKASS HILL, Calif. — Mark Twain, America's most celebrated humorist, would have been the first to laugh at the controversy over the cabin where he wrote "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

It was the short story that made him famous.

Twain came here as a penniless journalist in 1865 and heard the story of a talented frog that could outjump any competitor. It was an old tale that had circulated through mining camps of the Mother Lode country.

The frog belonged to a man called Coleman, whose name Twain changed to Smiley when he repeated the story in print.

Jump on Command

Smiley had trained the frog to jump on command. A stranger came into his camp, accepting a wager from Smiley that his frog could leap farther than any other. The stranger had no frog, so Smiley offered to go outside and find one, leaving his champion on the table. The stranger weighted it with buckshot.

Smiley returned with a frog for the contest. It promptly hopped across the cabin. Smiley's high jumper was unable to move. The stranger pocketed the $40 bet and left.

Twain jotted the tale down in his notebook, a journal that was to furnish him with material throughout his literary career.

The Tuolumne County cabin where Twain spent several months burned during the 1890s. The current cabin is a replica constructed in 1922 as a tourist attraction. The actual site is believed to have been nearby. A bronze plaque erected on Highway 49 says that the chimney and fireplace are original, but there are those who argue that this has never been substantiated. Regardless, about 20,000 people visit the site each year, which is several miles north of Sonora.

The cabin has so deteriorated that an iron fence has been erected around the structure to prevent visitors from entering.

"We don't want anyone injured," said Steve Szalay, the Tuolumne County administrator whose office is in Sonora. The county owns the property. "We fully intend to have a monument or some form of recognition to Twain. Our local historical society wants to restore the cabin. First we want to talk to some of the neighbors and see how they feel."

Minnie MacDonald, 85, lives across the street from the Twain cabin. She was born on Jackass Hill, and she wishes the county would move the ramshackle building to another location, possibly to nearby Columbia State Park.

"People used to camp inside the place before they put the fence around it," she recalled. "They'd be having parties and littering the ground with beer cans. We'd call the sheriff and he would run them off, but others would come."

Reuben Oblender and his wife, Lucille, have been living on Jackass Hill for 20 years. He says that there are about a dozen families in the tiny community, and all his neighbors want the cabin moved.

"The county doesn't maintain the road that comes up here from Highway 49," he said. "People drive up here to look at the cabin and are disappointed. That's putting it mildly. Often they are angry because they discover such a dilapidated shack. So they rush back down the hill. The road isn't built for that kind of traffic. Someday, there'll be an accident, or someone will hit one of my dogs."

Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was born in the small village of Florida, Mo., on Nov. 30, 1835. His family later moved to Hannibal, Mo., another town on the Mississippi. He became a pilot on the steamboats plying the majestic waterway.

In 1861, the young Clemens boarded a stagecoach bound for the Far West. After an unsuccessful attempt to strike it rich in silver mining, he drifted into Virginia City, Nev., in 1862, and got a job as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise, where he began writing humorous articles about the Comstock Lode. It was there he began to use the pen name Mark Twain. In river-boat parlance, it meant two fathoms, or 12 feet, the shallowest depth a steamboat could navigate without the danger of running aground.

Good Time to Leave

Twain moved on to San Francisco, becoming city editor of the Call. He spent his evenings in Barbary Coast saloons with a pugnacious drinking companion, Steve Gillis. One night Gillis became embroiled in an altercation with a saloon proprietor named Big Jim Casey. Gillis knocked his adversary cold.

Twain raised bail for his friend, but it was a propitious time to leave San Francisco. The saloonkeeper was a friend of the city's police chief, and Twain's articles about corruption in the city's police department had made him unpopular with the gendarmerie.

It was at this point that Gillis' brother, Jim, offered Twain the use of his cabin in the gold country. Steve Gillis jumped bail and the two came here to Jackass Hill. Later, Twain would describe the cabin as it appeared when they arrived on Dec. 12, 1865:

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