Ranger Darci Moore is reflected in the case holding the famed Fricot Nugget,… (Tomas Ovalle )
MARIPOSA, Calif. — On county fairgrounds, just past the Jumbo Hot Dog stand and a field where they hold the annual goat chase, stands California's most endangered state park.
The parks department doesn't own the land. It doesn't even own the plank-sided California State Mining and Mineral Museum building. But it does own what is inside: a multimillion-dollar gem and mineral collection, including the famed Fricot Nugget, an almost 14-pound swirl of crystalline gold believed to be the biggest chunk to survive the Gold Rush. There also is a meteorite that John Muir bought from an Indian chief whose great-grandfather saw it fall to Earth.
The cash-strapped state was slated to pack up the collection for storage by the end of July as part of a $22-million cost-cutting measure. Then on July 20, it surfaced that the parks department had $54 million socked away, unreported to budget officials. Parks Director Ruth Coleman and other high-ranking officials resigned, and the state launched an investigation.
But saloon owner and former City Planner Bob Burchard has his own explanation: ghosts.
"Look at the timing! Right when they're starting to put the collection in boxes, out of the blue this money is revealed, giving the state such a black eye that they won't be able to do anything for a while. I tell you: Don't mess with the spirits of the Mother Lode. They're wily."
"Wily" — or less charitable words, depending on where you're from — would describe more corporeal Mariposa characters. Consider how, 30 years ago, the gem and mineral collection came to Mariposa in the first place. A group drove to San Francisco in a rented U-haul and police cruiser and snatched the goods from the Ferry Building in the dead of night, high-tailing it to the mountains via back roads, then stashing the rocks in the city jail. All before big-city attorneys could get a Monday morning injunction to stop them.
Mariposa is a place of roots: Sylvia Emery, 79, over at the Mariposa Museum and History Center, was born and raised in this Gold Rush town about 40 miles from Yosemite National Park. So was her mother.
Shane McDonald, 41, is a third-generation bartender at the Gold Coin. The original buildings still stand along streets laid out by famed explorer John C. Fremont.
These days the town survives on tourists from Yosemite stopping by for a dash of Gold Rush history.
But in the early 1980s, when tourism was a fairly new idea here, a Mariposa resident saw a note in an obscure mining magazine saying the state was threatening to close the gem and mineral display, then in San Francisco. For more than 100 years, the collection had been housed in the Ferry Building, under the auspices of the California Division of Mines and Geology. The state couldn't afford the rent.
Mariposa County offered to host the collection in its burgeoning region. The town would foot the bill for displaying and maintaining the collection, but ownership would remain with the state.
The state accepted.
San Franciscans were appalled. A state senator from the city promised a court battle. His law firm planned to ask a judge to legally forbid the transfer of the collection, by then already being packed up by Fresno State geology students.
Burchard, then the city planner, suggested Mariposa use a strategy that didn't involve lawyers.
"There was a real strong tradition in Mariposa in those days called 'country slick,' " Burchard said. "You pretend to be dumber than everyone else, then when they let their guard down you take the advantage."
Country slick still seems to be in play when locals answer questions about how they got the rocks.
"Oh, goodness gracious. What year was that?" said Leroy Radanovich, a local historian and former county supervisor. "Seems I might have heard some talk about some injunction or something, but the way I recall it is we all had to work during the day, so we just decided to go down there at night....
"But, then, since the state had already agreed to us taking the collection and since it was already moved, it just happened to make the idea of an injunction kind of silly and moot," he said. "After a while, everyone just settled down."
That first night, the mineral movers put the collection in the town's 1858 stone jail. The Mariposa Gem and Mineral Club sold commemorative coffee cups reading "The Mining and Mineral Exhibit, A Mother Lode Reunion."
Once the collection was on display — first at a local hotel, later at the museum — volunteers ran the operation. Mariposa County paid rent, now $54,000 a year, and the California State Mining and Mineral Museum Assn. raised funds for the cause, now donating about $70,000 a year. The older generation, such as "Sweetwater" Clyde Foster, decreed that their Gold Rush memorabilia would go to the collection when they died.