The Clampers: A historical drinking society or a drinking historical society?

Everyone had forgotten about the Butt Lake Dinky by the time workers in 1996 dredged up the rusty H.K. Porter steam locomotive that had been submerged in a reservoir for eight decades.

That lack of remembrance didn’t sit right with the Order of E Clampus Vitus, a men’s fraternal organization with chapters scattered around Gold Country. They commemorated the teeny train with a bronze plaque.

From his perch at the Plumas Club, a dive bar that serves as his chapter’s de facto headquarters, Ron “Right-On” Oxley swirled a vodka and cranberry juice and tried to sum up his often misunderstood group.

“A lot of people get confused and think we’re a bunch of drunkards,” said the resident of Quincy, a small mining town. “We’re actually a nonprofit historical organization.”

America is full of memorials for epic battles and soaring monuments and somber cradles of famous historical figures. The men of E Clampus Vitus — a.k.a. the Clampers — don’t bother with those.

“We believe in the absurd,” said Gene Koen, a Clamper from Oroville.

In Truckee, the group paid homage to the Tin Can bar from the early 1900s and Dot’s Place, a brothel. In Mono County, a Clampers plaque honors the Legend of June Lake Slot Machines: illegal machines said to have been tossed in the lake in the 1940s and sought by cold-water divers.

In a kind of running theme, the Clampers seem to celebrate a fair number of places overtaken, biblical-like, by water.

The group once paid tribute to the town of Prattville, whose original buildings are submerged beneath Lake Almanor. A bunch of Clampers in 1973 got a boat and chucked a plaque into the water.

The Clampers, according to the Frank C. Reilly Chapter of Northern California, have plaqued hundreds of places, “from ghost towns to saloons, from bordellos to ranchos, from heroes to madmen.”

A plaque placed by E Clampus Vitus stands beside the Butt Lake Dinky in Chester, Calif. Hailey Branson-Potts / Los Angeles Times

According to Clampers lore, their first California lodge was established in Mokelumne Hill in 1851.

The group parodied the sashes and ceremonies of stuffier and wealthier social clubs, like the Odd Fellows and Freemasons. Clampers wore red shirts symbolizing miners’ long-john underwear and cut pieces of tin cans to pin to their vests.

Chapter presidents hold the ceremonial title of Noble Grand Humbug. The sergeant-at-arms is the Damfool Doorkeeper. They’re secretive about initiation rites.


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