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Planning an escape to Hornitos, ghost town of Gold Rush era

Tom Frazier
Tom Frazier

We’re free!

My wife and I both have received two doses of COVID-19, thanks to local volunteer, Dr. Tiwa.

We can toss the masks, pop in the car, and go crazy, right? No. Wrong.

Nothing much has really changed. We are still in the purple tier. When people are fully vaccinated (a week or two after the second dose), but most others aren’t yet, their lives probably shouldn’t change very much, experts say.

Vaccinated people should still wear masks and avoid large groups and indoor gatherings when possible.

That’s important for both their health and the health of others; we are waiting to learn if vaccinated people can spread the virus to others. Early data on transmission seems promising, but vaccines are very unlikely to curb contagiousness entirely. In an informal survey of 700 epidemiologists by The New York Times, less than a third said they would change their behavior after they were vaccinated; half said they would wait until at least 70 percent of the population was vaccinated.

So far, we have stayed home, but we can start planning. I’m opting for local villages with lots of history during the Gold Rush. One will be Hornitos.

My first question, after studying Spanish for a while, would be what would “little ovens” be used for during the gold rush? You see “horno” is oven and “ito” is a popular diminutive suffix that means “little.”

‘It works on almost all nouns. A dog is a “perro”. A little dog, puppy, is a “perrito.”  Like wise for cat and kitten, “gato” and “gatito.” Hornitos really does mean “Little Ovens.”  Actually they weren’t ovens at all, but old Mexican graves shaped to look like ovens.

Graves played a huge role in Hornitos; it was a rough town. In its heyday Hornitos, with a population just more than 10,000, was a wide-open camp whose streets were lined with fandango halls, bars, and gambling dens.

Today Hornitos (population 75) lives on as one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the Mother Lode with the ruins of the old Wells Fargo office, the stone Masonic Hall, the jailhouse, the store where the firm of D. Ghirardelli got its start in the 1850s and others.

The people of Hornitos were among the roughest of all the southern mining towns. Visitors can still see bullet holes in the door casings of many buildings. Hornitos was the place where bandits, roughnecks, gamblers, and miners ended up after being outcast from nearby Quartzburg.

According to local legends, there was blood on every doorstep in Hornitos and money, gambling and fine wine were all that mattered. The dance hall contained a hidden passageway for notorious bandits on the “most wanted list” of the Gold Rush era, such as Joaquin Murieta, used to escape capture from local authorities.

Hornitos was incorporated in 1870 as the first city located in Mariposa County. The area was rich in gold deposits, so when Quartzburg mines dried up, people moved to Hornitos and cleaned up the town.

The town looks much the same as it did in the 1870s. Although bars have long been deserted, the Masonic Hall built in 1860 is still being used. Many older adobe and stone buildings are closed. Visitors can see the remains of the stone jail, a store owned by Cassaretto and Gagliardo and George Reeb’s butcher shop. One wall of Domingo Ghirardelli’s store remains standing, where he first produced his now famous chocolates.

Ghirardelli, an Italian confectioner, was one of Hornitos’ early residents. Unsuccessful at mining, he opened a general store in Hornitos in 1852, selling chocolates to miners with a taste for sweets. He later moved to San Francisco to manufacture his fine chocolates for a larger market and made a tremendous fortune. Ghirardelli Chocolate has been in continuous operation since 1852 and distributes its products throughout the United States.
My final stop in Hornitos will be the original butcher shop, but a bar since 1948, The Plaza Bar. Originally built in the mid-1800s and purchased by the current owners in 1948, it is a non-smoking establishment with a flat screen TV, Jukebox, and pool table. The Jukebox seems original and is very colorful. I hope I can just sit there and hear some old tunes like Johnny Cash belting out Folsom Prison Blues as I ponder the history of the Gold Rush.

I’d like to plan my trip to coincide with one of two normal Hornitos events, both of which got covided (new verb) in 2020. There’s usually an annual enchilada dinner the first weekend in March  and the Día de los Muertos on Nov. 2.

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