A prominent black granite plaque appeared as promised last week outside the Pershing County Courthouse. The eye-catching installation is etched with a brief history of the unique building, reportedly one of the only two round courthouses ever built and the only one still functioning.
Sponsored by E Clampus Vitus Chapter Lucinda Jane Saunders 1881 of Elko and Outpost Jesse Lee Reno 1422 of Lovelock, the plaque is mounted on a 3500 pound granite boulder hauled from the local dump. County workers enshrined the rock in a concrete foundation near the courthouse entrance.
Also eye-catching were the hundred or so Clampers that hit town from around the state and region to dedicate the plaque. Most of the men were dressed for the occasion in red shirts, black hats, kilts and vests adorned with pins and patches and slogans like “Hang the Bastard” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”
After some short speeches, the plaque was christened with canned Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The Clambers then headed to the Crazy Corners Saloon north of Lovelock to party and initiate some new recruits. The “historic drinking society” or “drinking historic society” has sponsored thousands of plaques at isolated, forgotten and infamous places like saloons and bordellos as well as courthouses.
Local residents were invited to the April Fool’s Day ceremony but few showed up except for those obliged to do so. County Commissioners Carol Shank and Rob McDougal politely thanked the group but seemed uneasy with the boisterous crowd. Commissioner Larry Rackley, however, wore a red shirt and posed for photos with his fellow Clampers. Rackley is already a member of the ECV chapters in Virginia City and Carson City and said he may also join Lovelock’s Outpost Jesse Lee Reno 1422.
Rackley pointed out that the attractive boulder holding up the plaque came from the county dump.
“I was asked by one of our citizens why I didn’t get a native rock. That rock came from the landfill. How native can you get?” he laughed. Other large boulders salvaged from landfill blasting and pit excavations mark the entrance to the county dump. “They have piles and piles of these out there.”
According to online accounts, the fraternity was started in West Virginia in the 1800’s by miners and other workers who were snubbed by the wealthier, more elite groups like the Freemasons, Elks and Odd Fellows. ECV chapters later spread to the West during the California gold rush.
“The Clampers were the ones out in the streams freezing their butts off,” Clamper historian Skip Skyrud told New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley. “The businessmen in the towns, making the money, they were Masons.”
After the gold rush, the fraternity disappeared until it was resurrected by San Francisco historians as a historical society in the 1930’s. ECV chapters are spreading beyond California to other western states.
“We do historical monuments because Nevada history is pretty important and we try to plaque the things that don’t end up in history books and get lost along the way so that history is preserved,” said Brandon Wilding of the ECV Snowshoe Thompson Chapter headquartered in Reno. “People are able to see it and read about it, get a brief understanding and maybe read more about it.”
But, there’s more to the group than meets the eye according to Wilding. Beyond the history plaques and parties, the longstanding Clamper tradition of helping those in need has been carried forward.
“We try to work within our communities. Like our chapter volunteers at the Food Bank,” Wilding said. “We do a lot of stuff in our communities besides the history.”
The Snowshoe Thompson Chapter also supports a Reno organization that counsels children left behind by the death, imprisonment or deportation of their parents said Reno Clamper Beau Valory.
“It’s kind of a smaller organization in Reno so we think it’s important to support them,” he said.
The courthouse plaque took three years to organize and there may more local plaques to come.
“I’m not sure where we are going to plaque next but we have plans for many more plaques in Nevada for years to come,” said Lovelock native Marshall Monticelli, one of the founders of the ECV Outpost Jesse Lee Reno 1422. “E Clampus Vitus has been a part of Nevada for a long time.”
Wearing a black top hat adorned with red feathers, ECV member David Otero of Fresno, California attended the Lovelock ceremony with fellow Clampers from Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.
“We put up monuments to historic people, places and events and we try to surround those activities with an much fun and frivolity as we can,” he said. “We’re fully self-funded, we bring in new members and we sell each other trinkets of little or no value. We raise money that way to fund these efforts.”
Rackley agreed that, despite its oddball reputation, E Clampus Vitus is a good thing for communities.
“Everything they do is to benefit the public somehow,” said Rackley while holding a large book that documents thousands of historic plaques installed by the fraternity. “This is a book of all the plaques they’ve done. You can be driving out in the desert and see a plaque like that.”