Friday, October 30, 2009

To the Dance


THE DANCE HALL IN FOREST CITY is tiny and worn, but back in its heyday, it must have burst at the seams on a Friday night. Lola Montez sang here. A historian of sorts, at the recent Forest City preservation group’s potluck picnic, shared that in the old days, the boys from Downieville would tie their dance shoes together, drape them over their necks and hike in their work boots seven miles over the hill to the big dance in Forest. I drove about that hill after having left Forest City that day and I can say that it was more than seven miles. That or they actually went over the mountain rather than around it. In any case, Lola must have been a hell of a draw, because by no means was the commute an easy one.

On the occasion of the preservation group’s Apple Festival potluck, the boys from E Clampus Vitus fired up the steam-powered stamp mill positioned at the downhill end of town. Stamp mills were used to separate gold from quartz by simply crushing the brittle white rock to power and leaving the malleable gold to be picked away and either bagged or melted into bullion bars. Stamp mills can be found throughout the Mother Lode, most of which are decayed or rusted into a state of inoperability. This one, the Clampers restored. And from its operation came the rhythmic racket of huge pile driver-like weights rising and falling accompanied by mechanical chugging and whistling. Walking up the main street of Forest, away from the industry of separating gold from its ore, one can imagine how the hundreds of folks living there must have acclimated to the incessant clank and rattle. Even at the far end of town, past the half-dozen remaining houses – each with an unkempt but yet-yielding apple tree on the premises – and the turn off to the school some two hundred yards up stream, the cascading water and the wind in the pines was drown out by the sounds of the stamp mill: the sound of the town’s bread, butter and grit.

I suppose that when the work was done the dance was the celebration that punctuated things. An old barroom serves as a lobby of sorts. Through back doors at either end of the bar one may enter the dance hall – a dark-at-daytime area of perhaps twenty-five by thirty feet. A stage appears to be cut out of the rear wall like an afterthought and cantilevered out over nothing. Inspection of the exterior of the building shows this is so. Throughout, the wooden floor gives under one’s foot, but must have been more substantial when Lola sang. An upright grand sits to the left and two double hung windows are position on the western wall to the right. The hall houses a wood heater, an aged American flag, a tarnished old tuba and a half dozen vintage wooden skis-shoes leaning up against a wall. (There’s a dingy old couch against one wall, but I don’t think it’s period.) When the sun set over the hills, oil lanterns around the entire perimeter were lit and festivities roared until the last light failed, I’m sure.

Then there was the seven-mile walk home. And it would be a long one.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press

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