History Men: E Clampus Vitus
STORY BY ERIC CACHINERO
PHOTOS BY ASA GILMORE
If you’re a consumer of Nevada history, E Clampus Vitus may play a bigger role in your life than you’d expect. Sure, you may think that this group of men, donning red shirts and badge-clad vests, only gathers occasionally to attend events like the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry in Virginia City, but truth be told, their influence packs a real wallop. Clampers, as they’re often called, have frequented The Comstock for more than 150 years, save a few bust periods. Today, the fraternal organization strives to practice equal parts historical preservation and renowned absurdity. The former evidenced by the army of informative plaques you’ve probably read in some of Nevada’s most important sites, the latter evidenced by E Clampus Vitus’ motto, Credo Quia Absurdum, which means,
“I believe because it is absurd.”
WHO THEY WERE
So what does E Clampus Vitus mean? Well, it actually doesn’t mean anything, or more aptly stated, no one knows its meaning. This fact exemplifies the group’s lighthearted and often facetious nature. E Clampus Vitus claims to be the most ancient of any fraternal orders, though history maintains that a practical joker from Virginia named Ephraim Bee is to thank for its beginnings, which can be traced to the mid-1800s.
Shortly after its inception, word of
E Clampus Vitus spread like wildfire across the U.S., rushing to the California gold fields on the lips of Clamper Joseph Zumwalt—who is often credited for the group’s pilgrimage west—before eventually reaching The Comstock. The organization was created as a means to burlesque some of the widespread secret societies of the time, including the Free Masons and Odd Fellows. Wealthy mine owners and investors often belonged to these societies, but the miners were shunned from such camaraderie.
“The miners didn’t have a group that they could be a part of, so E Clampus Vitus welcomed them,” says Brandon Wilding, Noble Grand Humbug and Historian of the Snowshoe Thompson Chapter #1827 of E Clampus Vitus. “The reason they joined is they would take care of each other’s families, along with the other miners.”
Clampers would become a regular part of life on The Comstock, providing a welcomed escape from the often-burdensome life of a miner. Members had each other’s backs, including assisting widows and orphans of fallen Clampers. But like the silver ore that would eventually play out, so the Clampers, too, faded from the American west.
Then, in 1930 San Francisco, Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane, and Leon Whitsell—three men credited with reviving E Clampus Vitus—did just that. Chapters began springing up again, along with an ethos that the group hadn’t held before: preserving history. In 1956, the Snowshoe Thompson Chapter began in Douglas County and Alpine County, Calif., followed by several other chapters in Nevada.
WHO THEY ARE
Almost each year since its inception, Snowshoe Thompson Chapter—along with the other E Clampus Vitus chapters in the state—have researched, designed, created, and dedicated a historical plaque in Nevada (and occasionally in California). The plaques are placed in areas of historical significance, giving travelers who may run across them a brief, but important account of what took place there. Brandon explains the group takes the plaque’s historical accuracy very seriously, and will often go through exhaustive fact checking to guarantee it.
“There’s a lot of Nevada history that has been lost,” he says. “What we try to do is find stories and events that could be swept under the rug, and that’s what we aim to preserve.”
Brandon adds that E Clampus Vitus aims to work with community members to ensure historical accuracy.
“We try hard to work with and get to know people in the communities. The greatest thing about Nevada history is the people working within those communities protecting the history.”
Brandon brings up Rick and Donna Motis, caretakers of the Belmont Courthouse, as an example. Instead of just checking the Internet, the chapter consulted these courthouse experts, and wrote the plaque’s words together. In addition, E Clampus Vitus donated money to help rebuild one of the doors in the courthouse during the ongoing renovation.
But building plaques and funding doors isn’t all Clampers gather for. Members of Snowshoe Thompson Chapter donate time to charitable organizations such as the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. Each year, the chapter also holds a spaghetti feed to raise money for The Solace Tree—a charity that provides a safe place for children, teens, and families who are struggling with loss.
Although charity and donations paint the picture of saints, don’t get the impression that E Clampus Vitus is all straight-laced. Clampers have claimed they’re not sure if they’re a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society.”
The organization takes a lighthearted approach to chapter dealings, never losing sight of the satirical roots that they’re known for. Members wear red to lampoon the ritzy dress of high-ranking Masons and Odd Fellows that used to frequent mining towns in the 1800s. The swanky pins and garb of the mining-era Masons were matched by E Clampus Vitus’s beer-can cutouts, which continue to adorn their dress to this day.
WHO THEY WILL BE
“In the future, I would like to put up one plaque in Nevada each year,” Brandon says, with confident optimism. In addition, Brandon says he hopes to further the organization’s relationships with different communities around the state.
Dayton was the recipient of Snowshoe Thompson Chapter’s 2016 plaque, a fitting tribute to the Carson and Colorado Railroad, which ran between Mound House and Keeler, Calif. The rails were operational for 80 years between 1880-1960, except a brief lull during the Great Depression. The depot is currently in the process of being restored to its former glory thanks to a grant from the Commission for Cultural Centers and Historic Preservation.
“The plaque is a good addition to a great piece of history that sits right in our backyard, but not a lot of people know about,” he notes.
CREDO QUIA ABSURDUM
E Clampus Vitus’ activities and claims may seem a bit bizarre sometimes, but the men who comprise it take history, and Nevada, seriously. They share their passion with anyone willing to read and learn something new about their state. So next time you stumble across a plaque etched with a story that was almost lost to the annals of time, take a second out of your day to thank a Clamper.