Some time ago Steve Crandell, who owns Steve Crandell, Historic Prints on Main Street in Placerville, came across an interesting old advertising poster for an event in Placerville. “When I saw it I knew I had to have it,” said Crandell, “I had never seen one like it before.
“It had a picture of an old saloon with people dancing and said it said, ‘Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown’ and ‘Placerville Days of ‘49 Mining Camp, May 21 to July 5.’ I knew it was something special. It wasn’t in perfect shape, but since most of these kinds of posters were thrown away when the event was over, it was amazing to find one at all.
“It was printed using an old process called stone printing, that was only used commercially up until the 1920s or so. I figured it might be really old, maybe even from the 50th celebration of the discovery of gold in 1898 or at least the later 100th celebration in 1948.”
It turns out that the celebration was neither of those events, but a very special, six week long event that took place in 1931.
Like 1930, 1931 was predicted to not be a good year for the country. The Great Depression was affecting everyone in all walks of life and things looked grim. That is probably the reason that the California State Chamber of Commerce and California Newspaper Publishers Association came up with the idea to make 1931 the “California Fiesta Year, Bringing Happiness to the World.”
In October of 1930 three members of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce attended a meeting of the state chamber in Sacramento where local communities were encouraged to came up with an idea for an event with a “ ’49er” theme. At the next meeting of the El Dorado Chamber, one of the attendees commented that “Although Mariposa, Woodland and Stockton have plans for events, the northern part of the state is looking to Placerville to stage the biggest ’49 celebration. After all, old Hangtown is the home of ’49.”
In November of the same year, the County Chamber announced that there would be a one day event on May 23, 1931 as a special feature of entertainment for the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythia, who were meeting in Sacramento that week. It addition, there would be a ten-day celebration ending on July 4 as the “principal ‘49er observance of the summer in Placerville.” They then offered a $5 prize to the person who could come up with the best slogan for the event, using the word “Hangtown” in it and invited bids from private citizens for the staging of the event.
At their next meeting the County Chamber announced that W. J. Tracy of Pacific House had won the slogan contest with “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and accepted the plan and bid from L. J. “Doc” Anderson, to manage the affair.
The final plan was to call it the “Hangtown 49er Homecoming, Celebration” with the theme “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and it would last for seven weekends, starting on May 21 and ending on July 5th. On five acres next to the Marcus P. Bennett, Jr. Memorial Park they would build a Gold Rush style “Hangtown Camp” with a saloon and casino, an outside dance floor, and much more. For races and games they would use Bennett Park.
Posters, such as the one Crandell located, were printed, “in the old manner on a coarse grade of wrapping paper, which used to be known in some sections as ‘butcher paper’” it said in the April 17, 1931 edition of the “Mountain Democrat.” These were widely distributed and a later edition of the same newspaper mentions that they were posted in Sacramento and San Francisco, and as far away as the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego.
Stickers were also printed, along with 5,000 programs as an advertisement. The stickers were perfect for putting on packages and letters to friends outside the county and the programs fit easily into a regular envelope.
A delegation of local citizens led by the Native Daughters of the Golden West met with California Governor James Rolph who was so delighted with the idea that he arranged to have both houses of the State Legislature recess so that the delegation could meet with them to promote the event. As a souvenir, the governor was presented with a paperweight containing a golden butterfly created with flakes of gold from the gold mine James Marshall had opened in Kelsey. The governor also agreed to attend the event and June 13 was scheduled to be “Governor’s Day.”
A. B. Gray, the secretary of the California Tourist Association, and former editor of the Mountain Democrat, visited communities with posters in hand, promoting the event, and for the first time ever banners advertising any event, let alone one in Placerville, were allowed to be hung on the Ferry Building in San Francisco and several bridges between Sacramento and that city.