Poet of the mines

New book fulfills Pres Longley’s lifelong dream

Lew Gardner (left) playing the miner poet, Pres Longley, today.

Lew Gardner (left) playing the miner poet, Pres Longley, today.

photo by Robert Speer

Poems from the dead:
John Rudderow and Nancy Leek will be signing copies of The Miner Poet Tuesday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m., at Lyon Books. They will discuss the history behind the book, and local actor Lew Gardner will read some of Pres Longley’s poems.

Lyon Books
135 Main St.

For a man who lived in a pauper’s shack near the Gold Rush settlement of Helltown, 10 miles up Butte Creek Canyon, long before the arrival of such modern conveniences as electricity, automobiles and telephones, Alexander Preston Longley—who went by Pres—was remarkably engaged with the wider world.

He read voraciously, traveled among the many mining camps of the era visiting the families of children he’d tutored at one time or another, and corresponded with editors at numerous publications, from the local Chico Record to The Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Most of all, though, Longley wrote poems—more than 300 of them over the years—and sent them off to appear in those same publications, earning the sobriquet “The Bard of Butte.” They were poems about love and death, about miners’ hardships and Demon Rum, about capitalist greed and women’s suffrage, and about the people Longley knew and loved and those he despised, including a certain assistant editor at the Chico Enterprise:

All must admit the man’s a cheat/ Who slobbers out the damndest lies,/ Then hides himself behind a sheet/ He calls the Chico Enterprise.

The poems paint a vivid picture of life in a small Butte County mining town and the world around it in the late 19th century. They’re not great poems—Longley wrote in the heavily rhymed and metered style that was popular at the time—but they’re lively and sometimes funny, and always interesting and enjoyable as historical documents, especially for those of us who live in this area.

Pres Longley, circa 1866.

Photo courtesy of Stansbury Publishing

Longley long dreamed that somehow his poems could be collected in a book. He no doubt knew of his fellow Northern California poet, Joaquin Miller, who wrote in a similar style but, by dint of clever self-promotion, had become the best-selling poet in America. One year, at the request of an agent representing an East Coast publisher, Longley went so far as to gather his poems for publication, but the agent was killed and the manuscripts lost in a train wreck.

Now, more than a century after his death in 1912 at the age of 88, Longley’s dream has come true, thanks to John Rudderow and Nancy Leek, two local people who have collected more than 100 of his poems into a handsome book, The Miner Poet: Poems of Pres Longley (Stansbury Publishing, $19.95).

Rudderow worked in the aerospace industry in Southern California before moving into a house in Butte Creek Canyon, near the Honey Run Covered Bridge. He volunteers at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library, which is where he met Leek, a reference librarian. Their shared interest in local history, and Pres Longley in particular, led to their teaming up on this volume.

Their introduction to the poems is a valuable corrective to some of the myths that have surrounded Longley. The editors published only information that they knew to be true—such as that Longley for two years fought the Comanches as a member of the Texas Rangers and was wounded by an arrow in the leg.

Leek and Rudderow will be signing copies of their book on Sept. 24 (see column note). As an added attraction, local actor and all-around character Lew Gardner, who’s 82, will be reading Longley’s poems.

The two men have much in common, Gardner says: He too is a “minor poet,” and like Longley he’s never cared much about making money. And he too has said about booze, “I don’t want any more—you can take it away/ ’Tis a demon of darkness unfit for the day.”

One big difference: Longley, whose one marriage at age 56 didn’t work out, had no children; Gardner has nine.

“I really like the guy,” he said of Longley. “I hope to do a really good job.”