Working for the Clamp down
There’s more to E Clampus Vitus than just $1.50 Budweisers
It’s fitting that I was at the aptly subtitled Hawk’s Nest—Nevada’s only second class bar—when I first rubbed elbows with members of E Clampus Vitus (ECV). There’s something unbelievable about the whole fraternal order, and the disorder that bonds them together, that makes you want to believe anyway.
I mean, it’s not hard to marvel at the joint. The place seems like it’s been around for ages. Some Comstock folk probably wet whistles here, you can bet. And yet, if you step outside, you’ll see all that gaudy DaMonte Ranch development spreading across the winter landscape, burning embers of hot satanic commerce.
The modern world flourishes, and yet this vestige of a romantic, bygone era defiantly holds on. Shit, where else can you get $1.50 Budweisers?
And, in a way, this unassuming watering hole simply defines the ECV ethos.
Perhaps, it’s the unpretentious atmosphere, and the ironic, yet at the same time honest, sign outside that makes this place fitting.
You see, the Clampers, or E Clampus Vitus, are an absurd bunch. The irony and absurdity of the entire fraternal order arises from the very core concept of the group. They are a historical society steeped in folklore and mythology. They convene to celebrate history and to share it. But they are also a drinking society. So, when they gather to share their history, they are perhaps not sharing it in the most reliable state.
In a way, this perfectly reflects their motto.
As local Clamper officer Jeremy Wilson puts it, “Our motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which roughly translates to everything we do is based on absurdity. But when it comes to our individual membership, we take that very seriously. “
There are many different interpretations and versions of the origins of the Clampers, but most attribute it to Ephraim Bee, who started the order in 1845 in the newly established West Virginia. Most agree that Ephraim Bee was blackballed by the Masons, so he started his own brotherhood as a way to stick it to the Masons.
In a way, it started half in jest. Ephraim did many things to mock the Masons, and other fraternal orders, like the Odd Fellows. But it was also a way for blue-collar, working class types to stick together. The members ultimately took themselves very seriously.
Chief Truckee member Jason Finely describes it as a “white-collar/blue-collar thing.” He sees it as a reaction to the other fraternal orders that were selective in whom they initiated. For the Clampers, you didn’t have to be someone of means; you could be anyone and be a Clamper.
“The Masons would march through town,” Finley says. “They would wear their fancy sashes and badges and whatnot. And these guys that were Clampers all came out of these mining camps, and they didn’t have the money for all these fancy things. So, what they would do is take the tops off bean cans and stick them on their union suit.”
They wore these unpretentious badges to show that anyone could be decorated. It was a gesture of humor that these men took very seriously.
Though the modern Clampers are predominantly in the West, the organization originally started in West Virginia, a state that was itself created absurdly, seceding from the state of Virginia after it had succeeded from the union. It popped up in the local mining camps and was moved out West by Joe Zumwalt, and it flourished in California in tandem with the excitement of the 1849 gold rush. But, just as the gold depleted, and the mining camps disappeared, so did the culture of the Clampers fizzle out.
The modern incarnation of the Clampers came only decades later. By the 1930s, the Clampers were virtually forgotten, but it was revitalized by San Franciscan historian Carl Wheat, who learned about the group and decided to preserve its history. From there the organization took on a whole new identity.
Wilson describes the first incarnation of the Clampers like this: “Originally, it wasn’t started as a way to preserve history; it was started as a social club.”
Soon the direction of the Clampers landed on preserving history and an old way of life. They wanted to not only preserve their heritage and mutual history, but to keep the old world form of community alive and well.
Leader of the plaque
“Our whole common thing is observing and preserving history,” Finely says. For the Clampers, history is something to share, not to be stored away in dusty books in an empty library somewhere. It’s something that’s alive and vibrant.
This is one of the reasons that they bring history to the people. One of the annual traditions is for each chapter of the Clampers to erect a plaque once a year. The chapter Humbug, or Gray-beard, decides what they want to commemorate and then they raise the funds to make it happen. But, they don’t commemorate obvious moments in history that everyone already knows about. They look to preserve a history that, without them, might be completely forgotten.
“We’re not going to plaque something that is going to be in your history book,” Wilson says. “We’re going to plaque obscure stuff.’’
Finley and Wilson trade off telling me about a plaque that was erected by the Snowshoe chapter out of Genoa. They plaqued a building that is no longer standing, it was a school that many great Nevadans went to in the days before public education. In its time, it was one of the best schools in Nevada. But, because the building no longer stands, few if any know about it. Except for the plaque that commemorates it.
It’s about literally building a community. In the old days when it started, it was about the Clampers vs. the Masons, about the blue-collar vs. the white-collar. Like Finley puts it: “If you’re gonna have your group with your people, well, we’re gonna have our group with our people.’’
But they tell me that now it is more about nurturing a positive community within our larger community. The Clampers are bonded by a brotherhood, and their goal is to spread that sense of belonging and community as much as possible.
“Once you go through the initiation ceremony, all these guys are brothers,” Finley says. “If one of these guys calls me up at 3 a.m. and they need a ride, I’m gonna pick them up.”
Their brotherhood extends outside of their membership. They’re gracious in the way they treat me as an outsider, but they also discuss raising money for different charities. Even though they are a fraternity, which means no women can join, they raise money specifically for organizations that help women and children.
And even though the bartender is a female, they treat her like one of their own, and she wears a red shirt just like them.
I ask them about the red shirts, and Wilson explains that it goes back to the mining camp days: “In the event of a cave-in, they were easy to spot out.”
But in modern times, it’s so they can easily spot those in their ranks. As they move from town to town, they look out for their brothers who wear the red shirts and ECV pins. And their brothers could be anyone—doctors, lawyers, mechanics, etc. They’re out there: a brotherhood, whose ranks, whose community, whose history, and whose bar tab grows day by day.