One thing I have learned studying history: old men weren’t always old; and there is no saying what amazing things they witnessed or accomplished when they were young.
Here is a great example.
There was a table full of old men who met every year of the 1890s in February, to commemorate a day 40 years before when they all left Mansfield to set out for the great California Gold Rush.
To anyone who looked into the ballroom at the VonHof Hotel on North Main Street in 1890, all they could see was a bunch of hobbling old white-haired gentlemen laughing and toasting and making noise.
But to anyone sitting at that table, what they saw was a gathering of heroes and athletes and daring adventurers who earned their scars by participating in American History.
The Call to Adventure
They were all young men when they set out. And they would have to be—it was an unbelievably grueling undertaking just to get to the gold fields on the other side of the continent. Most of them walked from Mansfield to Sacramento: 2,334 miles. Louis Vonhof was 34 years old. John Netscher was 27. Darius Dirlam was 19.
Fred Walter, who was 24 at the time, made the trip with 8 other friends from Mansfield. They took the train to Cincinnati; a steamer down the Ohio to St. Louis; a steamer up the Missouri to Independence; and then walked the other 1,730 miles with a wagon train.
William Ferguson said his party from Mansfield ran out of food in the Nevada desert and did not have anything to eat for 100 miles across the Sierras. They trod through the mountains wistfully eyeballing every goat, but the animals were on ridges miles away. When they finally staggered into Hangtown CA they paid ten dollars for a bucket full of biscuits.
Another group of Mansfielders took a different route because it sounded quicker and easier. On March 18 they hitched up their sleds to a team of horses and headed due north; then crossed Lake Erie on the ice to Buffalo NY. From there by train to NYC; by steamer ship to Panama. After a stage coach ride across the isthmus, they took off for San Francisco by steam ship. Unfortunately, “the boat’s crew got drunk on July 4, and wrecked off the Mexican coast.”
Most of them were rescued, but they had to walk across the Mexican desert to find the nearest port. The Mansfield crew got to San Francisco in the middle of July: their journey taking a month longer than if they had simply walked.
Across the Threshold
Difficult as it may seem to imagine in our day, there is actually a very tangible connection between Mansfield, Ohio and the gold fields of California.
When Louis Vonhof arrived in Sacramento, he ran into a Mansfielder who he had known as the proprietor of the Teegarten Hotel on North Main Street, between Third & Fourth Streets. Dr. Teegarten had abandoned his successful hotel on Main Street, gambling that he could make a bigger success in gold country.
He built a brand new place in Sacramento and called it The Mansfield Ohio Hotel.
There were two other businessmen of Mansfield who landed in Sacramento, who left here as bank clerks and wound up there as bank magnates. They established their firm originally in California as the Rhodes, Sturges & Co. Bank in Sacramento, before a series of calamities and disasters that would have crushed the dreams of any lesser men. First the cholera wiped out their customers; then the Sacramento fire snuffed out their building; then, after scraping together a new place in which to conduct business, it was destroyed by the flood of 1853.
They stuck with their bank through it all however, until it was full of gold dust; and then they migrated back east and landed at home as the prominent Sturges Bank of Mansfield.
There is one mining town in the Sierras, where the mountains are known as the Trinity Alps, that could very well be Mansfield’s sister city. When the little hamlet boomed into crazy gold digging activity in the 1850s, it had more Mansfielders per capita than anywhere outside Richland County.
The place is called Weaverville, and as a tourist destination today it still has a brick building that was built in 1855 by a Mansfield man. He was Frederick Walter, one of the gang who walked across the nation to get rich. He recognized pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to be pulling gold out of the river, but he knew he could pull it out of the hands of ornery prospectors if he built a brewery. His establishment, The Pacific Brewery, was one of the first beer joints in Northern California.
There was another Mansfield man in Weaverville whose historic conscience in the Sierras landed him a place immortalized in American literature. We knew him locally as a two-term mayor of Mansfield and a controversial jurist known as Judge Dirlam; but back during the gold rush he was simply Darius Dirlam. He happened to find himself in the middle of the Bridge Gulch Massacre on April 23, 1852.
Trial of Courage
This particular debacle has come down through history listed among the most heinous affronts to human life to take place on American soil.
There were 70 men from Weaverville who surrounded a village of 150 Wintu Indians, and slaughtered them all in reprisal for a crime the tribe did not commit. No doubt some of those Weaverville men were Mansfielders, though no one owned up to it in later years except Darius Dirlam.
When the shooting was over he heard a baby crying, and he discovered and rescued a little papoose from underneath her mother’s body. It was generally determined by the mob that the baby must die along with the rest, but Darius Dirlam stood his ground and sheltered her with his own body; and carried her back to Weaverville at the risk of his own safety.
This moment of mercy, in the midst of an otherwise brutal society of unconscionable prospectors, stood out as such a shining moment of humanity, that it was captured in print by a famous author who roamed the gold rush towns looking for stories. The writer, Bret Harte, published classic tales of the wild west that preserved the California Sierra miners in American literature.
He wrote a story about that rescued baby, and her life as he imagined it in the mountains after she grew up. His tale, published in 1872, titled, The Princess Bob and her Friends, begins with Dirlam’s perilous rescue.
All of this gold digging took place in the 1850s; and afterward in the decades following, at least 50 men came back to live in Mansfield with stories of wild California.
Louis Vonhof came home with $3,000 he garnered in the west, and he invested his fortune on Main Street to take over the site of Dr. Teegarten’s former hotel. For the next several generations it was known in Mansfield as the prestigious VonHof Hotel.
Most of the men came home no richer in gold than when they left; but a roll call of their names offers abundant proof of how rich our town became because of them: three were mayors of Mansfield, several were ward councilmen; at least six streets in town are named after them; and nearly all of them distinguished the city’s economy with prosperous businesses that lasted generations after they were gone.
Darius Dirlam became an appellate court judge, known for his fierce sense of justice and impatience with equivocation. To look at the old guy you’d never guess that his morality came from witnessing history on the other side of America.
These men, who shaped our community, were themselves shaped by epic adventures and conflicts of American history.