Tree leaves with their autumn hues signal that winter in the eastern Sierra Nevada lurks not too far away when cold, blustery winds will sweep over unprotected mountain peaks and valleys, and snow carpets the rugged land.
Every year since the first building stood up almost 160 years ago, the former mining town of Bodie, Calif., waits for Old Man Winter’s frosty breath and strong westerly winds that wear down scores of wooden buildings struggling to survive the elements.
Listed as one of the top five landmarks in danger of disappearing, Bodie is fighting for its future. Retired California state parks ranger Brad Studivant, president of the Bodie Foundation, is passionate of his love to restore the once thriving mining town for both current and future generations.
“The Bodie Foundation was founded in 2008, and I have been involved with Bodie for 16 years,” said historian Terri Geissinger, who divides her time between eastern California and Smith Valley, an agricultural community midway between Yerington and Topaz Lake. “The Bodie Foundation raises money for preservation, interpretation and stabilization.”
Studivant, though, also refers to the term as arrested decay as both the state and foundation try to prevent Bodie’s continual decay.
For the past 10 years, foundation members and other volunteers have been seeking money both from state grants and private donations to restore rotting foundations, sagging roofs and crumbling buildings. Since 2011, their goal is restore as many structures as they can.
KEEPING BODIE ALIVE
As thousands of visitors stroll along Bodie’s streets and gawk at the numerous buildings, they see a community that is now one-tenth the size it was in the 1880s when the population hovered between 8,000-10,000, and several thousand buildings dotted the sagebrush foothills of Bodie Hills, a low mountain range that extends east toward the Nevada border. Through research, Studivant, who spent 21 years of his 35 years as a state ranger supervising three different parks including the Bodie State Historic Park, said members are discovering new information about the area, which, in turn, prompts the foundation to adjust information pertaining to specific events or figures such as population.
For Bodie to survive and retain its aura of gunslingers swaggering on the dusty streets with a finger on the trigger or miners sweating in the mill on a hot summer day, Studivant said the portrayal of life more than 100 years ago lends credibility to today’s Bodie.
“It’s important to keep stories as accurate as possible,” he said, explaining how during each annual Bodie Days, characters assuming the personas of old-timers lend creditability to the town’s historical significance. “The biggest problem is trying to change the program each year and also encourage visitors to move around and attend the different events. Fortunately, we have good people who volunteer for the state and the foundation.”
Geissinger said Bodie remains as the largest unrestored ghost town in the country.
“A lot of people want to bring the essences of the past back,” said Geissinger, “and we are succeeding.”
What makes Bodie unique is how people like Studivant and other foundation members enjoy spinning yarns about some aspect of Bodie life.
“Stories make the town come alive, and people want to hear stories,” he said.
A modern-day visitor’s first glimpse with a Bodie resident may start with a volunteer dressed in period apparel.
Cub Wolfe and Cindy Shultz attended Bodie Days years ago and became hooked on the town’s ambiance and the foundation’s aim to restore it.
It was easy to spot Wolfe and Shutlz driving a horse-drawn freight wagon.
“We try to add to the ambiance,” Wolfe said before they headed off to another part of town.
Wolfe, a wagon builder in Lyon County, retired from the Bureau of Land Management. Shults, meanwhile, had worked in a Wellington grocery store but now cans vegetables.
Likewise, David and Diane Herrand both live in Smith Valley, but Bodie remains a special part of their lives. In the late 1990s they honeymooned at the ghost town on a cold, May day. Since then they both became active members of the foundation.
“It’s fun to dress up in period costumes,” Diane Herrand said as they strolled down the main street, stopping to talk with visitors and friends and allowing the curious to take photographs.
This love for detail, though, has been leading the restoration of certain areas of Bodie. Studivant said it has been interesting to look at old census records and see the different people who lived in Mono County in the mid to late 1800s and the first 40 years of the 1900s. Studivant said some of the early stories spun out of Bodie may have been exaggerated.
Finding the truth has been difficult but rewarding. Studivant said the Bodie State Historic Park philosophy centers on the Bodie Stabilization Project and arrested decay so that the town’s buildings will weather the harsh elements of both winter and summer and remain standing.
“We’re protecting Bodie’s future by preserving its past,” Studivant said before a small group of people who had assembled for his talk on the town’s preservation at last month’s Bodie Days. “We’re raising awareness to the state of California that we need stabilization for the buildings. With a winter storm last year, we had a building blow over.”
Success stories abound with Bodie’s restoration. Studivant said the state has paid for some roof repairs and other buildings’ foundations or sides have been fortified.
“The need is great to provide funding,” he insists.
As the foundation and State of California grapple for ways to raise money from grants and donations, the town still welcomes thousands of visitors each year, and volunteers from near and far lend their talents in making guests feel like they have been transported in time to the 1880s.
Even with buildings donning new roofs and windows, he said volunteers are overwhelmed in preserving the buildings, many of them homes owned by some of the most prominent residents.
Because of the recession that began eight years ago and with scarce funding occurring long before that, Studivant recalled the effects neglect had the structures and felt something needed to be done then and quickly.
Through a grant of several million dollars, the foundation wheeled into action to preserve as many buildings as possible. The Bureau of Land Management turned over adjacent cemetery overlooking Bodie in 1991, but restoration gradually began on the cemetery in 2008. By using old photos, the foundation restored many plots with new picket-fence enclosures to give them the old western appearance.
“We looked at old photos to see what they (the plots) looked like,” Studivant said. “We replicated them, and in a few years the new wood will blend in to look like the old.”
Likewise, through California’s Prop 84 funding that was used for Bodie’s stabilization, volunteers restored many markers that had either been pushed over and broken or removed. Additionally, the foundation contacted an organization that uses canine forensics by deploying trained dogs to search for human remains … many “lost” souls in more than 500 gravesites. The dogs also discovered human remains buried in a Chinese cemetery east of the original burial ground.
Radar also penetrated a section of the cemetery, showing some ground “disturbances” as Studivant recollected. Yet, one gravesite that brought some excitement to the canine forensics crew was that of William Bodey, the founder of the mining town. Studivant said five dogs discovered and alerted handlers to the gravesite.
A PIECE OF AMERICANA
Bodie’s history, nonetheless, matches most other mining towns of its era when Bodey (historians note the discrepancy in spelling) discovered gold in 1859 on what is now called Bodie Bluff. During the ensuing winter, Bodey and his partner encountered a snowstorm where they became lost and separated. Sadly, miners found Bodey’s body the following spring. Although Bodey never savored the spoils of his discovery, the town and its future inhabitants did.
During the town’s lifetime, Bodie survived several fires, one in 1892 that wiped out a sizable portion of the town and another in 1932 that destroyed hundreds of buildings. Many of the 100 structures including the Standard Mill, — the heart of the town — still stand. During its glory days, though, Bodie had houses, several hotels, numerous bars, a school, a mercantile store and banks. During the age of the early automobiles, a filling station with two pumps sprung up near the general store. Today’s visitors can still peek through the schoolhouse windows and see rows of old school desks and books left as they were generations ago in a classroom.
Bodie resembled the wild, typical western mining camp with numerous shootings and hangings. When a family moved to the infamous mining town, a girl wrote in her diary, “Goodbye God. I am going to Bodie.”
Now, time may be slowly ticking away for Bodie, but for the volunteers and the foundation, keeping a piece of Americana alive is a goal so that people, contrary to the little girl who moved to there more than a hundred years ago, keep returning to see history carve out a new future.