So, there I was minding my own business when I see a post on my Facebook newsfeed from a group I belong to, “You know you grew up in Placerville Ca AKA Hangtown ca if…..” The comment that caught my eye was “Shoot the bitch” (written by one James Franceschi). I paused and wondered what would cause someone from my hometown to suggest shooting someone. I read more comments as I scrolled up to the original post, they were either variations of “go back where you came from” or people agreeing with that sentiment.
Well, fuck. Someone must have done something really dumb in a private group for all the members to turn on them, I wonder what it could have been.
I didn’t have to wait long before I saw the posted screenshot of an editorial piece from the local Mountain Democrat. In the piece, a woman named Jennifer Gregory is addressing someone named Ms. Counts. It seems Ms. Counts had earlier written to the paper about one of the town’s points of pride, the Hangtown Dummy. You see, in historic downtown Placerville (to the right of Hwy 50 on your drive up to Lake Tahoe in Placerville) there is a bar named Hangman’s Tree (Historical Site #141) because it was built on top of where there once stood a tree that had been used for hanging people.
So, lets address that really quick. It was back in the day, early 1849 actually, when the area was just starting to become some place (it was the third largest city in California around 1854) and people were mining for gold in nearby Coloma. Legend has it that a guy struck it rich gambling and three other guys from out of town tried to rob him. Vigilantes apprehended these “unfortunates”, suspected they were wanted for murder elsewhere and the three were found guilty in a matter of minutes and sentenced to die by hanging. So, they were hanged. Three guys, in one night for robbing a guy and being accused of a murder in another town.
That’s actually the only documented case of a person or people being hanged to death in Placerville that I have been able to find. Three people of undocumented ethnic background or even documented names for that matter.
But that is where the town that had once been named Dry Diggins got the provocative title of Hangtown. Proud citizens of Hangtown probably do not realize that six other towns in the state claim a Hangman’s Tree as part of their history as well. Even nearby Jackson proudly marked their special tree once upon a time.
So people were hung in 1849 and Hangtown was born. It was a shockingly short five years later that the people of Hangtown had the good sense to look for a less threatening name for their home. In 1854 the town was incorporated as Placerville and has remained named that ever since.
Now back to the Dummy. From what I have read, the dummy has been hanging from the second story of Hangman’s Tree as far back as the 1930’s. Sure, it has gone missing here and there (up to three years at one point) and it of course has been replaced due to weather damage, age and other concerns. But for longer than I have been alive that dummy has swung from that building. I have seen that dummy change colors over time, as it became weathered and dirty. So one year it might have a white face and a few years later it might have a darker face. It happens, things get dirty.
Well, after doing some searching I found two articles that appeared in the Mountain Democrat prior to the one that caught my eye (I couldn’t find them on the paper’s site because in order to read anything there it seems you must have a subscription, which I remembered from when I tried to get my mother’s obituary and had to email someone on the staff to request it which I never received a reply to). I’ve got all three posted below (images provided/shared by Phillip Veerkamp, so he gets the credit for them, not me).
It starts with Karen Counts talking about how her and her partner recently moved into a house they purchased in Placerville (home owning citizens) and were playing tourist in town, sending pictures to their friends in the San Francisco area. She later looked at a picture she had taken of the dummy and realized that he was “black” and took that as a symbol of racism. She reacted strongly and questioned why the people of Placerville would allow such a “vile, racist and ignorant atrocity” to represent their town.
A fair question given her impression. And who knows what other experiences she had on her picture taking trip that might have helped form this opinion. I myself moved away from Placerville years ago and only visit on occasion. A little over a month ago I attended the local Brewfest and commented to my childhood friend multiple times how judgemental and aggressive the men of town were. I assumed it was because no one knew me as a local, probably the same experience Karen had?
It didn’t end there though, the good readers of the local newspaper had to respond. Not once, but twice in print (from a guy in San Francisco and another from Camino, neither living in Placerville). The first response questioned Karen’s sexuality by singling out her comment “partner”. Because it should have been husband or boyfriend? I refer to my girlfriend as my partner on occasion. Sometimes I do it just to see if people are going to be judgy. The next comment though is what seals it when he asks if she moved up from San Francisco?? Asked by a guy living in San Francisco!
Then the guy from Camino sets in. He accuses Karen of attempting to change people in “our part of the world” to suit her “liberal San Francisco values”. So… Not wanting what she believed to be a dark skinned effigy hanging from a building in the tourist part of Placerville is a “liberal value”? Is it fair to infer then that to Wayne from Camino it is okay to proclaim racism to tourists (the people that spend half a billion dollars annually, generating 25 million in taxes)?
Wayne then goes on to insult the entirety of San Francisco with everything from people spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam to letting illegal immigrants murder Americans. He mentions that San Francisco is the most liberal city in the world and Placerville is conservative. So she should just “move back with her friends”.
Now lets go back to Jennifer’s response from the beginning of this long post; Jennifer doesn’t say the dummy isn’t black, in fact she says “if our accurate depiction of historical events offends you, I suggest you go back from whence you came.”
Bringing us back full circle to the comments that caught my eye. People were agreeing with her. Not only that but there was the call to “shoot her” made by James and then Ron Briggs said that we “need to hang old karen”, and people were liking those comments and agreeing with them! The banner of “history is truth, you can’t change it” was picked up and everyone got behind that logical statement.
Yes, people, you can’t change history. History is what has already happened, no one ever said otherwise. What CAN be changed is whether or not you embrace that history, take pride in the history and celebrate that history. Guess what, I am part Mexican and grew up seeing my darker skinned cousins getting harassed because they were a minority. I know all about racism in Placerville, I was once under the impression that I was superior because my skin was lighter than some other people’s skin. I was proud to be white. The my grandma pulled me aside one day and reminded me that I am Mexican and Native American, that I have family that immigrated here from Mexico and if I couldn’t take pride in ALL of what I am, then I have nothing to be proud of. She reminded me that I am human, and I should be proud to be human. I’m sorry some people in Placerville did not get the same lesson.
I got out of Placerville and learned that there are a lot of different people out there in the world, and I can’t assume that because someone is homosexual or black or disabled or transgender or anything else that I once thought made them “less than” that they are any less important than I am. I stopped being narrow minded and started to see the entire spectrum of humanity. But I digress (I do that a lot).
Placerville is a backwoods town, with more than its share of ignorance and prejudice. Not everyone in Placerville is ignorant or prejudice, I know plenty of people that are as open minded as I am, but the loud ones are pretty much rednecks and proud of it.
To demonstrate that, here is my first post to the group about the newspaper article:
“Yeah (not the shoot her part, that is kind of a dick comment actually, but the part about elements and weather and such), plus it is the stained glass window in the Cary House that shows someone with dark skin hanging from a noose.
But isn’t the fact that someone felt that her perception “could” be accurate enough to be concerning? Maybe some compassion and reflection should be utilized instead of ostracism?”
No one comments on the stained glass window, either because they know it is true or they had no idea it is true. No one even comments on my suggestion of compassion and reflection. What response do I get?
Well, I can’t tell you because the person (Helm Zinser-Watkins) that started the attack on me blocked me, removing his comments. Probably because he was not using the words “racism” and “bigotry” correctly. But then Dustin Atwood stepped in for the missing Helm and said that I “just like throwing labels around”. I don’t even fucking know this guy and he is addressing me by my last name like we played ball together.
At the end I stated my intention to leave the conversation and Dustin made a last comment about how he is a “hawk” and I a “dove” after I pointed out that him using the term “Lib-speak” in reference to me was bigotry, which he claimed was “speaking plainly instead of coddling” me.
Welcome to Hangtown, folks! Where anti-progress in favor of staunch conservatism is the meal of the day, every day. But the thing is, this kind of mentality comes at a cost. The same cost we see in other redneck towns, cities, counties and states across America. Dustin with his Facebook pictures of an AK-47 represent the history of America that we can get away from, but first we have to move away from town like Placerville. And here is why:
Neighborhood Scout has Placerville listed as safer than 17% of cities in the country. With your chance of being victimized 50% higher than the national average.
Area Vibes has Placerville higher than the state and national averages in the following areas: Rape, Assault, Violent Crime, Burglary and Property Crimes.
The US Census shows that as of 2010 the overwhelming majority of residents in Placerville are white (83.9%, national average is 57.6%), have no higher education (20.6% have a degree, national average is 30.7%), have a household income that is $17,000 less than the national average and that 18.4% of people are living below the poverty level compared to the national average of 15.9%.
This is in a town with 10,389 people (as of 2010, the last year figures are available for), 470 of which are “institutionalized”.
A town that votes Republican, time and time again. A town with a large narcotics problem according to the county Sheriff and my own personal experience.
I’m not someone writing about a town I’ve never been to. I grew up walking those streets and running across the rooftops of downtown businesses. I’ve ran from those cops and probably did drugs or had sexual relations with someone in the family of the people that are claiming their right to “history” and telling people to move out of town. And I did get support for a couple of people in that group when shit was going down, I know there are good people in my hometown.
But I’m not claiming it as such any longer. If the people in that group represent the vocal citizens of Placerville, they are a shitty welcome wagon and bring shame to anyone that has fond memories of watching the sunset from the field at Sierra school, walking through the sewers of downtown or ditching PE to get high in the trees at Markham. I am embarrassed for Placerville and myself. You can keep Hangtown, bigots and fools. I have my memories, you can hold on to the narrow view of the future.