As featured in the 2018 July/August issue of the Gold Prospectors Magazine. To Receive the Gold Prospectors Magazine, click here to subscribe.
By Tom Massie
The very first Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association outing was at Italian Bar, Thanksgiving 1976. When I say Italian Bar, it’s not a drinking bar, it refers to a bar in the river — a gravel bar. It was an old historical mining camp founded by an Italian named Nervy. I don’t know how the Buzzard, my father, found the piece of property, but it was 160 acres of deeded, patented, mining property on the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. When LDMA purchased it, it was in absolute disrepair. There were two places on the property where people had been dumping for years. Old beds, refrigerators, sofas, a variety of trash. There had been old hippie encampments in different areas. And, since it was deeded land, it was difficult for the Forest Service or anybody to run the hippies off, or squatters.
I was starting junior high. Most weekends were spent cleaning up those trash dumps, making numerous hauls up the hill. Italian Bar isn’t the easiest place to get to, but not all that difficult either. The road in is a windy, cliff-laden bumpy road. We set up a big canvas military tent and members started fanning out to do a bit of dredging, highbanking, and sluicing. It was slow going at first. I remember Dick Case coming up and saying to the Buzzard that there isn’t any gold on this property. And, about an hour later, there was the wife of a member who plucked a nugget as big as your thumb out of a crevice in a boulder, and everybody in camp went wild.
Later on, I remember seeing a greenhorn pull a nugget out the size of your fist with a hook on the end. We called it the hook-arm nugget. He had it in a fruit jar and it was banging around on the glass and it broke the hook off. The last day of the outing, a storm rolled in and dumped a lot of rain. The river came up and in the middle of the night, the Buzzard sent me down with some other guys to pull equipment from the river so it wouldn’t get washed away. I remember walking with Forrest Larson. There was a pond off to the side of the river that had leaves all on the top of it. It looked like solid ground but it was just leaves on top of water. I stepped off in it the day before and knew what it was, but Forrest hadn’t. He stepped right into it before I could warn him and went up to his waist in water. I reached out to give him a hand, but he was still confused and went deeper into the water and it went over his head. He eventually came out the other side. I told Forrest he’d better go back and dry off before he got hypothermia. He was drenched soaking wet.
Over the years I’ve seen many a nice nugget come out of Italian Bar. I remember spending my summer vacation tending dredge for the Buzzard. He eventually moved down the canyon to his own claims. It was difficult to get in and out of the canyon walls. He eventually found a “glory hole” down there, and pulled out over 800 ounces in a pocket, but that’s another story! I remember every day during the summer packing in five gallons of gas, an extra weight belt, hauling rocks, tossing rocks, moving lots of rocks — working every day except Sundays. I remember when the fair went to town, he gave us the Sunday off and I went into town with Stuart McClure. We were walking off the main drag when some local guys in a pickup truck drove by and whistled at our dates. I took offense and gave an evil stare to the driver of the pickup truck. He stopped, got out like he wanted to fight. Day in and day out of dredging will definitely toughen you up. I thought if I got beat up and put in the hospital, it would be better than going back down into the canyon to the rock hauling death camp every day. I took a turn and stepped toward him, and he immediately jumped back in his pickup truck and drove away.
We walked a little way further and got in Stuart’s truck to head back down to Italian Bar. As we were getting in, there were five pickup trucks loaded with guys that were trying to hail us. I wasn’t expecting much help from Stuart, and one on two is fine with me, but one on 20 probably wasn’t very good odds. So, we headed out and started to drive back to Italian Bar. Our dates were really scared. As we headed down the road, all five trucks were following us. I thought it was pretty brave of them to follow us down Italian Bar Road. Maybe they thought we were just falling into their plan to get us on these back roads out here and have their way with us. As we pulled into Italian Bar camp, there was a big bonfire going with about 50 members gathered around, probably already passed the bottle around a few times. There had been somebody driving through camp before and shooting a shotgun in the air, and had everyone a little on edge. So, when they saw our parade pull in, it must’ve aroused them all. I still wanted to fight them. It was better to get beat up than to go back to the rock mines. So, we stopped and let our dates out, and they went up to the campfire. I continued on to the bridge across the river and stopped in the middle of the bridge and got out to face them. Two of the trucks pulled up, the other three were slightly behind them. They started to pile out. I walked to the front of the bridge to meet them.
Just then, I could see over their shoulders what looked to be about 50 rugged miners, some with shotguns, some with shovels, and some with chainsaws. It startled me. It was everyone who’d been sitting around the campfire that was coming down to see what was going on. I don’t know what our dates had said to everybody, but they looked like a motley crew. Those guys driving the trucks that had followed us in must’ve looked over their shoulders because they piled back in their trucks very fast, and were peeling out heading back up the hill. They’re probably still telling the story today about when they drove down into this crazy miners camp. That was the night that the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association probably saved my life, who knows.
The second Lost Dutchman’s Camp was in Stanton, Ariz. I flew out there with my dad to meet a real estate agent who took us out there in his Jeep. When we got there, the place looked pretty run down. The roof on the hotel was half off. The adobe buildings were coming apart. And, there were tumbleweeds everywhere. It didn’t look anything like it looks today. The old ghost town is something that the Lost Dutchman’s can pat themselves on the backs for. If the Buzzard hadn’t purchased it and made it a camp, there probably wouldn’t be much of a town left. But, through the efforts of the membership and the restoration that took place, Stanton is one of the best kept original ghost towns in the country. I remember Antelope Creek ran water all year long, and we would swim in it when it would get hot. And yes, I actually mean swimming. There was ponds big enough to swim around in. Nowadays it seems like it only runs water during the heavy rain. I have lots of fond memories of Stanton — many New Year’s Eve parties, lots of nuggets found with the metal detector and lots of nickels lost playing poker.
I like to collect scorpions from around and under the rocks by the old buildings. When I was going to college in Fairbanks, Alaska, I had a roommate who had a pet snake. I wanted to have a pet too, so while I was visiting Stanton during New Year’s and Christmas, I decided to gather up a jar full of scorpions. I probably would’ve gotten in trouble for taking that jar of scorpions on the plane with me back to Fairbanks, even more trouble if that jar had broken open and the scorpions escaped on the plane. Scorpions on a plane. But, I got them there. Found an old terrarium. Dumped them in there. I kept them all spring and fed them crickets. It was fun to watch them devour the crickets. When the summer mining season hit, I had to go to work. I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t want to just kill them, so I took them out into the woods and let them go. I guess it was pretty much the same thing as killing them, but it made me feel better to think that maybe they survived, and now they’re the most northern scorpions in the world.
Duisenburg, a camp named after the automobile that was called a Duisenburg, is another one of my favorite Lost Dutchman’s camps. It was only about three hours’ drive from where I used to live at the headquarters in Temecula, Calif. Sometimes when life would get too hectic, I would drive up to Duisenburg and find a secluded spot out in the desert and just build a campfire and look up at the stars and make the world right again.
That is one of the real treasures of the club. Having members that have a like interest in prospecting and looking for gold, that makes no one a stranger. You have common ground with everyone in the club. I have so many fond memories of friends that I’ve met through the club. I think back to my early years in high school and in college, and the members that I associated with. Some of them have passed on now, but it was a real gift to be able to call someone who was 30, 40, even 50 years older than me a friend. And to cross generations, to be treated as an equal and not looked down upon. I learned a lot from those old timers (as I liked to call them). Now, I guess I’m the old timer. When my father the Buzzard passed away, it was a difficult time for me, but time marches on. And, now I get around to the different LDMA camps, and remember places where we prospected together and found gold.
I remember the first outing at the Loud Mine in north Georgia. They had been mining sand and gravel at the Loud Mine, but they weren’t selling much sand and gravel. The whole operation was just a guise so that they could turn dirt to get gold. I’m guessing permitting was easier for a sand and gravel operation than a gold operation in those days. The Buzzard rented a tractor. He was trying to move some of the tailing around when he got the tractor stuck. And, when the Buzzard got something stuck, he really got it stuck. That old Georgia red clay had sucked up around that tractor and stuck it good. We called in a big tow truck, hooked onto it with a wench, and wound up pulling that tractor in too, snapping the engine block. Luckily, it dried up some, and after hours and hours of shoveling, we eventually got it out.
The Buzzard had a nose for the gold. A few years later, we had an outing and we brought in an extend-a-hoe to try going deep. I dug in the exact same spot where Buzzard had stuck the tractor a few years before. As we got down, the water started coming in in earnest. We were digging down a good 25 feet, and coming up with decomposed quartz veins. We were running this material though highbankers. The first cleanup, it was obvious that the material was rich with wire gold. As I was panning, I would get stuck with slivers of gold. My little vial had filled up full of this wire gold. Just then, somebody handed me a Coke bottle that hadn’t been blown up. It was a plastic vial that said, “Here, fill this up.” I thought it was pretty optimistic to be able to fill that full of gold, but we did fill it up; and three others just like it. The gold looked like you took a box of toothpicks and broke them in your hands and threw them together. Beautiful gold, rich gold — 64 ounces of beautiful north Georgia wire gold. That was a cleanup and a split for the record. Eventually that hole sluffed back in with water and material and I’m still dreaming about getting back down into that hole.
I used to think that West Coast gold was superior to East Coast gold. But that is no longer the case. I’ve found many a nice nugget at Oconee and the Vein Mountain camps, some of the other Lost Dutchman’s Camps on the East Coast. Plus, at Vein Mountain I’ve found some beautiful pieces of topaz. Some people say that Lost Dutchman’s is a camping club, but I disagree. It’s a people’s club, a prospectors and miners club.
I’ve often dreamed about retiring and spending my winters like a lot of other snowbirds at Stanton, Ariz. Then when things start to warm up a little bit, move on over to Duisenburg Camp. Then when things start getting a little warmer, move up to the Italian Bar Camp. Then when things still get warmer, move on up to Scott River, then over to the Finley Camp. Then on up to Alaska to cool off for the summer. Then when things get too cool, head to eastern Oregon to the Burnt River Camp, then over to the Blue Bucket Camp. Then as things start to cool down, head to the East Coast … Vein Mountain, North Carolina. Then to South Carolina to Oconee. Then to north Georgia to the Loud Mine. Then eventually circle back around to Stanton, and just make that circle for a few years, moving from camp to camp; what a dream. I have so many fond memories of my mom and dad, my brother, my kids, my wife, my family at the different outings and trips and adventures that we’ve had through the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association. An association built on permanency. The best titles and ownership of land that one can have. I have discovered a lot through the club, but I’m really looking forward to discovering more. So, here’s to you and yours. I hope to see you out in the diggin’s, or maybe up at the campfire to swap some stories.