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Miner has a nose for gold

Miner has a nose for gold

October 1969: “Pretty good week, huh honey?” says Jess (Java) Coffey as he spills his diggings on the counter of USB bank in San Andreas in front of teller Vernagae Lee.

In a Oct. 13, 1969, Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Charles Hillinger reported:

“I’m a marked man,’ declared Jess (Java) Coffey as he walked into the bank at San Andreas clutching  his poke.

The bag was filled with gold.

“I’m followed into the hills–watched through binoculars. I have a helluva time trying to shake people constantly on my tail.”

All his life, Coffey, now 70, has been in pursuit of gold.

He makes his home with his wife, Dorothy (he calls her “the kid” because she is only 64) in the Calaveras County seat.

They live in a new $20,000 home.

“It’s our gold house. If it wasn’t for the gold we wouldn’t be living here,” said the loquacious, skinny miner. He is 5 feet, 10 inches and weighs 112 pounds.

Coffey walked up to teller Vernagae Lee, spilled his sack of gold onto the counter, snickered and said:

“Pretty good week, huh, honey?”

The old man has a hunch he may be the last gold miner left in the West who still banks his poke. Coffey keeps his gold in safe deposit boxes at the United California Bank.

Treasury Department officials point out that there are no restrictions on holding, transporting or selling gold in its natural state. There are laws, however, against hoarding it after it has been melted or reshaped.

Coffey insists he is constantly followed to the hills because he has an uncanny trait.

“I can smell the gold in the ground,” he said.

“This country’s pretty well picked over. But there’s still spots here and there that have been missed.

“Don’t look like a miner, do I?” he said, squinting through his spectacles. “Haven’t got a beard–haven’t got a jackass.”

“But I’ve been putting gold in the bank since I starting snipin’ as a kid of 8. There’s hardly a spot I’ve missed between Oregon and Mexico.”…

This photo by retired staff photographer John Malmin accompanied Hillinger’s story in  the Oct. 13, 1969, Los Angeles Times.

The 1972 autobiography “Bacon & Beans from a Gold Pan,” by George Hoeper, covers Coffey’s life. In the book, Jesse and Dot Coffey (different spelling from Hillinger’s  article) tell of their turning to gold mining during the Great Depression.

For more, check out this related From the Archive blog post: 1932 gold prospecting in San Gabriel Canyon.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

Follow Scott Harrison on Twitter and Google+

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