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Death Valley encampment

Every November, thousands gather at the lowest spot in the United States for the Death Valley Encampment.

Staff writer Charles Hillinger reported in the Nov. 14, 1976, Los Angeles Times:

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL MONUMENT–“Wagons ho Gol’ durn it. Let’s go!” shouted wagon master Gerv Keten, 56, as a dozen covered wagons rolled out of Desolation Canyon.

The wagons, pulled by four-horse teams, had been on the road five days. Furnace Creek Ranch, the end of a 55-mile journey through Death Valley, was a half-day away.

Women and girls wore bonnets and long calico dresses, boys and men mostly black flop hats, red shirts, jeans and boots.

Mrs. Davy Stroller was pregnant last year on a similar drive. Now she sat beside her husband, Gary, 30, of Jamestown, Calif., holding their 4-month-old son, Brian.

“It jest makes ya fell like back in the good old days,” said Mrs. Stroller.

The Stollers and Gerv Keten were among the 3,500 men, women and children who have poured into Death Valley since Thursday for the four-day 27th annual Death Valley Encampment which ends today.

They came by covered wagon, horseback, foot, car, camper, trailer, dune buggy, bicycle and even a motorized manure spreader.

Campfires have been blazing nightly from the Confidence Hills in the south to Scotty’s Castle 115 miles north.

The entire 3,000 square miles “of this strange bottom of the world we’re sitting in,” according to Death Valley rider Paul Bailey, 70, was alive and stirring.

“Not another national park has anything like this,” observed Horace Albright, 87, the National Park Service’s second director (1928-1933) who joins the trek to the encampment each year.

The party has been an annual event since 1949, the centennial anniversary of the discovery of Death Valley.

From Ubehebe Crater to Dante’s View, Jubilee Pass and the Funeral Mountains, the valley rings with the sound of fiddlers and five-string banjos as the songs of the pioneers are played and sung under starry skies.

Bearded prospectors and female gold seekers like Panamint Annie have wandered out of the hills and left their digging to join the fun.

Del Goodwin and his wife Ofel, both in their 70s, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary leading 103 horsemen and women on a week-long ride following the old 20-mule-team Borax wagon route from Ridgecrest over the Panamint Ridge and down into the valley.

Saddle sore? Not Del or Ofel.

“Hell, Ofel and I were born in the saddle,” said trail boss Goodwin, a San Juan Capistrano rancher, as he and his wife stopped for a breather at Devil’s Golf Course, a strange formation of rock sale encrusted over mud at the bottom of a prehistoric dry lake.

At the annual Death Valley authors’ breakfast spoke of the Valley’s varmints, virgins, vandals and visionaries.”

“Death Valley has been home to the damndest bunch of earth-scratchers, crooks, gamblers and drunks that ever existed and some of the weirdest towns every spawned,” he said.

He told of Panamint City, founded in 1873. All that’s left is, fittingly, the chimney of its brewery. He also recalled Joe Simpson of the Death Valley town of 23 Skidoo, “the only man in history hung twice.”

Simpson killed a banker.

“The photographer arrived too late to record the hanging,” said Bailey. “But the citizens of 23 Skidoo rose to the occasion and obligingly hung the murderer again so the photographer could get his picture.” …

Object of the annual encampment is to perpetuate the memory of the 49ers who suffered hardships in this, the hottest spot on earth in summer, and to conserve and protest the many wonders of the Valley.

Sponsors of the event–none of whom makes one penny out of the annual get-together which costs nothing except for food and drink–are long-time devotees of the Valley, members of the Death Valley 49ers, Inc.

The Death Valley Encampment is held every year during the second full week of November. Check out the Death Valley 49ers web site.

The first two photos in the above galley accompanied Hillinger’s story in the Nov. 14, 1976 Los Angeles Times. The next three photos are from the 1983 Death Valley Encampment.  Additional photos will be added to this gallery in a future update.