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What: “El Dorado’s True Gold, Notable Women’s Stories”
Who: Placerville Shakespeare Club
Where: Shakespeare Clubhouse, 2940 Bedford Ave. in Placerville
When: Friday, Oct. 11 doors open at 6 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 20 doors open at noon
Information: Margriet at 530-621-1126, Joy at 916-505-6964 or e-mail [email protected]
It’s a man’s world, or so the adage goes, and likely it was even tougher to be an intelligent, ambitious woman who wanted to live out her dreams, a century ago and more.
Strong women of that day had to live “in the gray areas” of society, as Placerville Shakespeare Club member Ellen Osborn describes it, and often they ended up leading lonely lives, barren of children and absent of close relatives who could remember them and pass on their stories.
Enter the Shakespeare Club, whose members have taken on the hugely difficult — but highly rewarding — task of presenting the stories of 13 women who lived in El Dorado County in a time that spans the 1850s to the 1920s.
Some of the names will be familiar to those attending “El Dorado’s True Gold, Notable Women’s Stories,” character vignettes performed by members of the Shakespeare Club wearing period costumes. But most of those portrayed are not well known, with their fascinating stories sitting in dusty archives at the El Dorado County Museum and in other resources tackled by Osborn and other volunteers.
It hasn’t been easy to resurrect the 13 lives, and the women of the Shakespeare Club are eager to tell the stories, letting the long-dead women speak once again.
Likely the ladies were not the quiet types, in their own time.
“Very few of them had ‘normal’ lives,” said Osborn, who has volunteered at the county museum for 14 years and did much of the research for the project. “Four of them were divorced, at a time when divorce was not common, five never married and seven had no descendants.
“That made the research a bit more difficult,” said Osborn.
The women were ahead of their times, accomplishing goals often achieved only by the men in the community. One was a sheriff’s deputy, another a doctor, and yet another the publisher of the local newspaper, the Mountain Democrat.
Mollie Carpenter, who became the Democrat’s publisher in 1903, will be portrayed by Merrilee Heffernan, who is serving as director of the production, scheduled for two performances.
Heffernan’s character will conduct interviews of the other dozen ladies, taking them through vignettes of about three minutes each, to give the crowd a glimpse of their long-ago lives.
The women will speak for themselves, however, with the months and months of research condensing into about an hour of entertainment and education for those lucky enough to score a $20 ticket.
“Our volunteers are pretty beat up,” said Shakespeare Club President Joan Geel of the impressive undertaking. “We’re hoping that after the performance locally, we will be making the presentation to other groups, particularly those interested in local history.”
“El Dorado’s True Gold: Notable Women’s Stories” will be performed twice at the Shakespeare Club, 2940 Bedford Ave. in Placerville. The first show is Friday, Oct. 11, with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the performance set for 7:15. The evening includes a dessert buffet.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, the doors will open at noon for an afternoon tea performance, with tea served at 1 p.m. and the performance to follow.
Tickets for both presentations still are available; call Margriet at 530-621-1126 or Joy at 916-505-6964 or e-mail [email protected] Tickets also may be purchased at the Cary House Hotel on Main Street in Placerville.
It could be argued that one of the most colorful of those who will be portrayed during the two inaugural performances is a woman who became a madam, providing the men of the Placerville area with a desired service while pocketing enough money to keep her in fancy riding outfits and pay for her high quality horses.
“Emigrant Jane” was reputed to have made enough money running her “fandango house” somewhere in the Bedford Avenue area to sport a belt of gold coins as she rode through town. Her employees were known to have come to the forefront in times of desperate need, such as when an influenza outbreak swept the area, serving as nurses.
“Each character speaks for herself,” Osborn emphasized. “In researching this project, we used eight published sources, including Paolo Sioli’s ‘History of El Dorado County.’ What we found is that there is not much mention of women in many of the accounts. Women have been getting short shrift. Despite their accomplishments, their lives didn’t make it into the ‘official record.'”
“El Dorado’s True Gold” is a step in correcting that situation, with stories focusing on the accomplishments and sheerly remarkable lives of the ladies.
Take the Pie Lady. She sold the miners of the Gold Rush a slice of pie and a cup of coffee for $2.50, and ended up in her later years with a respectably hefty purse. She also got the very first divorce in El Dorado County, at a time when divorce would not be granted without going through a jury trial.
And, of course, the members of the jury all were men.
The Pie Lady won the divorce … and ended up later marrying one of the jurors. One has to wonder …
The stories also include the first woman doctor in Placerville, Etta Farmer, who volunteered for duty in France during World War I. The U.S. Army didn’t accept women physicians at that time, so Farmer was able to serve under the auspices of the Red Cross, helping wartime refugees during a horrible flu epidemic that rivaled the more traditional tragedies of war.
After mining for the lives of the 13 women, one might expect that all the nuggets had been uncovered. Not so, according to Geel.
“There were many other women we considered, but didn’t take on, because we wanted to keep the time down,” the club president said.
The costumes that will be worn by the actors are as true as possible to the era depicted, with club member Joyce Francies handling much of that chore. Francies used a variety of sources, including photographs and vintage patterns, to come up with the historical clothing.
Asked what those who attend will take away from the presentation, Geel said not only will there be a healthy helping of history for the audience, “There also will be some great desserts,” said Geel.