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The Little Town of Rough and Ready
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:40:50 PM Views: 7311

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in May, 2003


   We tell the tale of the little town of Rough and Ready this time. This place has changed little over the years, other than becoming, like many other little towns in the Gold Country, “quaint.” Many of the old buildings are gone, having been replaced with houses or small businesses.

   Once on the main road between Grass Valley and Marysville, Rough and Ready has been bypassed by the realignment of Hwy. 20, and now sits sleepily in a little backwater, but it’s only a few miles into Grass Valley, and the town’s residents have a lot less traffic to contend with these days. While it was the first township in Nevada County, and once of enough size and population to rival Nevada City and Grass Valley, it now has become merely a suburb of the much larger Grass Valley.

   It was once a prosperous town, for the original founders had settled there after some of them discovered large amounts of placer gold, sometimes in large chunks. The founders of the town were a company of Eastern men who arrived in the area in 1849. They were named the Rough and Ready company, after the recently elected 12th president of the U.S., General Zachary Taylor, who was known as Old Rough and Ready.

   The leader of the company was A. A. Townsend. Other men from New York and Wisconsin were among the group. The story goes that while out hunting game, one of the company stooped for a drink of water and discovered a nice hunk of gold. The company quickly moved into the area, staked claims and built cabins and a trading post, which they stocked with mining goods to divert attention from their rich diggings. Another group, the Randolph Company, had also located the strike, and the two groups compromised on the division of the area. Captain Townsend returned east and came back in 1850 with 40 men to help in the claims, but found the hillsides covered with prospectors who had staked their own claims. His own new workers soon deserted him and struck out on their own. As was the case often in the early days of the Gold Rush, the earliest miners did quite well, as the gold was on or near the surface. Later miners were not so likely to strike their fortunes. No deep mines were ever developed in the Rough and Ready area, and most of the mines were gravel, which needed lots of water, some of which was brought many miles downstream from its source through an extensive network of flumes. As an example of the type of gold found, Asa Fippin, son of John, Sr., while out hunting for the family cow, stumbled over a beautiful kidney shaped nugget that assayed at over $1200. Others attribute that remarkable find to a rancher, Perley Ladd. Nevertheless, the early claims were rich, indeed, and that fact leads to the event for which Rough and Ready is probably most famous.

   As written in the book Nuggets of Nevada County History, by Juanita Kennedy Browne, the story goes like this: It seems that one of the miners, Joe Swiegart, had a claim that a “slicker” offered to buy, if he could test it first. He (the slicker) would work the claim for a day, and if he took out $200 or more in gold, he would give the gold to Joe and buy the claim at the agreed upon price. Joe knew the claim was rich, and readily agreed. They drew up a contract, and the “slicker” began mining the claim bright and early the next day. He worked furiously at first, but as the amount of gold he harvested neared $200, he slowed down, finally quitting at about $180 worth. He took the gold and started to leave. Joe protested, but the “slicker” pointed out that he did not contract to work the whole day. Joe, in anger, proposed to his friends that they ought to string up the cheater. Most thought it was a good idea, but a few objected and pointed out the he had not done anything illegal, just dirty. Besides, the “slicker” was a U.S. citizen, and you couldn’t just string him up or even run him out of town like you could Indians, Mexicans or other foreigners.

   Someone among the angered citizens came up with a ready solution. They would secede from the Union and organize an independent government and make their own laws. So on April 7th, 1850, the Great Republic of Rough and Ready became an independent community. With this, the miners took the gold from the “slicker” and ran him out of town.

   Things went well for the Great Republic for a couple of months, but as the Fourth of July approached, the men realized that they would not be able to celebrate the holiday, as they were not part of the United States. The Fourth of July was a favorite holiday for most miners, as it reminded them of their holidays back home and it gave them an excuse to knock off work and celebrate with a bit of the old “tangle foot,” patriotic speeches, parades and general merriment. Faced with this dilemma, the group voted almost unanimously to rejoin the United States. In later years, Rough and Ready celebrated Secession Day on the last Sunday of June. Why not April? It was to prove, once again, their independent spirit!

   That spirit continued nearly a hundred years later, when the U.S. Post Office in Rough and Ready was closed for about five years during WWII. When the citizens applied for another post office, they were informed that could have the post office, but it could not have two names. They could be “Rough” or they could be “Ready,” but they could not be “Rough and Ready,” The townspeople remained adamant, and decided it would be Rough and Ready or nothing. The U.S. Postal Service relented in 1948, and that is the way it has been ever since.

   Early residents of the town were proud of the many pioneer women that lived there. A comment in the Grass Valley Telegraph of Apr. 6th, 1854, stated: “We believe that in proportion to size for a mountain village, Rough and Ready is ahead of all others in California, in the number of respectable ladies that can be collected together.”

   Another wonderful tale, if it is indeed true, about Rough and Ready is the one about Lotta Crabtree. Lotta was a protege of Grass Valley resident Lola Montez, who was notorious for her shocking lifestyle and her infamous “Spider Dance.” Lotta was a neighbor of Lola, and the dancer encouraged little Lotta, a small child at the time, in the arts of dancing and singing. Lotta would enjoy international success as an entertainer in later years; in fact, much more than Lola ever had, but she made one of her first public performances in Rough and Ready, if one is to believe the tale. During some kind of public performance, Lola supposedly lifted the precocious and very talented little 7 year old Lotta onto the large anvil in Fippin’s Blacksmith Shop, where she delighted the crowds to the extent that they showered her with coins and nuggets of gold upon the conclusion of her performance.

   Alas, that anvil is now gone. It had come across the country in a covered wagon with John Fippin. It was a big one, weighing 306 pounds, according to Frank Fippin, who ran the shop with his brother W. H... No one really knows what happened to it. The 150 pound replacement for the original anvil also disappeared, after a 2001 vehicle accident left the shop’s wall with a hole big enough to allow its theft. Another anvil was then donated to the shop by Rough and Ready residents Steve and Helen Steele (Helen is a Fippin descendant), but there isn’t much need for an anvil or a blacksmith any more. Fippin’s Blacksmith Shop still stands in Rough and Ready. It was built by John Fippin in about 1855. German born John Single, a carpenter who had come to Rough and Ready in 1856, soon built his shop adjoining Fippin’s. The shops were burned in 1859 and rebuilt, and the businesses served many generations of townsfolk as a manufacturing and repair shop for wagons, farm equipment, mining supplies and household goods. Together, the men provided many services needed by the miners and townsfolk.

   John Fippin had come to California just after the Donner Party, and he claimed that he saw the bleached bones of some of the Donner party on his hike through Emigrant Gap the following summer. He eventually settled in Rough and Ready, and became a leader in the preservation of law and order in the community, as well as a blacksmith.

   Vigilantes were often the only law enforcement available for miles around, and while bar room brawls between miners went unpunished for the most part, any man molesting a woman could find himself doing the floorless dance of death while dangling from a rope strung up in the 75 foot tall cottonwood in town known as the “Hanging Tree.”

   In 1867, John Fippin married John Single’s 21 year old daughter, Julia, and they had ten children: W.H., Frank, Anna, Anne, John, Luther, Christian, Asa, Jesse and Mary.

   John Single and his German wife, Juliana, had 5 children: John Jr., Charles, George, Joseph and Julia. Sadly, Juliana died in 1863, and he remarried another native of Germany in Rough and Ready, Katherine. She died in 1919, after bearing John 4 more children: James, Annie, Aggie and Mary.

   Two of John Fippin’s sons, W. H. (Bill) Fippin, who died in 1929, and Frank A. Fippin, who died in 1958, ran the blacksmith shop well into the 20th century, having made the transition to the repair of early automobiles.

   Of about 40 buildings in Rough and Ready just after the big boom in building, at least 20 were saloons. There wasn’t much entertainment in those days, and saloons did a booming business in most communities. Rough and Ready never was too “citified;” it remained a roaring camp for the most part. A center for the miners of the district to come and spend their gold, it catered mainly to the wants and needs of the miners.

   But Rough and Ready would eventually become civilized enough to need schools, churches and residences. The Fippin and Single families played an important part in the gentrification of Rough and Ready.

   Five members and descendants of the Fippin family have served as school trustees in Rough and Ready and two as Postmaster of the town. Joseph Single, one of the sons of John and Juliana, was once a police officer and later served as Marysville City Clerk, and even ran for the post of Yuba County Assessor.

   The family information presented here, hopefully accurately, is from Rosemary Freeland of Rough and Ready. If any of this is incorrect, there will be some chance to get it all straightened out soon. A Fippin and Single family reunion is planned for the weekend of the dedication of Chapter Ten’s plaque at Fippin’s Blacksmith Shop, on May 3rd, 2003. Family members from as far away as Washington state and southern California are planning to gather, as well as many of the descendants of the pioneer families living in Rough and Ready and environs.

   Look for more history next time.

Rating: ***** by 1 members.
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  • Kyle Ball: Retread. Smiley
    February 17, 2017, 05:13:30 PM
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  • Tom Barry: Tom Barry: Mistake on the newsletter page with the plaques. Should be Scotts Flat, not Hammon Grove.
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