Report from the Badlands

Living History in New Idria

None of us now toothless New Idrians were surprised last week when we heard that the state water board turned down our beloved deadly orange creek for cleanup.

It never surprises us when one hand of the federal government knows not what the other hand in the state government is doing. The state apparently doesn’t realize that the feds, even as I write this, are already looking at the effects that acid mine drainage wreaks throughout Orange Acres and beyond, a hideous wasteland because of the pollution caused by the old mercury mine in New Idria.

Not that the feds, who kept New Idria going in its voracious appetite for wartime munitions, are going to do anything about it either. They just like to study things.

We did receive some good news, however, from the government this week. It came from the state parks system – the same folks who want to turn the Castro-Breen Adobe in San Juan Bautista into a Disney-esque animatronics wonderland.

They threw a bunch of money at us to update and renovate our own historic Adobe and turn it into another shining example of “edutainment,” apparently because school kids today have short attention spans and even less imagination.

The Adobe used to be a “house of ill repute” for the mercury miners. Right now it’s a boring old dusty abandoned home, a still life of high times in a once bustling but now forgotten mining town. In the late 1800s the one-room funhouse was run by two big-hearted gals named Sally Splits and Charity Fork. I don’t know which came first, the names or their careers.

From behind a barrier inside the adobe shack, visitors can see two old straw beds that sag in the middle. A water pitcher and washbasin sit on a rickety table in the corner. Some dead soldiers – empty whisky bottles, that is – are piled in a corner. A whalebone corset is draped over the foot of one of the rusty brass beds. A tintype of what looks like Whistler’s Mother in a rocking chair blindfolded is framed on the wall. Some old rusty spurs, now silent, hang next to the picture.

But our leaving something to the imagination is going to change in a big way! We’re planning a fun, interactive historical exhibit that fourth graders will pester their teachers to “experience” again and again – no imagination necessary. And since the state gave a million bucks to a consulting firm in San Francisco to come up with a plan, we now know exactly what it’s going to look like.

Kids will be able to stroll through the adobe to get a “hands-on” feel for the old days of mining camp prostitution. In the corner, a player piano will be tinkering out tunes like “Lydia, oh Lydia, the Girl with the Golden Tattoo.” Children will be able to sit on the actual beds in the house – but look out! A “mischievous rattlesnake” will pop out from under the bed and hiss, triggered by a motion sensor.

A life-sized model of good ol’ Sally’s leg – replete with lace-up high-heeled boot — emerges from behind a dressing screen, waving at visitors with a “come hither” gesture.

There will be more animatronics outside, which depict the march of time. It’s 1907 and the rarest gem on earth, Benitoite, has just been discovered above the mercury mine on San Benito Mountain. Two simpleminded highgraders (benitoite thieves) are taking turns bopping each other over the heads with shovels outside Charity’s window. An audio program can be heard.

BAM, “ouch!” – BAM, “ouch!” – BAM, “ouch!”

A “mischievous” blue glowing scorpion scampers out of the pocket of a highgrader and hightails it toward onlookers, causing a moment of giddy hysteria.

At another window, an animatronic model of Charity Forks pops her head out. When you rub her nose, she says, “Is that cinnabar in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”

We think the new New Idrian Adobe “history funhouse” will go over big time with the schools, just like the state thinks animatronics is just the thing to enliven the Castro-Breen Adobe in San Juan Bautista. We’ve already enlarged New Idria’s Libertarian Rest Stop to accommodate school buses.

San Carlos Creek Update: Of course, the orange polluted creek is itself a star in our history exhibit. It flows right outside the Adobe, so kids will be able to see another important segment of California history unfolding. In a canoe, a band of Yokut Indian animatronic models can be seen furiously paddling away from Spanish missionaries, who are following close behind in another canoe. The padres are trying to entice the Indians with beads and bowls of tasteless cornmeal mush in exchange for their conversion to Catholicism and slave labor. How’s that for some real history?

Comments about the Badlands? Email Kate “Pimp Daddy” Woods at [email protected]

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