By George Stahl
Special to the Sun
The first Whiskey Flat Encampment began 15 years ago and was the first time at the annual celebration of Whiskey Flat Days that an entire area was designated as a trip back into time. It highlights a firsthand look at the struggles and challenges of everyday life as well as some of the pleasures that came along in the 1860s gold rush town of Whiskey Flat. For all of those years, it has been across from McNally’s Rodeo Grounds and is under the direction of the Lonestar Productions Whiskey Flat Encampment Co.
This year’s encampment offered a wide variety of activities for youngsters as well as some of the oldsters who were in Kernville this weekend. From learning how to throw an authentic tomahawk to weaving baskets and branding wood, the reenactors who perform the tasks of the old west shared a wealth of knowledge with the novice and more experienced guests alike.
In 1864, the town of Whiskey Flat was not a totally lawless place to live, despite rumors to the contrary. Part of that secure feeling came from men like reenactor Sheriff Rob Lambert. Lambert and a group of others began their law-keeping careers at the encampment nearly 10 years ago, when according to Lambert, “We were all U.S. Marshall back then. For some reason it was decided we should be Sheriffs instead, years back. We’ve been that ever since.” The badge stuck and today, Lambert and his men patrol the encampment and the town from time to time, like sentinels lost in a space of time.
They are not there alone. Southern Cavalrymen from the 2nd Kentucky Company C support the Sheriff in the Whiskey Flat Encampment with both a mounted and a dismounted unit. Everyday during the event, the men ride into town and attempt to help control a ‘staged’ brawl or gunfight in the streets. Much to the amazement of the weekend’s spectators, Company C usually comes out on top of the situation, only to return, like ghosts, to the encampment area to reload, regroup and refresh their horses.
Of course, the camp would not be complete without its barber, photographer, minstrel shows, Sunday Church Service and the one thing that made the town famous, next to the gold mine that sits at the edge of the camp: that wooden plank stretched across two whiskey barrels. It was Adam Hamilton who first lifted that short bar into the history of California, and the area now called the Kern River Valley. Today he has help from his alter ego, Tim Dawson, who brings Hamilton back to Whiskey Flat for the amusement and enlightenment of the crowds that gather round his establishment.
The encampment also includes the indigenous people of the valley. The tribes of men, women and children who called these hills and meadows their home, and who were here since around 3,000 years ago. They, too, share their stories and their traditions and crafts with visitors during the four-day celebration. A small band of these, from different tribes, make up the part of the camp dedicated to them and their memory.
Lifelong valley resident and Chairman of the Kawaiisu, Laughing Horse Robinson, and his wife, Kate, demonstrate how their ancestors and the Kawaiisu people, continue to practice their way of life and carry on their teaching to their children and grandchildren. “We (the Kawaiisu) are over 100,000 of the only Treatied Tribe in California, having signed the treaty with the United States on Dec. 30, 1849. We try to do all we can to teach people who visit us how we not only lived, but survived,” Robinson said. The Tubatulabal Indians, another indigenous tribe of the KRV area, were also represented at the encampment.
A part of the history of the people in the valley includes the relationship the settlers and the American Indians had with a solitary group known as Mountain Men. A part of the encampment is dedicated to their story as well. For the past 14 years, Dee Dee Moore of Porterville has been setting up camp and lives in a teepee (tipi) where she offers pointers on tomahawk tossing, skinning, hide tanning, and fur trading.
All in all, the Encampment is one attraction not to be missed at your next Whiskey Flat weekend. If you saw something interesting on your visit to this ‘Westworld’ fantasyland, maybe you’ll take the time to tell someone about it. Spreading a bit of the past can be fun, and it can also help to ensure that we all have a future.