Copperopolis Elementary School fourth-graders took a walk through local history on March 15 in an annual tradition that has spanned two decades.
Led by volunteers in period attire, the tour began at the bell and cannon mounted in front of the elementary school, then headed down O’Byrnes Ferry Road to the cemetery, the Copperopolis Congregational Church, the Armory and the museum next door, which only rarely opens its doors.
Along the way, students learned about the colorful past of a once-booming town that boasted a bowling alley, a fancy French restaurant and mines that were primary copper suppliers for the nation throughout the Civil War and both World Wars.
Some of the youngsters were drawn to the more morbid details of the tour, such as the first murder committed in Copperopolis, when a young man shot his romantic rival in the street in 1901 and proceeded to “blow himself to smithereens” with dynamite, according to head docent Linda Beck.
The students were tasked with finding the tombstones of the two men, who were buried within eyeshot of each other.
“I was surprised that there was actually a crime committed here in Copper, because nothing bad ever happens here. I’ve been around for 10 years, and I haven’t seen anything bad happen,” said Mason Walker, age 10.
Drew Chapman, also 10, said he thoroughly enjoyed learning about local history, despite the large amount of walking that the field trip entailed.
“History is cool,” Chapman said. “It’s important to learn about what was here before it was a town. … We had another tour in second grade, but we were a bit shorter then, so we couldn’t walk that far.”
When asked if he enjoys living in a historic small town, Chapman replied, “I’ve lived here my whole life. I like Copperopolis. It’s not too bad, but in the summer, it’s a desert.”
According to Beck, the annual tour began roughly 20 years ago when the Copperopolis Community Center was seeking to curate a historic district. In order to qualify, there needed to be an educational element for children. Volunteers from the center began reading up on local history, dressing in old-fashioned garb and collaborating with school officials to create an experience for local fourth-graders, who were learning about state history as part of their curriculum.
The historic district did not come to fruition, but the tour has remained a special day that students look forward to each year.
Community center volunteer Karen Kaja has organized the tour since 2006 and says she will likely continue in the role “until I drop.”
Kaja and her husband used to move often from state to state, and Kaja would attend tours in each new place to orient herself and indulge her love of history.
“I think you should always be learning and that everybody should know the history of where they live,” Kaja said.
Not all of the tour volunteers are local. History buffs Amelia Thomas and Aaron Ehlers make the journey from the Bay Area each year to teach students about period clothing and military life.
Ehlers was recruited quite by accident six years ago when he was visiting his parents in the area. His curiosity led him to attend the tour, and every year since, he and Thomas have visited Copperopolis as one of their stops statewide, educating the public about United States military history with the Eagle Field Foundation.
“This area is beautiful and rich with history,” said Thomas, who hand-sews all of her Victorian Era clothing. “You can walk out to the old mines and still find pieces of history.”
Toward the end of the tour, students were able to try on old-fashioned garments and learn how they were made. They also learned about famous local characters like Black Bart and Madame Felix during a rare viewing of the Copperopolis Museum, led by Calaveras Telephone Co. purchasing agent Alvin Broglio.
But for some students, the most interesting slice of history was right on their school campus. The old schoolhouse bell, cast in 1860, was stolen by a University of the Pacific sorority and was missing for 20 years before it was recovered. The bronze cannon, which was used for training and ceremonies throughout the Civil War, was almost hauled off as scrap during the turn of the last century, but was saved by the last surviving Copperopolis Blues Union Guard, William Vickery.
“I liked learning about the bell and cannon,” said 9-year-old Lena Cunningham. “I like how she said that somebody took the cannon, and a guy brought it back. They were like ‘Oh, you have my cannon, you gotta bring it back.’ It was really interesting.”
For information on Copperopolis history and how to get involved as a volunteer, visit copperopoliscommunitycenter.blogspot.com.