HORSEPOWER FOR BEANS
ByKirke C Jorgensen
Author’s note: At the Ghost of the Sagebrush event in August of 2016, my wife Venita Jean McPherson Jorgensen and I were pleased to attend, along with Barry McPherson, my brother-in-law. (Barry and Venita are the grandchildren of Mono Inn’s original owner, Venita Reche McPherson.) He brought to my attention there were several inquiries, as to the whereabouts and fate of the small “donkey” engine that used to be at Mono Inn. In the early 1960’s when the Inn was sold by Mrs. McPherson’s son Wallis, he saved the engine, and later gave it to me, his son-in-law Kirke C Jorgensen. I am pleased to announce the engine has been completely restored to as-new running condition, and is often displayed at Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association (EDGE&TA) events in northern California, usually running a buzz saw cutting wood. The following tale of Mono Lake lore was related to me over several years, and certainly second and third hand by now, so enjoy it, but you may take it with a few grains of Mono Lake salt.
No one knew at the time, but in the spring of 1935 the country was only half way through the Great Depression. The citizens of Mono County had not been spared the hard times, although self-reliance, neighborly cooperation, and the hardy determination of ranchers, miners, and shopkeepers had faired them better than those in the old, big cities. So, when 4 strangers knocked on the door of Mono Inn and asked for lodging, they were welcomed in as paying customers. Mono Inn, just north of Lee Vining and the old Tioga Road to Yosemite, was a natural stop-over spot between Los Angeles and Reno on state Highway 395. The moneyed Los Angeles crowd still made their summer pilgrimages to Yosemite, Bridgeport, Virginia Lakes, and Mammoth Lakes, so the Inn had stayed afloat as a convenient tourist stop. Having one of the few liquor licenses in Mono County also helped! The Inn’s owner, Mrs. Venita Reche McPherson, was proud of her establishment and enjoyed being a gracious hostess to all visitors.
After the evening meal in the dining room overlooking Mono Lake, the men explained they had not just stopped by accident. They produced documents identifying themselves as stockholders and owners of “THE COLLOIDAL GOLD EXTRACTION ASSOCIATION”, and wanted to set up their experimental mining operation on the Mono Lake shore belonging to Mrs. McPherson. They would offer $50 per month to use a bit of land for living quarters and equipment set up, and all the lake water they could pump. They produced cash in hand to seal the deal. Mrs. McPherson was a skilled businesswoman, and could see no harm, and only gain, so she readily agreed.
A few days later, three more men arrived in a new 1935 Ford stake-bed with dual rear tires, loaded down with what appeared to be 5 tons of equipment on a 2 ½ ton truck. However, the driver bragged that with his 8 speeds forward and 85 horsepower V-8 under the hood, he had made the torturous Sherwin Grade north of Bishop in 3rd underdrive at 10 mph, and had passed by similarly laden trucks, a Dodge 4 and a Diamond T 6, “like they was standin’ still.” And, nestled among the pipe, flumes, tools, tents, and equipment was a small factory wooden crate with a brand new Fairbanks Morse “Z” style “C” 3 horsepower engine inside.
Work progressed rapidly, and within a week a series of flumes, pipes, settling basins, and drain ditches were set up. A centrifugal water pump was hooked by a long belt to the Z engine. The process these men were using is not clearly understood, but chemicals were added to the settling basin water and were supposed to capture any gold suspended in the Mono Lake water, which then passed through finer and finer mesh filters.
For three months the little engine wheezed and coughed as the strain of the pump caused the governor system to alternately engage then release. It was stopped at least once, over Easter weekend, in respect for the day, but on Monday morning workers discovered a varmint had eaten a substantial portion of the leather flat belt. Repairs were made and the pumping operation was soon back in business.
While Mrs. McPherson had been getting the monthly $50 for land use regularly, the operation had begun to sign for groceries at her General Store. During the fourth month of “mining” she felt some settlement was due, and the promotors assured her success was just around the corner, their colloidal extraction process was near perfection, and payment would be made just as soon as the first gold sale was made. At the same time, she noticed the quality of groceries purchased changed from a variety of items, to almost exclusively the cheapest item in the store, Heinz beans.
Needless to say, as with so many mining dreams, schemes, and hopes, this one did not “pan out.” After 5 months of pumping thousands of gallons of lake water and trying numerous chemical and filtering schemes, the men could show less than a thimble full of some yellowish substance that might or might not have been gold. Mrs. McPherson demanded immediate settlement of the grocery bill, as at least a dozen cases of beans had been given on account and eaten by this time. As the weary men packed up the Ford truck, they offered her the only item of real value, the Z engine. The Inn needed an engine, so the swap was made of beans for horsepower, Mrs. McPherson coming out at the better end of the deal.
For nearly three decades the little Fairbanks performed ranch chores faithfully, still mounted on the original hardwood skids, and attached to a concrete slab below the Inn. It ran a buzz saw that cut cords of firewood each season, to fuel the huge wood cook stove in the kitchen. It pumped fresh water from an irrigation ditch to water the lawns below the Inn. Still later, it turned a concrete mixer for building repairs. It produced a lot of work over its many years, but not, as far as we know, any ore but fool’s gold.