When Mark Twain turned up in Angels Camp, California, he was a not-yet-known writer trying to hold onto a newspaper job in San Francisco, and the town, once a roaring gold camp was a shrinking hamlet whose easier-to-mine gold was exhausted, with the population down to a couple of hundred.
Twain, center, in the 1860s
It was a fortunate meeting for both: Twain's first published fiction, the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, put the town on the map, and gave Twain a big start on the way to fame.
And, while the original jumping frog contest likely never happened, it spawned a long series of actual contests that continue to today and have become the town's greatest claim to fame.
The Angels Hotel, where Twain stayed, still exists
For those of you who don't remember the story, it revolves around a colorful local, Jim Smiley, who compulsively bets on anything at all. Jim captures a frog, names it Dan'l Webster, and trains it to jump on command, and which he brags can jump further than any other frog in the county. A stranger doubts the boast and offers to bet on a contest—if only he had a frog. Jim goes out to find one; while he is gone, the stranger feeds lead shot to Dan'l Webster, who is then too heavy to jump and the bet is lost to the stranger.
But there's a big gap in the story; the International Jumping Frog Jubilee (yes, that's its name) didn't get started until 1928; two years later it merged with the Calaveras County Fair. It takes place the third weekend in May each year.
The rules were made quite clear, and do not allow for lead shot infusions. As you can see from some of the photos below, there came to be a truly 'international' aspect to the contest, along with some really bad puns.
Note the information on the picture above: Once the frog leaves the 'lily pad' on which it starts, no one can touch it. Serious frog owners have a strange repertory of sounds, gestures and whatever to coax the frog one. Direction is important; if the frog jumps forward six feet and then backwards six feet, it hasn't gone twelve feet, it's gone no feet.
Some more of the frog transporters on display in Angels Camp's small but charming museum. Below, an anxious crowd and some 'frog jockeys.'
So, what does winning the contest get you? If your frog sets a world record, currently set by Lee Gudici's 'Rosie the Ribiter' in 1986, you win $5,000 and international media attention (or so the organizers claim). Non-record winners get a smaller cash prize, and all winners get a brass plaque in the Hop of Fame, set into town sidewalks. Here are a few...
If you look closely at the first three, all world records in their time, you'll note that the earliest record is only four feet; the current 1986 record is 21' 5-3/4"—enough to make one wonder if some of these frogs have been dabbling in Performance-Enhancing Drugs. But hush.... don't spoil the game!
The museum contains a variety of non-frog exhibits as well, including a history of the Angels Theatre. Originally the Mother Lode Theatre in 1924, it started with stage shows. Note the prices on the ad for different seats. In 1927 it was modified for movies (the original projector is above) and incredibly has now been turned into a five-screen multiplex!
The iron stand and mangle above come from a Chinese laundry; in many of the mining towns Chinese families operated stores and other services, while some were themselves miners.
An early music machine, ancestor of the jukebox, and an early 1900s slot machine. Below, on the main street, a disheveled but original 'cigar store Indian.'