Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Missing Sutter's Mill

Sutter's Mill, by Dan Fogelberg

In the spring of Forty-seven so the story it is told
Old John Sutter went to the mill site and found a piece of shining gold
Well, he took it to the city where the word like wildfire spread
And old John Sutter soon came to wish he’d left that stone in the river bed
For they came like herds of locusts...every woman, child and man
In their lumbering Conestogas they left their tracks upon the land

Some would fail and some would prosper
Some would die and some would kill
Some would thank the Lord for their deliverance
And some would curse John Sutter’s mill

Well, they came from New York City and they came from Alabam’
With their dreams of finding fortunes in this wild, unsettled land
Well, some fell prey to hostile arrows as they tried to cross the plains
And some were lost in the Rocky Mountains with their hands froze to the reins


Well, some pushed on to California and others stopped to take their rest
And by the spring of Eighteen-sixty they had opened up the West
And then the railroad came behind them and the land was plowed and tamed
When Old John Sutter went to meet his maker, he’d not one penny to his name


And some would curse John Sutter’s Mill
Some men’s thirsts are never filled.

Before he came to America my Spouse listened to a good deal of music that embodied the nation. In particular the above words, and the message and music of Dan Fogelbeg struck an inner chord that can even now barely be transcribed. One day my Spouse found himself living not just in that country but in the very area depicted in the tune: in the Gold Country near Sutter's Mill. I know the impact that song could have on a heart, for I felt it too. Within weeks of my arrival Spouse played the song as we raced with freedom and joy along a highway near Folsom, California. I was overwhelmed with a wistfulness, almost a grief combined with triumph that I could not understand.
I had heretofore known next to nothing about the California Gold Rush, John Sutter, Dan Fogelberg's music or about the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I was introduced to the melody of 'Sutter's Mill' I felt, inexplicably, as though I had lived there for all of my life- and indeed, felt a kinship with the brave and striving souls who had 'opened up the west.'
Though their stories were long chapters before my time I felt a deep sadness at the loss of the travellers who had not made it to California and a crushing melancholy and love for that beautiful place I now lived in.
History was veritably seeping from every layer of the ground, was in every tree and mountain and lake that we visited or lived near to in Northern California.
After we left California for the last time three years ago we played 'Sutter's Mill' on the long and homesick drive. We have not done so since. We could not bring ourselves to listen to one note of it while being so far away.
We promised that on the return journey, which we are coming to realise is inevitable, we would play that tune and think gratifyingly of those courageous pioneers as we entered the West once again.
I myself vowed that I would somehow let Dan Fogelberg know of our deep yearning for California and how much the song had meant to us regarding the spirit of the place that we considered home.
I regret now that I did not do it, for sadly the singer passed away just over a month ago.
The song needs to be heard. It conveyed to us then, and continues to do so, a personal intimation of home and history and of all that walk before us with the aim to make the world a better place.


Anonymous said...

I have not heard the song nor have I ever been to Sutter's Mill. I have not had much interest in the Gold Rush, but your words helped me hear and feel the hopes and dreams of the many people who sought their fortune in difficult and challenging times.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Thanks for your kind words. That's just what I was trying to say. It's a part of the history and fabric of this country and of my experience in California. I didn't refer to it directly in the article (I avoid self-referencing the blog when I can) but where I wrote 'this song needs to be heard' that is a link to where you can play the song if you chose.

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