Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest
Borrego Springs California
by Kent Duryee
Every year around the first of April, amidst an often spectacular show of wildflowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert, there occurs a little-known gathering of people who compete for the title "Greatest Prevaricator of All," an event honoring the "legendary" Pegleg Smith.
Just a few miles northeast of the community of Borrego Springs, at the Pegleg Smith Monument, these otherwise normal folk (aka "Pegophiles"), who are allowed to walk among the rest of us every day, gather around a bonfire in a manner directly linked to our ancient, cave dwelling primogenitors. They howl and spin swirling tales of lost gold, forgotten treasure and other desert lore. They bandy the stories about as the gospel truth. The tales then sweep up above the crowd, mingling with laughter and campfire smoke, to merge finally and usually harmlessly with the springtime stars in the dark desert sky.
Perhaps one could be forgiven if amidst the clamor and furor of the changing century, the coming of the new millennium, the annual spring ahead into Daylight Savings Time, and the merger of Lucky and Albertson's supermarkets it was forgotten that this year was the twenty fifth anniversary of the revival of the Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest. Each year since 1975, prevaricators and fabricators have convened to engage in mendacity and distortion in honor of one of the desert's most famous storytellers, Thomas Long "Pegleg" Smith.
Of course, the legend of Pegleg's lost gold mine is one of the most enduring (and endearing) treasure stories of the American Desert Southwest. Legend has it that Smith was an authentic mountain man in the nineteenth century tradition. His skills were far ranging, branching into the fields of Indian fighting, horse thievery and, of course, storytelling. While in San Francisco in the late 1800's, some might have been surprised to learn that Pegleg would regale any and all comers to the saloon with tales of a fabulously rich strike he had made in the hills of the Borrego desert. In return for a shot or two of whiskey. If they were surprised, they should not have been. After Smith's death, his stories lived on and evolved into legends that rival even the many stories of Jacob Waltz and the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona.
Of course, there can be no "true" version of the legend of the lost Pegleg Smith gold, but the essential elements are that the strike was in the Borrego Springs area, within what is now the Anza-Borrego Desert region, somewhere west of the Salton Sea, east of Coyote Canyon, and south from Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Borrego Sink. The nuggets were blackened and thus quite distinctive. All the rest of the details are left to the machinations and caprice of the Pegophiles.
Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver provided the motivation for the beginnings of the Pegleg contest. Reports differ, but sometime between 1916 and the mid-1930's, Oliver started the Pegleg Smith Club. Enjoying the perpetuation of the Pegleg stories, Oliver referred to himself as the "press agent for Pegleg's ghost." His club, composed of local Borrego residents, would meet and tell each other lies and stories. Oliver's meetings could be considered, not only the nascent Liars' Contest, but also the precursor to today's Burning Man Celebration, which takes place in the Nevada desert each year. Oliver's meetings were held on New Year's Eve. They were called the "Burning Party" because well known desert artist John Hilton would throw his "mistakes" into the fire, much to the chagrin of the other celebrants.
In November of 1947, Harry and several cronies erected a monument to Pegleg. It still stands today. While relatively unprepossessing, it is as enduring as the legends. A sign reads "Let him who seeks Pegleg Smith's gold add ten rocks to this monument." There is an imposing pile of rocks behind the sign, attesting to the strength and lasting attraction of the Pegleg legend. On January 1, 1948, Oliver sponsored the first "Lost Pegleg Mine Trek." This was the first public meeting of Oliver's club. The night before, tall tales were bandied about the fire at the new monument in preparation for the arduous trek. The event was so successful that Oliver decided to add an official Liars' Contest to the trek the following year. On January 1st, 1949, the first official Liars' Contest was held with over six hundred people in attendance. (Note that the correct spelling of "liars'" should be in the plural possessive. This is a fine point hotly insisted upon by the inner sanctum, aka Bill Jennings, of the present day contest. To do any different would, of course, blaspheme the name and tradition of Pegleg and all prevaricators the world over).
Sadly enough, the original contest lasted only a decade. The contest of 1959, due to an argument over the correct date for the contest, brought the event to an end. Then, in the autumn of 1974, a plan was hatched to restore the contest to its rightful place of honor. The first Saturday of April was chosen as the date for the contest in recognition of the many blistering cold nights Harry Oliver must have spent out howling on the desert floor while burning canvases to stay warm.
Coincidentally, Oliver's birthday was April 4th, and the first Saturday in April served as a fine reminder of the man.
The tradition, renewed in 1975, continues to this day. The event, held every year on the first Saturday night of April beginning at sunset, is always a treat. The master of ceremonies since 1978 has been Bill "Plural Possessive" Jennings, formerly of the Riverside Press Enterprise. Lowell and Diana Lindsay, authors of the preeminent guide book of the area, Guide to the Anza-Borrego Region, shoulder more responsibility for the contest than they suggest.
All comers are welcome to enter the contest. Sign up is on arrival at the contest site, which is held at the Pegleg Smith memorial, about seven miles east of Borrego Springs on Route S-22. Presentations are done in order of sign up. Stories should be of no more than five minutes in length (another little joke). They should be about lost gold and/or Pegleg Smith. Costumes and other original touches are always appreciated by the crowd and judges.
Among this year's contestants were a grizzled old prospector from Arizona's Superstition Mountains. He "brought his burro but lost his ass," reputedly at an Indian casino somewhere east of Borrego Springs. There were three "painted ladies" from the bustling town of Salton City. They were accompanied by Seldom Seen Slim, another famous desert character. Another contestant told of Pegleg's somewhat eccentric means of surveying his claims. The method involved a rock, some twine and a penguin.
After the contest, all attendees are welcome to stay and have some birthday cake in honor of Harry Oliver. It is baked by Borrego Springs School Superintendent Shanda Smith, who has supplied the cakes since the first revival. The Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest is nothing if not about having a good time in the desert. It can serve as an introduction to the lore of our desert Southwest, or as a meeting place for long time friends and new ones as well.
As the smoke from the fire twists away into the night and the last of the liars head away from the Pegleg Monument, a person can't help but wonder if those black nuggets of precious metal are still out there somewhere, under a carpet of blooms and a universe of stars.
How to get there.
To get to the Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest, take Route S-22 east for about seven miles from Christmas Circle in downtown Borrego Springs. Travel past the airport, and follow the road around a hard left turn. Continue on S-22 until the road makes another hard turn, this time to the right. The road intersecting at the corner is Pegleg Road. Turn left and find parking where you can. Bring blankets, lawn chairs and refreshments. The contest lasts between one and two hours.
Lindsay, Diana. Pegleg Liars' Contest keeps tradition and tales alive. Borrego Sun, March 30, 2000
Pepper, Choral. Desert Lore of Southern California. Sunbelt Publications, 1999. San Diego, CA. 1999.
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