Bodie State Historic Park, CA
Bodie's Windows to the Past
photos and article by Kristine Bonner
Bodie, California - Only five percent of the buildings that were present at the town’s height in the 1880s are left. Fires and the passage of time destroyed the rest before its 1962 designation as a state historic park began its preservation. Today it exists as a poignant reminder of times gone by, accessible by a long partly unpaved road that may be snowed in over the winter. A famous quotation, written by a little girl in her diary in the 1800s reads, "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie."
Stepping on dusty streets whose original inhabitants are long gone, peering in past ripply glass windows to see antique bottles, peeling wallpaper, old shoes and worn chairs, visitors to Bodie can view a moment in time gone by, preserved by the contents of this fascinating historic ghost town.
An old painting is unrecognizable, its center having peeled away. Yet it draws the eye and the imagination - what image comforted the inhabitants of this house, in this town so far away from outside contact? In the winter, the snow could get up to 20 feet deep, with winds up to 100 mph and temperatures in the minus 30s or 40s. The isolation is mind-numbing to ponder – it's hard to think how it must have been endured.
All around, modern-day children are getting history lessons as they crunch the gravel underfoot on the way from house to house, from church to general store, and to boarding house. The kids picture perhaps that people in olden times lived with broken floorboards and bare bedsprings. The dogs brought along with the day visitors look around in puzzlement, sensing all the signs of habitation without the smells of a current presence.
The lines of the old buildings pitch precariously at every turn. The wood is blistered and peeling, presenting marvelous textures next to the silvery glass. Museum piece bottles form still lives on the dusty peeling tables, and hints of other days lie strewn within the houses just waiting for an eye to perceive their particular beauty. Meanwhile the clouds and sky are reflected back from the glassy surfaces, imprinting the present moment on the view of the past within.
The museum is full of the items of everyday - the watchman's thick clock, the women's irons, hair curlers and sewing needles. There is a glass case of early photographs of unknown people with a plea from the park historian for help with their identification. A ledger book contains the wages of the mine workers, up to eight dollars a month – high enough to explain the town's appeal to working men.
A looseleaf notebook in the museum holds an enormous number of letters from people, some who visited as children, and had not written back until adulthood. They all contain a common narrative, the story of some item, an old shoe, a nail, rocks, even a flower, that were picked up and removed from the town, resulting in some kind of bad luck. Stories of unlikely falls, blows to the head, and financial disaster are all represented in this litany of regret. These letters to the park staff were all accompanied by the item originally taken, with expressions of deep remorse and hope that the ghosts of Bodie would forgive them and lift the bad luck that had befallen them. The park's staff doesn't discourage these rumours, as they surely result in less theft at this historic site.
Some people toss pennies and dollars into the rooms in the fashion of a wishing well, perhaps hoping for ghostly blessings of some kind. One of the "money rooms" is in the old Methodist Church, the only church still standing. It was vandalized at one point. One of the items stolen was an oilcloth of the Ten Commandments, ironically.
The other money room is an old bedroom in one of the few houses that allows entry. The rooms, aside from the main entryway, are sealed off with chicken wire. You can look at the old kitchen, envisioning the life of the family that lived here. In another room, an old bedstand still complete with its mattress stands with little piles of coins on it, acccompanied by a bedside table. One of the letters in the museum notebook told the tale of two little girls who managed to sneak some of the money here when their parents' backs were turned, planning to buy ice cream later. They returned the precise amount. One feels the ghosts of Bodie forgave them.
Ripply window glass creates an impressionistic effect on the contents of this room, providing viewers with their own "still life of Bodie".
"Holeproof Hosiery" proclaims a poster of the day, as seen through a store window, along with many other creams and powders that might be familiar to the women of today. The desert sky is reflected back in the window, creating a sense of congruence of the past and present, leaving the visitor with a feeling of being between times.
Peering over the windowsill of this room reveals a room less well preserved than some others, but elegant in its own right - a study in neutrals, and the effects of time.
A trip to Bodie provides the visitor with lots of images of time and the past, and of the windows to our own experience, even as we look through the glass to glimpse the life and times of others.
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