Calaveras County: Still hopping to it

Los Angeles and this tiny Gold Rush town share the same "City of Angels" nickname, and the similarities don't end there.

Just as Hollywood honors its celebrities with a star on the Walk of Fame, Angels Camp gives the same treatment to its best frog jumpers — make that frog jockeys — with a spot on Main Street's Frog Hop of Fame.


Frogs are ubiquitous in this Calaveras County town, which bills itself as "Home of the Jumping Frog." The amphibian's image can be found on trash cans, billboards and just about everything in between.

During the third weekend in May, Angels Camp hosts the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee at the county fairgrounds, also known as Frogtown. The event draws people from throughout California and the United States, as well as countries as far away as Germany and Japan.


Fair-goers can bring their frogs to jump or use one of about 400 frogs housed in "frog condos," said fair spokeswoman Laurie Giannini.

"Some of them are caught local, others are from the delta," she said. "Afterward, they're all returned to their natural habitat."

The fair has a Frog Welfare Policy that dictates how the amphibians are to be cared for and handled. There's also a list of strict competition rules, such as all frogs must be at least 4 inches long. The length of a frog's jump is measured from the starting point to where it lands on its third jump.

Each frog must be registered, and each jump costs $7.

To get frogs to hop, some jockeys scream, others blow on them and a few even pucker up for a kiss.

In fact, Disney shot a promotion for its movie "The Princess and the Frog" at last year's fair.

The source of the town's frog obsession can be traced to 1865, when Mark Twain spent a few months at a nearby cabin and was inspired to write "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Legend has it, the story was told to Twain at an Angels Camp saloon by an acquaintance from his days on the Mississippi River.

"It was the story that catapulted him to fame," said Bob Rogers, administrator of the Angels Camp Museum.

In remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Twain's death in 1910, the theme of this year's fair is "Celebrating the Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain." The four-day event starts Thursday and wraps up Sunday.

There will be typical country fair entertainment, including a demolition derby, bull riding, carnival rides and a Western horse show. A Miss Calaveras and Calaveras Idol will be crowned too.

But the real attraction — and what sets this county fair apart from countless others — is the frog jump, which culminates Sunday with the International Frog Jump Championship.


The top 50 jumpers during the fair will return with their jockeys to compete in the finals.

The winner receives a $750 check, a trophy and, naturally, a spot on the Hop of Fame. If a world record is set, that jockey wins $5,000.

The current world champ — "Rosie the Ribiter" from Santa Clara — holds the record from the 1986 fair, where she jumped 21 feet, 5 3/4 inches.

Rosie and her jockey's star can be found at the base of the steps to the Calaveras Visitors Bureau on Main Street, a must-stop for visitors. While here, make sure to pick up a free copy of the "Walking Tour and Driving Map" of Angels Camp.

At the bureau's office, visitors can purchase pins, patches and shot glasses with frogs on them. Also of note is a "frogumentary" DVD called "Jump," which describes the history of the Jumping Frog Jubilee and the passion of modern-day frog jockeys. The film has won awards at film festivals throughout the country.

The downtown shopping area along Main Street is full of antiques and gift shops. A great lunch stop is the Angels Camp Mercantile, also on Main Street, which serves sandwiches, soups, salads and sweets in a comfortable atmosphere.

A quick drive north on California 49, which doubles as Main Street, is the Angels Camp Museum. It features a large collection of wagons, mining equipment and Gold Rush artifacts, as well as 3 acres of tree-shaded picnic grounds on the site of the original Angels Quartz Mine.

The museum is now featuring a new exhibit on the life of Mark Twain. In the Mark Twain Frog Room, the film "Jump" is shown alongside vintage photos of some of the first frog-jumping competitions.

There's debate over which brother the town was named for, Henry or George Angel. Most tend to favor Henry, a shopkeeper from Rhode Island who moved to town in 1848.

The first Frog Jump competition was held in 1928 to celebrate the paving of Main Street. Every year since, except 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression, the event has taken place.

Nearly 50,000 people attended last year's fair. Not bad for a town with a population of fewer than 3,500.

After jumping frogs and riding the Ferris wheel, those not in the mood to eat corn dogs and deep-fried Twinkies can head into town.

Eating in Angels Camp varies from fast-food and diner-style restaurants to more upscale places such as Crusco's Ristorante and Camps Restaurant at nearby Greenhorn Creek Resort, where there's an 18-hole golf course.

For something different, stop by the sushi bar at Angels Food Market (in the Mark Twain Shopping Center, of course) and take your lunch a short drive down the highway to Utica Park.

The park — named after the Utica Mine, which set national production records in the 1890s by producing more than $4 million in gold in 30 months — has a picnic area, pavilion, playground and bathrooms.

At one time, Utica Park held a large frog pond, but water seeped into the mining tunnels underneath, causing both water and frogs to disappear.

At the entrance to the park is a statue in memory of Mark Twain. It was donated to Angels Camp in 1945 by a motion picture company that had filmed "The Adventures of Mark Twain" starring Fredric March.

Yet another connection to that other "City of Angels."

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