Inquiring Minds Want to Know
Calaveras Enterprise 08/31/04
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ALL THAT GLITTERS By Antoinette May Herndon

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

The grand ballroom of the Hotel Leger was crammed Thursday night with Mother Lodians demanding to know the truth. For years—possibly 150 of them—a serious identity crisis has sharply divided the town of Mokelumne Hill.

Everybody agrees that the Leger is the town’s centerpiece. One of the most historic hostelries in the Mother Lode, the Leger has always been the hub of town activity. Beginning in 1851, a hotel has existed on the corner of Lafayette and Main. Its first owner was the mystery man, George Leger.

Thereby hangs a tale and a controversy. Who was George? Where did he come from? More importantly, how did he pronounce his last name? Was he French? In that case it would have been Lah-jhay. Or German—Leg-ger. Or something else entirely—Ledger.

Petite and purposeful, Annick Foucrier came all the way from Paris, France to ferret out the truth and share it with the people of Mokelumne Hill. Dr. Foucrier, a professor at the University of Paris, has been studying the French connection to the California Gold Rush for the past twenty years.

Dr. Foucrier, a professor at the University of Paris, has been studying the French connection to the California Gold Rush for the past twenty years.

Researching in her native France, Foucrier discovered letters written by miners mentioning Leger and his hotel. Not too surprising. It was quite a place. The Calaveras Chronicle once raved: “All the hotel lacks to make it the equal to any house in our rival city of San Francisco is an elevator.”

During the 1850s Frenchman paid1000 francs to join the Gold Rush—a large sum when salaries were as low as two francs a month. Many mortgaged their homes or staked their inheritance to make the journey. The plan was to stay two years and then return home fabulously wealthy.
Many of the French Argonauts remained in California. One young man wrote his mother in 1852. “In my log cabin with my dog, I am freer than the freest man in Paris.”

In the course of obtaining her doctorate in the French Gold Rush experience, Foucrier turned up George Leger’s birth record. He was born in Hesse—which is now part of Germany. Sounds like the end of the story, doesn’t it? But no, Hesse didn’t belong to Germany in 1815. George might still be French. While the Leger tombstones in the Protestant Cemetery argue for German extraction, the Hotel Leger’s original

name was the Hotel de France and George was a founding member of Mokelumne Hill’s French Society.

Julia Costello, of the sponsoring Mokelumne Hill Historical Society, maintained the society’s neutrality but said all the members had strong opinions which they’d be glad to share in the bar afterwards.

During the course of the evening, Carolyn Wagner, also representing the society, revealed the results of an informal poll of native families reaching back more than 100 years. They appeared pretty well divided between Luh-jay and Ledger with a few Leggers thrown in.

Finally, Mok Hill’s beloved matriarch, Mary Jane Garamendi got up and announced, “Our family has always called it Luh-jay.”

The visiting historian Annick Foucrier had the last word. “I don’t think residents agreed even during the Gold Rush days,” she ventured. “The Frenchmen approached the hotel desk and greeted the manager with ‘Bon Jour Monsieur Lah-Jay’ while the Americans miners just said, “Hi, George’.”

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Don’t forget Poets Night, Monday night at 7:30 at the Hotel Leger. The event is free and everyone is invited to read their work or listen to someone else’s.