Placerville, 1888 — Galoots in mud boots by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By Vintage Photos

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I had no idea that part of me had come from this place, a California boardwalk town in the northern Sierras. I’d grown up in Massachusetts. Save for one trip to California when I was 10, I knew California as a distant, colorful place that gift packages materialized from, sent by my West Coast aunts and grandmothers, boxes full of kites and kimonos, Chinese hats and puzzle tricks, gongs and horns and incense, all from San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I knew that my father had been born in Butte, Montana and lived through his teens in San Diego where, he insisted, there was nothing to do but chase desert jackrabbits through the cactus.

At 18, my father left San Diego. He sailed the ocean seas during the Great Depression and met my mother at a communist party gathering in New York. I grew up in New England, attended school there, and can still sling a wicked pissah South Boston accent. I was no Californian.

I suppose I could have known about my wild western heritage but my father seemed eager to keep a distance between himself and his childhood past. Nevertheless, forbidden California beckoned to me like the gold rush. I headed west after college and landed in San Francisco.

California felt strange but familiar. Still, I knew nothing of this old time family connection. I was full of radical theater, collective living, identifying more closely with Italian commedia actors and jazz musicians than anything requiring muddy boots, a crumpled hat, and the company of galoots. Then, this photo arrived in a manila envelope from my aunt Laura, the family archivist.

The Degelman boot shop

The gentlemen pictured — note, not a woman in sight — have lined up in front of my great grandfather’s boot shop in Placerville, California. John Degelman, the boot maker, stands behind the men, sunken eyes glaring out over a mustache. If you look closely, you can see he’s wearing a rakish bowler hat and a white collarless shirt, linking him to the scattered merchants in watch chains, uptown hats, and good boots who gathered for the photo op.

Perhaps this squadron of gents served as my great grandfather’s local catalog. I imagine a scenario where John Degelman paid the boy in the bowler — third from the right, hands on belt buckle — to recruit satisfied customers to pose in front of his fancy new shop.

First come the bearded fellows on the left, hands in pockets, sporting the gallant-yet-practical caballero-style riding boot. To the right of the caballeros, the young dandy with the white cravat proudly displays the shine on a Degelman boot, style name unknown.

If you skip over the galoots in the mud boots — the boy probably dragged them out of the livery stable — you come to a prosperous-looking duo, trimmed out a bit sharper than the rest, thrusting their Degelman boots forward, striking a tandem best-foot-forward pose.

To the far right, the barflies arrive. I’m guessing great-grandfather Degelman handed the urchin a pocket full of nickels and told him to round up the denizens from the saloon on the south side of Main Street, where nobody had anything better to do anyhow.

The man at the end? With the pipe and the organ grinder hat? I leave his identity for you to imagine. I’m speculating he traded with the indigenous locals. Perhaps the rough-and-tumble residents of Placerville portrayed in this photo displayed a modicum of civility toward the Maidu and Miwok who had come before. One can only hope.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Wow, I love this picture of your great-grandfather’s boot shop, and all these men gathered up to pose in front of it! How did you figure out that John was the one standing behind the others? Your descriptions are wonderful – the “rakish bowler hat” on John, the “young dandy with the white cravat,” and my favorite, the “prosperous-looking duo … striking a tandem best-foot-forward pose.” Also so interesting to learn that you, a Boston boy, didn’t know of your California roots for so long, until you got the photo from Aunt Laura. Thanks for this great story!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Charlie, as you said to me, these old photos really do come alive when you fill in the prose around them. And for you not to not know anything of your great grandfather’s California past until seeing this photo…well, I just find that fascinating. As the keeper of my own family’s history, I can’t get enough of this stuff myself. I love how you invent stories about all the men in the photo – such vivid descriptions. Isn’t it wonderful that these precious old photos exist and we can bear witness to our past? Thank you for sharing yours with us.

    • Thanks, Betsy. Yes, it was fun to imagine how this photo came together. Over the years, I have learned a great deal about the Degelman side of the family and my cousin is continuing as archivist. There is treasure in these ‘vintage’ photos.

  3. John Zussman says:

    So much to love about both this story and the photo! It seems fitting that your California roots are not in San Francisco finance or LA entertainment but in this gritty Boardwalk town in the Sierra foothills. I especially love the single storefront that serves as both upholsterer and undertaker.

    • Hi, John. Yes, my folks were pretty doggone salt of the earth in the vernacular. Spinning off from your reflection, I think the great American restlessness brought each generation of Degelmans light years away from its predecessors. My grandfather a journalist, my father a scientist. Helluva long way from the farmers and bootmakers of the 19th century.

      Yes, loved the next door neighbors in the photo. Probably telling that the most affluent shops on the street included a bootmaker and an undertaker.

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