ANGELS CAMP — It is, without a doubt, the granddaddy of all county fairs in California running non-stop since 1893.
But what makes the Calaveras County Fair a big hit luring between 30,000 and 50,000 people a year — many from the far corners of the globe — to the town of 4,200 nestled in the rolling Sierra foothills just off Highway 4 are frogs.
These aren’t just any frogs. They are part of the legacy of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” that literally launched the literacy career of a fired newspaper reporter by the name of Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain.
The frog jump takes place all four days of the fair that runs this year from Thursday, May 16, through Sunday, May 19.
And while the frog jumping antics — the ones performed by contestants trying to coax their frogs to hop into the record books — are worth the trip, the Calaveras County Fair as a whole is arguably one the best family ventures you can take in a day or use as a date day (or night) minus the kids or even if you don’t have kids.
That’s because the Sierra foothill setting in mid-spring is a definitely different feel than other county fairs in the flatlands of the 209 that take place in the summer swelter and in settings that have about as much character as a scoop of vanilla ice cream next to “The Zoo” served by Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour with 30 scoops of ice cream, multiply syrups and more toppings than Baskin Robbins has ice cream flavors.
Don’t misunderstand. The Stanislaus County Fair is top flight. The San Joaquin and Merced versions aren’t shabby either.
It’s just that the setting in Angels Camp with all of the traditional county fair trappings from animal exhibits and carnival rides and games to destruction derby and more has a quaint feel. It doesn’t hurt that you can combine a trip to the fair with a stop at unique dining and shops in Angels Camp and nearby communities.
But enough about the fair per se: Let’s talk about getting those frog legs to stretch the distance.
While there are professional frog jockeys — I’m not making this up — who travel from around the world to compete, anyone can try their hand in the competition taking place on the Main Stage. You can also try your luck in a non-competitive venue on the Lily Pad stage. You can bring your own or borrow a California bullfrog from the fair’s frog spa.
The best part of the frog jump is watching the antics of the frog jockeys trying to get their entries to jump. You’ll see them plead, stomp, sing, dance, leap, blow, yell, whistle, and even make faces to try to get their frogs to move.
They get three jumps to see how far they can travel in a straight fashion. Other words if your frog makes three gargantuan world-class leaps but ends up going in a circle in three hops back to the starting point your distance is zero.
Yes, for any members of PETA reading this, the Calaveras County Fair has a strict frog welfare policy that they enforce to make sure no harm or mistreatment occurs to the amphibians.
Your frog gets three jumps. The third place it lands is where the jump distance is measured to.
The world record is held by Lee Guidici whose frog Rosie the Ribiter jumped 21 feet, 5.75 inches in 1986. Beat that mark and you’ll pocket $5,000 plus have croaking rights.
The frog jump roots can be traced back to the 1860s when Clemens was staying with a friend in Tuttletown (the cabin still stands just off Highway 49) when seeking his fortune working a pocket gold mine.
While he struggled in vain to get rich mining, during a trip into Angels Camp he overheard a story that would change his life and set the course to become one of America’s greatest — and most prolific authors. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in the mines. Many of the men took to betting on weird things to pass the time including how far frogs could jump. Clemens happened to overhear a bartender sharing a story of one frog jump that was getting butchered in the delivery. Clemens with a sixth sense for satire instantly saw the potential in the hilarious story. The short story that provided the nation with a nugget from the California Gold Country was published in 1865 as “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” The response prompted a publisher to encourage Clemens to put together a book. Using the pen name Mark Twain — derived from his days working river boats on the Mississippi River when pilots would yell out “mark twain” when they need a reading of depth to the river bottom — he took the jumping frog tale and combined it with 27 short stories of his that had been published in newspapers and magazines and released them in his first book published in 1867 under the title “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches.”
Fair hours are 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursday, May 16, 8 a.m. to midnight on Friday, May 17, 8 a.m. to midnight on Saturday, May 18, and 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, May 19. A list of activities and events can be found at frogtown.org.
Tickets are available at frogtown.org. Adult tickets (13 years and older) on Thursday, May 16, and Friday, May 17, are $11; Saturday, May 18, they are $13; and Sunday, May 19, they are $14.
Children 5 and under are free everyday while children 12 and under are free on that Thursday. The child ticket ages 6 to 12 are $8 each in Friday or Saturday and $12 on Sunday. Senior admission (65 and older) is $8 each day.