In 1858, word of a big gold strike in the British colony hit San Francisco. Ten percent of the population of California would eventually head north hoping to fulfil their dreams.
HURDY GURDY GIRLS
The first wave of Gurdy girls seem to have arrived from San Francisco. Many originally hailed from Germany or Holland, and were brought to America (today it would be called ‘human trafficking’) by a man referred to as ‘Boss Hurdy’. Most of them were young teenagers (15 – 17) when they embarked on the long, difficult journey north.
Named after the hurdy gurdy instrument (sounds like a combo of bagpipes and violins), and the English/Scottish interpretation ‘to cause an uproar or a disorder’, most of these girls did not speak English – which only added to their popularity in the isolated gold rush town. In fact, they were like Hollywood stars in the far North.
The arrival of the Hurdy Gurdy’s spurred a dramatic change in the social life of Barkervillians. It cost a dollar for a dancing date with a ‘Gurdy Girl’. Suddenly, you didn’t have to go without the comfort of a female – there were women all around town – ones you could get a date with, if you had a bit of gold dust.
There were rumours that the Gurdy girls performed favours in addition to dancing, and though there isn’t much fact written about this topic, it is clear that many of the Gurdy girls did end up spending a lot of time with, and inevitably married miners.
This seems to have been the alternative goal. Make money dancing/performing/entertaining, find a gold mining husband (preferably one who has already struck it rich).
Pianos were carried in by foot and violins were plentiful – though violinists were not. The 1867 Cariboo Sentinel makes note;
‘This class of musicians (pardon the misnomer) have a school of their own, in which melody and euphony have no part. Noise is the grand oobject.’
How did you know if you were a good Gurdy dancer? The longer you could hold your gal upside down with her feet stomping away on the ceiling – the better you were.
‘Kate Hartley takes great joy in parading along the board walk displaying her lovely, hoop skirt. Miss Hartley is a Hurdy Gurdy dancer, employed by Fanny Bendixon, owner of the St. George Saloon. Kate is a rather tall, statuesque woman, who is not having much luck at displaying her ability at the ‘Ringing the Bell’ dance, currently very popular in Barkerville. Her lack of ‘ceiling dancing’ causes her a great deal of consternation and is she anxious for the day when a miner in town will be able to swing her high enough to dance on the ceiling.’
Fanny Bendixon was born in France in 1820. She was attracted to the Americas by the promise of gold and headed up to Canada where she would open a number of saloons and hotels. Her first was named ‘The Parlour’, and the second – the ‘Bella Union‘ was elegant, and famous for selling fine cigars and liquors.
It was in the Bella Union that a tryst between a Gurdy girl and a miner took place in the back room, after a saucy theatrical event. Unfortunately, the affair resulted in a knocked oil lamp that apparently started the great fire of 1868.
Though Fanny never fully grasped the English language, she had a keen awareness of business and would be known as one of the leading proprietors in the region, and of the era.
There were a lot of strange and interesting characters that made their way to Barkerville in search of fame and riches, Fanny and the Hurdy girls being among my favourites.
Though we managed to do the suggested two day exploration in an expedited four hours, we had to save some exploring for our next trip up. We didn’t see the famous cemetery, and next time we plan to take a peek at ‘New Barkerville’ and ‘Richfield’.
Though we were ready to pull out of Barkerville, were still looking forward to exploring the legends of the old wagon route along the way back home.