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Media Life: Mystery token from 1852 an Auburn Gold Rush find or fake?

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
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Reach Media Life’s Gus Thomson at (530) 852-0232 or gust@goldcountrymedia.com. You can catch Thomson tweeting at A_J_Media_Life or talking at 6 p.m. most Fridays on Dave Rosenthal’s KAHI 950 AM drive-time radio show.

 

 

 

Sometimes history can give you a serious head fake.

A Kalamazoo, Mich. history buff and coin collector was a recent recipient of one of those historical versions of a curveball when she visited an antique shop in nearby Galesburg and spied a metal token in a plastic bin.

Tokens have been given away as business promotions for centuries and token collecting is one of those numismatic sidelights that can draw people into a whole other realm of historical artifacts. On the face of it, the token Laurie Meyer-Morris spied was a doozy from a colorful period of Western U.S. history. It also appeared to be an important link to Auburn’s Gold Rush past.

“Good for one hot bath – Wood’s House” the inscription on the token stated.

Even more importantly, there was a date – “1852.”

And the location printed on the bottom of the token – “Auburn, Calif.” – sent an excited Meyer-Morris on an internet search.

As Meyer-Morris delved into the words on the token, she learned that there had been a prominent connection between the “Wood” name cited on the coin and the beginnings of this California city.

Wood’s Dry Diggings was the name for the Old Town area before it was changed to Auburn. While the whys and wherefores of the name change are debatable, only a little is known about John S. Wood, who gave the city-to-be a temporary name.

 

Wood was real

Wood was a miner in what is now Auburn Ravine in 1849, and some believe one of about a half-dozen soldiers who had stayed after the Mexican War had ended and settled on a bend of the ravine. Likely from Ottumwa, Iowa, he returned there in 1855, became a major during the Civil War with the 7th Iowa Cavalry, and later worked for the railroad. He died in Omaha, Neb. in 1912, at 88.

By late 1849, Wood’s Dry Diggings was already being referred to as Auburn and the name stuck.

With the information she could glean from the Web and an interest to explore her mystery token further, Meyer-Morris asked Media Life for some help and the search for clues was on.

Contacting the Placer County Museums division and Placer County Historical Society President Michael Otten cast some further interest on the apparent find – and some doubt.

The obverse side of the token, Otten pointed out, showed a Massachusetts Pine Tree Schilling minted before the American Revolution. Was there a connection? Did someone travel from Massachusetts and use one side of a coin for the token imprint?

The museums division’s program manager Ralph Gibson suggested that amateur researchers at the archives look further into whether an actual Wood’s House or Wood’s Bathhouse was in existence in Auburn in 1852.

The fact that a date was included on the token drew Gibson’s doubts. None of the Auburn-area tokens the museums division has contain dates.

Gibson also noted that the Pine Tree Schilling side was in suspiciously good condition for a coin minted in the mid-1600s.

Gibson said it was likely that the Wood’s bath token was actually a touristy item. Pine Tree Schillings have been used as the backing for giveaway tokens made over the past 50 years or so, he noted.

The archives crew could find little to back up the presumed history on the token. Assessment records showed an entry for a hotel and store owned and operated by a Woods and McDaniels in 1852 – and only McDaniels is listed after 1852.

If the token was made in recent times, then who made it and why?

 

Made in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa’s Patrick Mint is one of the few token makers in the United States. For $650, you can have 1,000 printed with your advertising on one side. On the obverse are a variety of old coin images. None on the website are of the Pine Tree Schilling but an e-mail from mint owner Jess Patrick solved the mystery of where the Wood’s House token was made.

“Yes, I made that token sometime between 1976 and 1979, probably in the later part of that time frame,” Patrick said. “A thousand were made and if my records are correct, I still have some in brand new condition here somewhere.”

But who commissioned the token and why the particular reference to Wood’s House was chosen will remain a mystery for now.

“Who the customer was I can’t tell you because I simply don’t know,” Patrick said. “Those records are long gone and the dies that made the piece were destroyed years ago in a warehouse fire.”

Patrick said that it’s his belief that whoever had him make those pieces was imitating a real token or a place that existed in Auburn in 1852.

So there it is Auburn – or Wood’s Dry Diggings, if you wish. Historians didn’t go for that first head fake, much to their credit. But there’s still a question of who and what the token was made for. Media Life will consider any theories and hopefully come up with some firm answers in a future column.

 

Reach Media Life’s Gus Thomson at (530) 852-0232 or gust@goldcountrymedia.com. You can catch Thomson tweeting at A_J_Media_Life or talking at 6 p.m. most Fridays on Dave Rosenthal’s KAHI 950 AM drive-time radio show.