Galen “Mut” Mutzner on Friday stood next an iron bell affixed to a truck on South Washington Street and clanged it one last time, precisely at noon.
A cheer rose from the crowd, and someone dipped a ladle into a steaming, russet brown, cast-iron vat of beans.
The final feed had begun.
Mutzner, 90, stood at the head of a long line of his bean-ravenous fans, who were eager to offer their thanks before his planned retirement on the 30th and final anniversary of the Sonora holiday-season staple.
“The town will never forget,” a woman said, quickly hugging Mutzner before extending her hand to take a foam cup rich with aromatic plumes of ham, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, celery, spices and, of course, beans.
“I’ve had a lot of fun all the time I’ve been doing it,” Mutzner said. “It’s like the first time we ever did it today. Maybe we’ll have more people than we did the first time. That’s probably the best thing to say.”
A drone hovered high above downtown Sonora, catching an aerial glimpse of the hundreds-strong crowd stretching far beyond the intersection with Theall Street.
Families, the young and the old, and unsuspecting passersby congregated around the corners of Linoberg Street and under the awning of The Union Democrat office building, often taking more time to engage with one another than indulge in the meal.
Sissy Mutzner, 88, taking a break from handing out quesadillas and garlic bread, acknowledged that she had been emotional throughout the day, with no shortage of tears.
“It’s because my husband,” she said. “He’s so quiet, but he’s really enjoyed it.”
Though the feed had operating for less than 30 minutes, she said, she had already met people who came out for the first time, just to meet the famous “Mut.”
The turn out, she said, may well have been one of the biggest in the history of the event.
“I think it’s sad but at our age, we can’t keep keep doing it. I think it's been a really nice thing for the town, and Mut is so happy that he could do it,” she said.
Connie O’Connor, of Sonora, recalled that in the formative years of the event, cars would halt in the middle of South Washington Street. A traffic jam was almost inevitable in those days, she recalled, as volunteers ran out containers of beans to the drivers, eagerly waiting in their cars.
“I was here for the first one so I want to be here for the last one,” O’Connor said. “Now it’s much bigger. Then it was very intimate and everyone knew one another.”
In the hallowed traditions of the event, the bean feed was always the seminal hearkening of the holiday season, a reminder of social unity and the closely knit bonds of the community.
And that custom persisted to the end.
The bean feed, said Neil Mill, a resident of the Hatler Mill area for more than 40 years, was the “gateway to the Christmas spirit.”
He had been attending the bean feed for more than 20 years, he added, after moving to the area from San Francisco, because “that’s what we came to this small town for, this integration with the whole community.”
Many had approached Sissy, she said, and asked about the future of the event. Was it really all over for Mut? Who would take the reins?
She didn’t know, she said. As far as she knew, the tradition would end Friday unless an organization intended to carry it on.
For guests with younger family members, that hope was palpable.
Bobbi Hough, a 33 year resident of Sonora, hadn’t always attended the bean feed, she said, but because she was friends with Sissy, she made a point to be here this year.
“We need the young tradition,” she said. “This is Christmas, this is what it’s about. This season, it’s about this.”
Her daughter, Melissa Morse, also of Sonora, hoisting her six-month-year-old son Donovan in her arms, agreed.
“We’re sad. We need somebody else to take over.”
But even if it was the last, many of the guests intended to keep all aspects of the tradition alive. A mass caravan of about 200 people ascended up Washington Street to Courthouse Park by 12:45 p.m. for the 38th Annual ‘Pop’ Hudson Christmas Sing hosted by The Union Democrat.
Kyle Compton, 24, stood near the edge of the crowd, filming one of the opening carols in one hand, a container of half-eaten beans in the other.
“I was at a local coffee shop and people said, ‘it’s the bean feed!’ So I stopped by,” he said, explaining that he had been working as an actor at the Fallon House in Columbia for about two months, but was preparing to return home to Southern California.
“It’s super cool to see people that all know what this bean feed is,” he said. “This is totally different from big-town LA. The kids are singing Rudolph, what more can you ask for?”
More than a dozen carols were directed by county and city agencies, schools and local organizations. Often, the crowd added in their own echoing chorus of the familiar tunes.
Carols included “Winter Wonderland” from the Sonora Police Department and Sonora City Fire Department, “Silver Bells” from staff and officials of the Sonora and Tuolumne County, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” from the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from the Tuolumne County Association of Realtors.
As the day drew closer to a close, Mutzner stood out front of The Sportsman, the site of the bean feed’s origins 30 years ago.
The line didn’t seem to wane throughout the lunch hour, as guests shook his hand, offered their congratulations and requested a photo.
If one thing had remained constant through all these years, he said, it was his desire for everyone to enjoy a free lunch in the days leading to his birthday.
On Dec. 22, Mutzner will turn 91 years-old.”
“I just hope we have enough beans for everybody,” he said.