Back in April of this year some mothers with toddlers said playground equipment at Utica Park in downtown Angels Camp was not age-appropriate for their children, play structures were in disrepair, and sometimes visitors didn’t feel safe because homeless people and drug users loitered there.
On Friday the park looked a bit cleaner, no one was loitering, an old gazebo with rusty nails had been removed, and, aside from a plywood “out of order” sign blocking a space where a slide used to be, most of the playground equipment looked to be safe and accessible.
It’s not clear if the City of Angels Camp has a plan to upgrade Utica Park with more play equipment for toddler-age children, but Mayor Amanda Folendorf spoke up in favor of it in April.
“For the most part it’s not too bad,” said Jarrett Keultjes, 27, who was with his 2-year-old son, Nicholas, and visiting the park for the first time. They’re from Indiana, staying with family in Angels Camp. “It’s a public park and people use it.”
Off in one corner of the park, with its back turned to most of the public space, is a white statue of Mark Twain, the iconic newspaperman, storyteller and author who helped make Angels Camp and Calaveras County famous with an 1865 story about a jumping frog.
Recently a Union Democrat reader named Susan Lea sent photos of the old statue to the newsroom and said, “It sure looks like time to restore the Mark Twain statue. It should be pretty easy to do. Let's honor and preserve local history, don't you think.”
On Friday, the Twain statue stood where it’s been for decades, in the southeast corner looking toward downtown Angels Camp. It looked like it’s made of materials that degrade over time. There are missing patches of alabaster-white covering, cracks, pockmarks and stains, and a splatter of black paint and remnants of graffiti on the base. Like most statues, it’s often a perch for birds that relieve themselves on the statue.
Sonora resident Debbie Sprague was with a friend walking a dog at Utica Park. Asked as they left if they have any opinion about the Twain statue, Sprague said, “Leave it be. Clean it but don’t take it down. You can’t tear history down. You can’t rewrite history.”
The only marker on the statue says “In memory of Mark Twain who found his inspiration here for his memorable story — “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” Angel’s Camp 1865.”
The marker does not say how old the statue is, who made it, what it’s made of, when was it installed in the park, or when Utica Park itself became a park. Questions put to staff at City Hall and Destination Angels Camp led to the city-owned Angels Camp Museum at 753 S. Main St.
Questions also prompted a call from Anne Forrest, a former Angels Camp Museum commissioner for 12 years, who spoke Friday by phone from Hawaii. She said the statue was made by an Italian sculptor in the early 1940s for the Angels Camp premier of a Warner Brothers film called “The Adventures of Mark Twain.”
The film premier was scheduled to coincide with the May 1944 Jumping Frog Jubilee, Forrest said. Originally there were frogs leaping from near the base of the statue, but they got knocked off somehow.
“It’s not marble,” Forrest said. “It’s more like plaster.”
Warner Brothers presented the statue to the City of Angels Camp, it sat downtown for a bit, and then it was moved to Utica Park, Forrest said.
Forrest added that she helped put together 16 posters about Angels Camp history for display in vacant storefronts, and one of those posters is devoted solely to the story of the Mark Twain statue in Utica Park, but that poster is no longer on display, it’s in a locked garage.
As soon as the call with Forrest ended, Chuck Schneider, a coordinator at Angels Camp Museum, showed an undated postcard photograph of the Mark Twain statue with two frogs leaping from near the base. He also showed where one of the aluminum frogs is now displayed. He mentioned Hells Angels and hacksaws in 1957.
Schneider said he’s heard Hells Angels motorcyclists came to Angels Camp for the 1957 Jumping Frog Jubilee and they “took over the town.” He said someone either removed the leaping frogs from the statue for safekeeping, or someone unknown cut them off the statue for unknown reasons.
“That’s when the frogs disappeared off the statue, May 1957,” Schneider said. Holding up the 2-foot-long, 10-pound aluminum frog, still painted white, he showed bright silver metal exposed on the undersides of its hind feet where it had been cut from the statue. “These marks look like it was a hack saw.”
Schneider said he’s not sure where the frogs were found, but they both have been recovered by the museum, Schneider said. One is on display and a damaged one is stored in a carriage house owned by the museum.
Schneider also said the sculptor who made the statue was named P.C. Manuelli.
Debbie Ponte with Destination Angels Camp shared a photo of the poster with the story of the Twain statue. The poster confirmed most of what Forrest and Schneider said, and added “The Adventures of Mark Twain” was nominated for three Academy Awards. The film was described as “perhaps the most impressive of all Forties large-scale biopics.”
Back at Utica Park later Friday, it was possible to look at the old postcard photo of the statue with the leaping frogs, and see where they used to be attached to the statue.
Over at Utica Mansion, owner Tad Folendorf was not around but he answered his mobile phone. Foldendorf said he didn’t know exactly when Utica Park became a park. Earlier, Schneider estimated it was sometime after World War I and likely before World War II.
Asked how much the City of Angels Camp spends annually to maintain Utica Park and the Mark Twain statue, Melissa Eads, the city administrator, said she was not sure because it's part of the Public Works department. She added there is no specific line item for the cost of maintaining the Twain statue.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.