By Chuck Schneider

For The Union Democrat

One of the first things visitors notice when they step into the Carriage House at the Angels Camp Museum is the hearse owned by John Carley. On top are six black and white plumes made from turkey feathers. So, what was their purpose?

First, some background information. This unrestored hearse was built by the Rock Falls Manufacturing Company of Sterling, Illinois, in the early 1880s. It was then shipped by sea around Cape Horn to San Francisco.

Thomas A. Galt who had controlling interests in both the Rock Falls Manufacturing Company and the Sterling Casket Company combined products of both companies into the Rock Falls hearses. The Sterling Casket Company had developed a unique clamping system to secure caskets before travel.

John H. Carley, an undertaker and mortician conducted business in Angels Camp from 1881 until about 1920, operating out of his home. The holding of services (or wakes) in private homes had decreased in popularity in the early 20 th century, so Mr. Carley opened a chapel on the corner of Main Street and Finnegan Lane in a building owned by Joe Pierano in 1918. This arrangement provided customers with amenities and services which are associated with today's funeral industry.

The color of the plumes on top of the hearse and the netting draped over the horses symbolized the age of the individual who had passed away. The netting, which has been used for centuries to help combat flies from bothering horses, was either black or white. The color of the plumes was as follows:

  • Black plumes: Represented an elderly person.

  • Black and white plumes: A middle aged person.

  • White plumes: A child or a young maiden.

And now you know.

Chuck Schneider is the museum coordinator for the Angels Camp Museum, 753 S. Main St., Angels Camp.