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The Story Behind 'The Jumping Frogs of Calaveras County'

1800s | May 22, 2019

A young boy encourages his frog to perform a long jump. AFP PHOTO Source: (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)

American author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, had a way of crafting memorable stories with colorful characters. Several of his books and short stories were based on actual events or people that Clemens had met. One of his more amusing short stories was “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Despite what you may have heard, Clemens/Twain didn’t write about an established event or witness a frog jumping contest. His story is merely a clever retelling of a bar story he heard. But the short story did create a whole new industry for Calaveras County, California—frog tourism. 

Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. Source: (npr.org)

Mark Twain in California

So many of Mark Twain/Clemens’s books were set along the Mississippi River so it may surprise people to learn that the author who was born in 1835, traveled extensively around the United States and Europe. It was in California in 1865—long before he wrote Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—that Clemens’ work as a journalist took him from Missouri to Nevada, then to Salt Lake City and on to San Francisco.

The main street of Angels Camp, California, in the 1860s. Source: (gocalaveras.com)

Rained In, The Story Begins...

Samuel Clemens stopped at Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, on January 25, 1865. It rained heavily for two weeks and Clemens was stuck there. Out of sheer boredom, the people of the town congregated at the town’s bar to enjoy some companionship, drink a pint, swap tall tales. Clemens was so amused by the stories that he wrote several of them down. One was about a resident and his trained frog. 

Source: (jpsworldofenglish.weebly.com)

A Frog’s Tale

The story that Clemens heard that day involved a boastful eccentric named Jim Smiley. Smiley caught a frog that he named Dan’l Webster and kept as a pet. Smiley trained his frog to jump higher and further and was so proud of the leaps and bounds his amphibian made that he boasted to the people of the town that his frog could out-jump any other frog. A stranger passing through town called Smiley’s bluff and challenged him to a frog jumping contest with a $40 prize on the line. Smiley was so certain that his frog could best any other that he offered to go catch a frog for the stranger to use. While Smiley was away, the stranger fed Dan’l Webster birdshot. When the frog jumping contest started, Dan’l Webster was too heavy to jump. The stranger won the contest and left $40 richer before Smiley realized he had been tricked. 

Source: (cmgww.com)

Twain’s First Published Short Story

Clemens embellished this story and added to it and created “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The story ran in the New York Saturday Press and was instantly popular. People loved the tall tale genre and the way Clemens made everyday people into interesting characters. The story helped to launch the literary career of Mark Twain. 

An image from the first frog jumping contest in Calaveras County in 1928. Source: (gocalaveras.com)

Cashing in on the Fame

Calaveras County began hosting an annual county fair in 1893, but a few decades later, in 1928, someone got the idea to cash in on the popularity of Twain’s jumping frog tale by hosting a frog jumping contest. The first frog jump attracted a crowd of more than 15,000 visitors to Angels Camp’s main street. The event only grew from there. Soon, it outgrew Main Street and was permanently moved to the nearby county fairgrounds, which were renamed Frogtown. 

Source: (io9.gizmodo.com)

Mummified Frogs

In 1906, a Californian named Jake Ayala told a newspaper reporter that he knew the whereabouts of the two original frogs from the bar story on which Samuel Clemens based his The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Ayala explained that the frog, Dan’l Webster, and his unnamed opponent were kept in a dusty box. In fact, he was able to produce a box with the dried up remains of two frogs inside. The mummified frogs went on display and attracted gawkers for several years until the box mysteriously vanished. Although onlookers were convinced that they were peering at Dan’l Webster and friend, Ayala offered no proof that these were the actual frogs from the first jumping contest. 

Source: (sciencemadefun.net)

Toads Are Banned

There are no equal rights for all amphibians at the Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest. For years, people tried to enter toads into the frog jumping contest and argued for their inclusion. The rules of the contest originally stated that the amphibian had to be tailless, be at least four inches long, and not too big to sit on the launching pad. The toad issue came to a head more than fifty years ago when the county fair manager, Carl T. Mill, threatened to harm any toad that was entered into the frog jumping contest. The issue went to the Superior Court of Calaveras County where Judge Sherill Halbert ruled that the contest would be exclusively for frogs and that no toad would be allowed to compete. 

Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Animal Rights Groups Don’t Like the Frog Jumping Contest

Today, the frog jump contest at Calaveras County is the biggest event in the area and attracts visitors from across the country. More than four thousand frogs are entered in the contest each year. The event has even drawn the ire of animal rights organizations who believe that the frogs’ rights are violated by the contest. In response, the frog jump organizers have issued a frog welfare policy to ensure that all the animals are well-treated. The policy even lists the preferred music that the frogs can listen to while awaiting their turn at the starting line. Among the approved songs are “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” by Three Dog Night and “Jump” by Van Halen. 

A frog named Rosie the Ribiter holds the record at the Calaveras County frog jumping contest. Source: (facebook.com)

A Froggy World Record

In case you were wondering, the current record at the Calaveras County Frog Jump Contest is a whopping 21 feet, 5 ¾ inches. This record was set by a frog named Rosie the Ribiter, who was owned by Lee Guidici of Santa Clara, California. Rosie the Ribiter made her world record leap in 1986 and it has remained unbroken ever since. 

Tags: jumping frogs of calaveras county | literature, writers, stories

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.