As the new LS&Co. historian, I expected to get my feet wet mining for Levi’s® heritage stories. One month into the job, I have discovered this can be literal as well as figurative.
A week ago, I waded through the 16-to-1 Gold Mine in Allegheny, California, near Lake Tahoe. The mine still operates and occasionally opens for tours. I smiled when I noticed that one of the miners helping with the tour wore Levi’s® 501® jeans and bore a striking resemblance to two 1882 miners pictured next to a payload car in an LS&Co. Archives photo (above). His modern 501® jeans weren’t much different from the 1879 XX pair in the Archives (a blow-up of which I toted with me to the 16-to-1 mine).
But it turned out that another gold mine—the Calico—was my favorite discovery during my first month on the job.
LS&Co. archivist and conservator, Stacia Fink, took the call: “You’ll be in San Francisco this morning and you’d like to see the Calico jeans?” Although it was an unusual request, Stacia and I jumped at the chance to meet with 83-year-old Barbara Hunter Kepon, and her daughter, Timolin. Barbara had donated a pair of 1890 waist overalls, dubbed “the Calico jeans,” 65 years earlier.
As a teenager living in San Gabriel, California, in the late 1940s, Barbara explored the Calico Mine while camping one weekend. She discovered a room filled with jeans and took the best pair of the bunch. She patched them and wore them at Alhambra High School for a time until she noticed something interesting on the pocket and wrote to LS&Co.
As Barbara shared:
“We went into the mine as far as we could without any flashlights. And as I was walking along the side, I felt cold air hit my foot. I got down on my hands and knees and opened up a little opening, and inside was a small room and it was full of jeans that had been torn and abandoned there by the miners … I picked out the best looking pair of jeans in that pile and took them home because it was fashionable for young girls to wear jeans. I went home, washed them and wore them all the time, until one day I happened to notice letters on the back of the pocket … something about the jeans being made for over 17 years . . . I realized that’s a lot longer than recently and so I wrote a letter to Levi’s and told them my story. I asked if they wanted me to send the jeans to them, and so I did. And the company then sent me two new pair of jeans.”
When asked if she was familiar with the Levi’s® brand when she made her jeans discovery in the 1940s, Barbara replied: “Everybody knew the name Levi’s. Everyone in school was wearing them and I supposed that’s why I wanted to wear them.”
Thanks to Barbara’s contribution, we now have the Calico jeans as one of our gems in the Archives. And one month, two mines and one amazing story later, I reflect on my best learning to date: Great discoveries happen almost daily while mining for stories at LS&Co. Archives.