Colorful character: a euphemism that has a wide range of applications.
While it could mean endearing or interesting, it can also be a polite term for crackpot or worse. I’m sure if you consider our fair town of Cottage Grove, more than a few such worthies would come to mind who could bear the title “colorful character” well.
We are still mourning the loss of one on the dear side, Clarence Kreamier, aka The Cottage Grove Waver. His passing has left a hole in our community that is yet to be filled.
Thumbing through the pages of “Golden was the Past,” the excellent collection of articles published by the Cottage Grove Historical Society, turns up a number of characters whose eccentricities have colored the nature of our town.
One colorful character that I would introduce to you lends his name to a local creek. James Henry “Bohemia” Sharp was born 1846 in Illinois to affluent parents who provided him a good education. He graduated as a civil engineer from Knox College.
He initially considered volunteering for the Union Army when the Civil War broke out, but after drilling and training in the arts of war, Sharp realized that soldiering wasn’t for him and he headed west to escape the horrors of war.
Traveling to the west coast via Panama he wound up in San Francisco and worked his way up the coast as far as Portland. Exactly when he arrived in Cottage Grove isn’t known, but it was probably around 1864. To earn his keep, James Sharp found work as a handyman and, being educated, also secured the local postmaster position.
When gold fever hit Cottage Grove from the Bohemia mining district, Sharp resigned his post and like many others headed to the hills in search of a fortune. He didn’t find gold but he did discover something that meant more to him than the glittering metal. While traveling to the mines with a group of prospectors along a creek bed he was mesmerized by the peace and tranquility of the vast forests of tall trees that he traveled through. Feeling as much at peace as he ever had in his life, hearing the soothing sounds of the breeze in the trees, he decided to file a homestead claim.
Sharp picked a spot on the creek that today bears his name. Clearing the land by hand and with the few simple tools that he had, he built a cabin. Sharp spent the next 50 or so years there picking out a living as he could. He returned to the mining district periodically, trying his hand at a claim he called “The Bird’s Nest” and also worked as an assayer.
He used his training as an engineer building roads up to the mines, but his verbal agreement failed to get him paid when the judge who had contracted him died shortly before the job was completed.
Picking up the moniker “Bohemia” from his activities at the mines, Sharp settled into a hermit’s life in his cabin by the river. He lived on beans mostly but supplemented his diet with vegetables from his garden, berries he gathered and fish that the creek supplied. A friend who was visiting learned the hard lesson that Sharp considered the deer that grazed around his cabin to be his pets when he suggested that they supplement the beans with a bit of venison.
It was said that “Sharp had always liked people, he just didn’t want to live with them.” He would come across from his cabin to visit with travelers on the road and could use very descriptive and salty language if something upset him. Bohemia would be sometimes shown off to visitors by passing wagon drivers as a local curiosity.
Sharp never really made much money and his clothing showed it. He had a tattered pair of overalls that served as his “going to town” clothes. Around the cabin mostly he wore long-handled underwear year round, shucking the top portion in the summer months. The bottoms, well ventilated, would reveal more than modesty would allow. Bohemia solved this problem by simply reversing them, figuring the rear would be less offensive if it showed than the front.
Finally, the harsh winters proved too much for Bohemia and he moved to town, where he had many friends and was well-liked despite his hermitlike ways. As he grew more and more feeble and less able to care for himself, some well-meaning soul had him committed to the County Poor Farm.
When they came to get him he didn’t go willingly or quietly. The representatives from the farm tried to explain that he would be well cared for and need not worry anymore. Sharp loudly protested and swore he would appeal to the governor, to no avail as he was led away. This probably broke his strong spirit and he quickly wasted away and died alone in a strange space – a fitting end for a man who was so suited to the hermit’s life.
He was laid in a pauper’s grave, the location of which is unknown.
The life and times of Bohemia Sharp have been chronicled by Ray Nelson in his booklet, “Facts & Yarns of the Bohemia Gold Mines” and Ivan Hoyer in “Bohemia Gold” (2003). Another Cottage Grove luminary, Opal Whiteley, planned a novel about Sharp,“The Impossible Man,” but never got it to the finished stage.
Local historian Steve Williamson has given numerous talks on Bohemia Sharp and has speculated about what happened to his body after his death in the Oregon State Hospital Asylum. You can find his research into Bohemia Sharp, Opal Whiteley and many other obscure and interesting facets of Oregon history on his website, www.storiesbysteve.com.
Although the times have changed as much as the town of Cottage Grove, we still have our colorful characters. Take the time to get to know some of them and learn their stories before they too are gone from the mix. Long live the ones who march to a different drummer for they make life interesting!
Dana Mayberry writes for The Chronicle.