“There’s gold in them thar hills” was the saying way back in 1849 when thousands of gold seekers ventured from near and far to seek their fortunes.

Bruce "Smokepole" Walker of Gold Rush on Wheels brought gold to Tompkins Elementary School on Nov. 15. With banjo in hand, Walker serenaded the 4th grade students as he took them back in time to the days of the California Gold Rush and the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River. He reminded them that almost all of the 800 citizens of San Francisco packed up their belonging and headed to the foothills of the Sierras to make their fortunes.

Old Smokepole enlightened the students about the various types of mining methods from panning in a river to using the rocker method that had a handle and allowed it to be rocked sideways back and forth in order to separate heavier particles from finer particles, hence the term "rocker." He took the students back in time when the long tom was used that was much like a long wooden water trough to separate the sand, mud and rocks from the gold.

“Life in the mining camps was rough back in 1849. Men were living in tents out in the cold weather and snow, and many fought over their mining claims,” explained Walker.

After hearing tales of life during the gold rush, students from Mrs. Alonso’s, Mr. Lander’s, Mrs. Marin’s, and Mr. Robb’s class grabbed their gold pans, their containers of materials, along with small vials to hold their bounty and headed to large plastic pools to start panning.

Students’ eyes lit up as they dunked their pans into the water and used pipettes (eyedropper type tool) to pull materials out of the pans and carefully put it into their plastic vials. Students were elated and awed as they found different types of gems and securely placed them in vials.

Old Smokepole brought out some San Francisco sourdough bread and shared it with the students. He informed them how sourdough bread became a staple in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. The bread was cherished in the mining camps because of its durability, and the relative ease of obtaining yeast.

Walker wrapped up the campus field trip by explaining to the teachers and students that many store owners profited from the discovery of gold and especially the now famous Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. Domenico Ghirardelli sailed to California in 1849 and set up shop in Stockton and later opened a second store in San Francisco in 1850.

“I couldn’t have been more pleased with 'The Gold Rush on Wheels' coming to Tompkins this year. Mr. Walker gave an awesome presentation and the kids had a wonderful learning experience right here on our campus," said Mrs. Alonso, who organized the event. “We are looking forward to panning again next year!”

Alex Robb is a teacher at Tompkins Elementary School.