“500 Buddhas”

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum  Ive been an artist and an entrepreneur all my life. My dad always said I wouldn’t amount to anything. “You’ll be a fuckin bum all your life!” he would say. Dad just didn’t get it that some people just aren’t cut out for the 9-5 job swinging a hammer or wrenching on trucks. In 2005 I decided to open my own Gift Shop in my current “hometown” of Colfax California. I actually coined the phrase (and printed it on t-shirts), “Colfax – A small drinking town with a railroad problem”. Well the catch phrase stuck and now its on postcards and licsence plate frames too. When I opened my gift shop, I wanted to call it something completely unique and “catchy”. Something people would always remember. The city on the other hand wanted me to call it something “historic” or anything to do with Trains, like…. “The Railroad Depot Gift shop” or some other lame title like that. I, on the other hand came up with a MUCH catchier title. “Better than Naked”.  Well, the city definitely wasn’t crazy about the name but the clientel soon came to love it.

  My goal was also to sell “unusual” gift items. I didn’t want to carry the same things that every other gift shop in the county was sellingI wanted to be different. So we were always on the look out for new and unusual inventory.  In order to promote the business, I would come up with wild and crazy “gimmicks” and anything that would draw a lot of media attention. One of the promotions I hosted was called “The Colfax Breast Wall”. In order to raise money for breast cancer research, I invited women to come into my shop where I applied acrylic water based paint to their bare breasts and then we pressed them against the wall to create a 20’ long mural. I did allow the more modest to press themselves if they chose to. We had women coming in from all walks of life. Young and old. Many of the women wanted to be on the wall but they didn’t want anyone to know about it so we had to set up late night “appointments” for them to come in and participate. Hell, we even had a few prominent Colfax politicians put their boobies on my wall.  The whole thing was very controversial. Most loved it and a few stood out front with picket signs. But the media couldn’t get to my store fast enough! We were in every paper and on every newsbroadcast in the county! 

I was never alone at Better than Naked… we had regular customers that stopped by every day just to visit and sit out front on the bench.  It came to be a social gathering place in town. 

One day a local friend stopped by and asked if I’d do him a favor. His name was Herman Henry, and he was a gold prospector. He dug for it, mined for it, metal detected for it and panned it. If there was any gold there, he was going to find it. 

So Herman walks into my shop one day and asks if I’ll do him a favor. He explains to me that he was “sniping” in the American River and discovered a peculiar treasure. Sniping is where you wear a diving mask and snorkel, then dive down and “fan” the cracks at the bottom, uncovering small gold nuggets at the bottom of the cracks. While sniping on this day, Herman tells me that while fanning the bottom, he spots a small smooth ivory colored “face” staring back at him. Not one foot away, he finds another, then another. Before long Earl had discovered literally hundreds of the unique artifacts. Upon returning to shore he studies the tiny porcelain looking objects. They were actually a perfect likeness of the prophet Buddha. Each of these small token shaped objects were flat on the back as if they had been poured and fired in a kiln.  Earl went back into the river and by the end of the day he had found over 300 of the Buddha heads.Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum 

“So, what do ya think Jim?” What do you think they are? Where did they come from?” he asked.  Herman explained that he didn’t own a computer so there was no way for him to research them.  “You’re the go to guy here in town he said. “So, I figured if ANYONE could identify them, you could. 

In exchange for about 50 of his Buddha heads, I agreed that I would do the research to find out where they came from. These Buddhas could potentially be very old or they could be brand new and thrown into the river for some odd reason. 

I  set out to discover the truth. I figured if I spread the word far and wide enough that SOMEONE would come forward with the answer.  One theory that I began to investigate was that they came from the Chinese immigrant workers that used to live along the river bank back in the 1800’s. Maybe they had buried these small “game pieces” and they were eventually washed into the river. Another theory revolved around a family that lived right on the river about 4 miles upstream. Right around 1905, the river flooded and destroyed the house washing it and all of its contents down stream.  With every passing day a new theory came up that I would chase down. 

Before long, the local paper got wind of these supposedly “historic artifacts” and ran a story about them. From there, the story just exploded and before long I had television reporters and journalists from all over the state standing on my porch. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

The trouble started when the local State Parks department got wind of the story. According to them, these artifacts were historic and belonged in a museum. They wanted the entire cache turned over to them. Then the feds stepped in. According to them, the actual discovery site was just across the line in BLM (Bureau of Land Management) territory and therefore the “500 Buddhas” belonged to them. 

Now, Herman in the meantime went into hiding. He took the entire collection and buried it somewhere.  The Feds were furious. Within days there were the “men in black” hanging out and interrogating people all over town. They came into my shop and threatened to put me in jail if I didn’t rat out Herman and give up all of the Buddhas that Earl gave to me. Figuring this might happen, I had taken 90% of all MY Buddha heads and stashed them, so when confronted I only had about 15 of them to surrender.  They even had me handcuffed for awhile trying to intimidate me into talking.  

The feds found out where Herman lived and worked, went out to his trailer and completely turned it inside out trying to find the stash. They literally destroyed his home and even dug up his entire lawn. His clothes and furniture were strewn everywhere. 

Then they showed up at Hermans work where he did janitor work at a local restaurant. After they gave him the third degree, they cuffed and arrested him on a trumped up charge of a “felon in possession of a firearm”. Earl was about 75 years old but when he was in his 20’s I guess he was a pretty shady guy and got into some trouble. The feds were able to use all that against him.  

So, while Herman was sitting in Jail, I tried to raise some bail money to get him out and I continued my research as to where these ivory colored objects actually came from. The street value of the Buddha heads was skyrocketing and people were paying upwards of two and three hundred dollars for just one of the buddhasDays went by and the story got bigger and bigger. We even got a phone call from a new york art collector that was offering close to a million dollars for the entire collection.

I followed all the leads and always to a dead end. We even had several people that actually tried to claim the stash as there own property. I could always shut them down by asking two simple questions. “Where EXACTLY were they discovered? How many different designs were there (there were 5 different unique designs including one that looked like a Chinamens straw cap).

Then, one day while printing up a bunch of “Free Herman” T-Shirts, I get a phone call from a local friend. He tells me that I need to call a sheriffs officer in the next county. Figuring it was just going to be yet another false lead, I took my time and finished printing the shirts. When I finally did get the deputy on the phone he told me that he got a tip about the Buddha heads and he knew the person with the answer to the whole mystery.  “You need to call Casey O’Conner he said. “He’s an art professor at the local community college. So I called the college and after about four attempts to get thru to him, I said “Mr O’Conner, do you know where these artifacts came from? 

“I do!” he exclaimed. “I made them!”.

Needless to say I was very skeptical since I had heard variations on this story before. 

“OK, Casey. I have just two questions to ask you. Where EXACTLY were these artifacts discovered?”

Without hesitation, he said he had scattered and thrown them by the bucketful into the river just above Yankee Jims Bridge on the American River. 

Now, I was VERY curious. “OK, how many different designs of the Buddha did you supposedly create?” 

“Well, he said, I think there were five or maybe six designs.” 

He went on to explain that he made the entire collection in his garage ceramics kiln and that he still had the original molds.

“One more question Casey. WHY!?” Why did you do it? 

colfax-figurines
Casey OcConner – Professor of Art – Sierra College – Sacramento Ca.

Occonner paused for a moment and said calmly, “I’m an artist and I wanted to give something artistic to future generations…. So, I created these small gifts and I’ve been leaving them scattered all over the western United States!”

“I imagine that someday a little girl walking along the river bank will find one of the Buddhas and treasure it as her own. That would be wonderful” he said. 

The great Buddha mystery was finally solved. And while the mass media converged on Casey, I went back to my little shop in Colfax and decided that this chapter in my life was coming to a close. Herman was released from jail while the State officials and Feds were publicly shamed. I sold the gift shop… and I’ve never looked back. 

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