If we look deep into the annals of Jeeping, to the beginning, we’ll find ourselves on New Year’s Day 1941, with a group of engineers in a chilly, smoke-filled corner office of the Willys-Overland plant in Toledo, Ohio. In July of the previous year, the U.S. military, gearing up to enter the conflict in Europe, called out to the American auto industry for the development of a light reconnaissance vehicle, and in November of that year the Willys Quad made its debut. The Willys-Overland team had been granted the government contract, and they pored over thin financials, short production deadlines, and the daunting task of refining the Quad into a platform that could win a war. Flash-forward 13 years, after World War II, and a handful of MBs, predecessors of the mighty Quad, were meandering their way over an old rocky two-track in California’s Sierra Nevada. It was a scouting trip for an event that would change the way the world viewed the Jeep, and it would become known as the “granddaddy” of four-wheel-drive events—the Jeepers Jamboree. This July, we joined Jamboree President Bob Sweeney for their 66th annual crossing of the Rubicon Trail to learn more about the region and the event’s rich history.
Long before forty-niners crossed the Sierra Nevada en route to the gold fields of California, Native Americans traversed the granite path from Lake Tahoe to the western foothills. By 1861, the Central Pacific Railroad had acquired Rubicon Springs as booty for their efforts in building the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad. It wasn’t until 1867, when mining brothers George and John Hunsucker “settled” in the valley, that word of the Rubicon slipped into the mainstream of Western lexicon. Although they would not technically own the land for another 20 years, the Hunsuckers built accommodations to attract tourists, bottled and marketed the spring’s mineral water as having healing properties, and harvested the meadow’s thick grass as livestock feed. It was during their tenure that Bob Sweeney’s second great-grandfather entered the picture. With the threat of the route being closed, brought on by timber interests in the area, Sweeney lobbied the State of California and El Dorado County to designate the wagon track to Tahoe as an official county road. The appeal was granted in 1887 and remains in effect to this day, albeit an “unmaintained” road.
We find the Sweeney name back in the Rubicon’s limelight in 1952. Bob’s grandfather, Jim, along with Mark A. Smith and a handful of Georgetown Rotarians, turned the wheels of their MBs toward the Hunsuckers’ homestead with an idea in mind: create a fundraising event for the town’s waning economy. The following year, 55 Jeeps and 155 people set off for Rubicon Springs. The rest, we’ll say, has become history.
We’ve witnessed the 40th, 50th, and 60th Jamborees come and go, each bringing a new crop of Jeeping enthusiasts, departing with memories that may be forged into the chronicles of future generations. The Rubicon Trail has become known throughout the world, and driving it is a Top 10 “bucket list” item for millions of people. As for the Jeepers Jamboree, it is without question the original “granddaddy” of four-wheel-drive venues.
Tradition runs deep here, and the event continues to support the local community. The Georgetown Rotary club runs the ice cream parlor and volunteers from American Legion Post 119 operate the kitchen and the bar, both of which raise considerable funds for various charitable causes. Each year we look forward to our annual pilgrimage to the Jamboree, not only to support the American Legion (aka, the bar), but also to take in one of the best social Jeep gatherings on the planet (aka, the river party). Hope to see you there next year! See jeepersjamboree.com for more info.
Although the original trail began near Wentworth Springs, in past decades the Granite Bowl and an obstacle know as Gatekeeper, accessed via Loon Lake, have become the official starting point.
Carl Collins, a Willys restoration aficionado, made easy time in his sweet 1948 CJ-3.
The Jeep Cherokee XJ appeared in 1984 as a capable off-roader in grocery-getter camouflage. Although many Jeep purists scoffed at its unit-body construction, it has proven itself to be one of the most worthy (and fun) rigs on the trail.
The view as the trail descends the Granite Slabs to Buck Island Reservoir is worth the price of admission.
After a long day on the trail, Jamboree participants set up camp and head to the river for a Jeepin’ party like no other.