Last updated: October 6, 2014
Most people reading this article likely have no idea what I'm talking about at this point, but even the few of you who are in-the-know about this long-lost "Elmer" don't know the full story. Probably no one does. The "Elmer" mystery is a typical cold-case. Rangers, historians, and random researchers have exhausted themselves poring through books, watching old movies, and asking campers just why they are screaming what sounds like a cartoon character's name at each other, and why they have been at it for generations.
Yosemite campers have long been amused, or plagued, by voices from every direction calling the name "Elmer!" Imagine sitting in your campsite, enjoying an evening campfire and the quiet company of your loved ones in the great outdoors, when the peace is suddenly shattered by all of your neighbors erupting into an impromptu shouting match. The inescapable exchange is often heard in the campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. Despite the fact that his name is so commonplace in this valley, specific conditions apparently need to be met to provide a suitable habitat for "Elmer" to thrive. "Elmer" usually only comes out in the summer, seeming to hibernate in colder months. Darkness is a necessary ingredient for "Elmer" incidents, his name bridging the inky spaces between campfires. The phenomenon seems to be fairly localized. There are only scattered reports of people yelling Elmer outside Yosemite Valley, even in other campgrounds within Yosemite National Park. The tradition, never endorsed by the National Park Service, is ill-understood, yet persistent.
As far as anyone knows, park visitors have been screaming the name "Elmer!" at each other for quite some time. The earliest "Elmer" incidents probably date back to the 1930s. Perhaps because of this antiquity, details on the birth of "Elmer" in Yosemite are sketchy. Also, since it was never an officially sanctioned campground activity and is more of a social phenomenon, the beginning of "Elmer" remains unknown. There are a few oral and written accounts that point toward several possible origins. Some original research by this particular park ranger has been done, as well.
These days when a cry of "Elmer" is heard, it is usually instigated by an adult male, bellowing the name across the campground, seeking a return call from another camper in-the-know. Soon enough, another voice responds in the same drawn-out, plaintive, and obnoxiously loud tone. Before you know it, a chorus of children's voices has joined the cacophony, each seemingly coaxed into participation through social pressure, or maybe some primal, deeply-buried instinct within the human psyche. When asked why they yell "Elmer", most kids respond "Because everyone else was doing it!" When the person (usually a father) who started the whole ordeal is asked the same, the usual reply is "Because we used to do it all the time when I was a kid!" These are not exactly helpful responses when trying to solve the mystery at hand, but they are interesting responses in their own right. Perhaps a dedicated sociologist could spend a summer in a Yosemite Valley campground and sort through the inner workings of this verbal virus.
For decades, people have been trying to figure out what started it all. Several Yosemite rangers, naturalists, and historians have tackled the problem over the years. One of the earliest attempts to solve the mystery was by a park ranger naturalist named Lewis G. Karcher. In 1961, he wrote an article for Yosemite Nature Notes about the phenomenon. This blog you are currently reading, Yosemite Ranger Notes, is a modern-day successor to the old Nature Notes periodical. In his search, Ranger Karcher seemed to hear conflicting stories surrounding the ubiquitous "Elmer". Some campers thought "Elmer" was a pesky bear who frequented the campgrounds looking for human food to snatch. Children in the campground, apparently enamored with the familiar creature, gave him the now infamous name "Elmer". Neither Ranger Karcher nor I find this explanation to have much substance or to be particularly plausible.
In the 1970s, a Henry W. Splitter corresponded with park officials, informing the lead naturalist ranger of his intention to get to the bottom of this "Elmer" mystery. Through research at the American Legion and an old article in Elks Magazine, he determined that throughout World War I, "Elmer" was a nickname used within the military to identify a serviceman who served less than adequately. "Elmer" was a man who often went missing to avoid his duties. Within many military units, the commonly heard phrases "Where's Elmer?" and "Has anyone seen Elmer?" were lighthearted ways of asking where the unit's slacker was hiding to avoid his responsibilities. Perhaps troops returning home from the Great War brought this phrase to the civilian world, spreading the search for the ever elusive "Elmer" to the American pop-vernacular. Is it possible that "Elmer" is a missing WWI GI, still being sought by oblivious campers to fulfill his service to his country in Yosemite's campgrounds nearly a century later?
Loudly attempting to determine the whereabouts of this mysterious "Elmer" gained quite a bit of popularity in the 1930s. In 1933, a comedy film starring famous funnyman Joe E. Brown called "Elmer The Great" was released, in which characters can be heard repeatedly calling the name "Elmer" in the dark. Perhaps some camper in Yosemite, thinking themselves a comedian in the vein of Brown, emulated the film and began an unstoppable trend. I'm sure they would be proud, knowing their shenanigans have reigned for nearly eight decades.
Perhaps the origins of "Elmer" were more innocuous than that, maybe even accidental. According to Yosemite historian Shirley Sargent, she received a written confession from a longtime Yosemite camper named Frances Plocker Robinson. According to Robinson's account, during the summer of 1937, her family was camping in the Lower River campground next to a family that was celebrating the engagement of their oldest son, the now infamous Elmer. Elmer, a 21 year old man at the time of his engagement and the proposed inception of the "Elmer" idea, was apparently absent when a celebratory cake was to be served. His family and neighboring campers, close in proximity and camaraderie in those crowded campground days, began calling for Elmer, knowing him to be likely within earshot. For one reason or another, campers throughout the area began chiming in, creating a din of hollering. Before long, an embarrassed Elmer came back to his campsite. According to Robinson, this first instance of "Elmer" disrupted a ranger's campfire program, prompting the ranger to reprimand the family responsible for the original outburst.
Why did other campers decide to take up the call for the missing Elmer? Was it the close bond shared between campers in 1930s Yosemite Valley? Were they really concerned for his well-being? Or were they simply reminded that screaming the name "Elmer" into the night is a funny thing according to the comedy film Elmer The Great?
According to Henry Splitter, who traced "Elmer's" possible beginnings to World War I, he corresponded with a Mr. Edward W. Saurin who can shine a little more (barely helpful) insight onto the beginning of "Elmer" in Yosemite Valley. Saurin worked as a water-boy in the valley campgrounds in the 1930s. Before running water was installed in the camps, someone had to haul water from the river to campsites in buckets. Saurin was paid to hand-deliver water to campers, and when people needed his services, they would call for water. In 1937, a young boy supposedly began calling Edward Saurin "Elmer."
According to Mr. Saurin, this is likely due to the ongoing popularity of the Joe E. Brown picture Elmer The Great. This boy supposedly managed to get his family and other campers to call the name "Elmer" whenever they needed water, giving the name-calling scene from the same film a practical purpose that helped it catch on.
In any case "Elmer" seems to have first appeared in Yosemite Valley around the summer of 1937. Whether it was mimicking a funny line from a film, a missing soldier from the first World War, a lost young fiancée, a campground water-boy, or a combination of elements, "Elmer" is here to stay. But why is he still so popular?
It seems there will always be more questions than answers. Why is it always the same time of year that he shows up? Why is it only Yosemite Valley, for the most part? Perhaps we can settle with knowing it's simply tradition. How does any family tradition start? Families have been camping in Yosemite for generations now, coming back to the same campgrounds year, after year, after year. Perhaps this tradition of camping has provided the perfect breeding ground for another, rather unexpected, tradition. Mothers and fathers teach their daughters and sons about hiking, nature, and "Elmer". The same families come back to the same campsites at the same time of year, every year for decades. They remember the amusement they had the year before, mimicking the seeking call of "Elmer". They pass "Elmer" on to new families as well, or at the very least they confound and irritate the neophytes with their "Yosemite old-timer" shenanigans. Should we embrace "Elmer" as a multi-generational Yosemite tradition? Or should we tighten our rules about noise in the campgrounds, thereby banishing "Elmer?" Or should we let yelling his name continue to be the organic, confusing, yet uniquely Yosemite experience that it has been for nearly 80 years?
Is "Elmer" simply a persistent bear? Is he a missing child? Is he a leftover pop-culture reference to a long-forgotten comedy movie? Is he an over-worked water-boy? Or does his story start with the Doughboy, the inexperienced American troops of World War I? In any case, the next time you're camping in Yosemite, let "Elmer" come to you. His name will almost certainly visit you in the night, perhaps when you least desire it. What you are experiencing is one of Yosemite's longest-lasting, most unregulated, ill-understood, and often unwanted family traditions. Long Live "Elmer!"
Please share any "Elmer" stories, insights, or long-sought sightings in the comments below!