Of course, the legend of Pegleg's lost gold mine is one of the most enduring (and endearing) treasure stories of the American Desert Southwest. Legend has it that Smith was an authentic mountain man in the nineteenth century tradition. His skills were far ranging, branching into the fields of Indian fighting, horse thievery and, of course, storytelling. While in San Francisco in the late 1800's, some might have been surprised to learn that Pegleg would regale any and all comers to the saloon with tales of a fabulously rich strike he had made in the hills of the Borrego desert. In return for a shot or two of whiskey. If they were surprised, they should not have been. After Smith's death, his stories lived on and evolved into legends that rival even the many stories of Jacob Waltz and the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona.
Of course, there can be no "true" version of the legend of the lost Pegleg Smith gold, but the essential elements are that the strike was in the Borrego Springs area, within what is now the Anza-Borrego Desert region, somewhere west of the Salton Sea, east of Coyote Canyon, and south from Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Borrego Sink. The nuggets were blackened and thus quite distinctive. All the rest of the details are left to the machinations and caprice of the Pegophiles.
Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver provided the motivation for the beginnings of the Pegleg contest. Reports differ, but sometime between 1916 and the mid-1930's, Oliver started the Pegleg Smith Club. Enjoying the perpetuation of the Pegleg stories, Oliver referred to himself as the "press agent for Pegleg's ghost." His club, composed of local Borrego residents, would meet and tell each other lies and stories. Oliver's meetings could be considered, not only the nascent Liars' Contest, but also the precursor to today's Burning Man Celebration, which takes place in the Nevada desert each year. Oliver's meetings were held on New Year's Eve. They were called the "Burning Party" because well known desert artist John Hilton would throw his "mistakes" into the fire, much to the chagrin of the other celebrants.
In November of 1947, Harry and several cronies erected a monument to Pegleg. It still stands today. While relatively unprepossessing, it is as enduring as the legends. A sign reads "Let him who seeks Pegleg Smith's gold add ten rocks to this monument." There is an imposing pile of rocks behind the sign, attesting to the strength and lasting attraction of the Pegleg legend. On January 1, 1948, Oliver sponsored the first "Lost Pegleg Mine Trek." This was the first public meeting of Oliver's club. The night before, tall tales were bandied about the fire at the new monument in preparation for the arduous trek. The event was so successful that Oliver decided to add an official Liars' Contest to the trek the following year. On January 1st, 1949, the first official Liars' Contest was held with over six hundred people in attendance. (Note that the correct spelling of "liars'" should be in the plural possessive. This is a fine point hotly insisted upon by the inner sanctum, aka Bill Jennings, of the present day contest. To do any different would, of course, blaspheme the name and tradition of Pegleg and all prevaricators the world over).
Sadly enough, the original contest lasted only a decade. The contest of 1959, due to an argument over the correct date for the contest, brought the event to an end. Then, in the autumn of 1974, a plan was hatched to restore the contest to its rightful place of honor. The first Saturday of April was chosen as the date for the contest in recognition of the many blistering cold nights Harry Oliver must have spent out howling on the desert floor while burning canvases to stay warm.
Coincidentally, Oliver's birthday was April 4th, and the first Saturday in April served as a fine reminder of the man.