A legacy good as gold

One Newport Beach family knows quite well the drive to strike it rich that was common during the California Gold Rush.

Sarajane Bartholomae, 67, and her four daughters — Kamme Hodge, 45, Korre Hartling, 43, Krista Hartling, 42, and Tori Hartling, 37 traded five weeks of Southern California sunshine for five weeks of harsh Alaskan cold last fall to reopen the family's gold mines.

Their adventure is the focus of "Alaska Gold Diggers," a six-episode series on Animal Planet premiering at 8 p.m. Thursday.

"Come on, you can't [make up] stuff like this," said Jenny Daly, president of the production company T Group and an executive producer on the show.

A family friend, hearing about the idea from them, pitched the story to producers.


Following in family footsteps

Beyond the prospect of financial wealth, the five women sought to reconnect with their family's mining history.

Sarajane's father, William Bartholomae, worked his way west across the United States from New York.

A man of adventure, he paused his travels to California when World War I began. He enlisted and served as a pilot in the war, she said.

Only later did he strike it rich.

Using money made in the oil business, Sarajane's father bought property in Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Sarajane said he operated mines there until World War II, when the price to continue running them was no longer worth the effort.

The Bartholomae women decided to reopen them when the price of gold hit $1,800 per ounce.

"It gave Mom that fuel and that excitement," Kamme said. "It was like, we've got to do this now."

The daughters, who all share the middle name Bartholomae, decided everyone should travel to Alaska in a full-on family gold mining effort.

Korre had just re-married. She and Kamme both had young kids they needed to care for. But the adventure and sense of family obligation trumped everything, they said. After all, no one wanted to be left behind.

The women drew on William's drive to become a self-made man as an example for their future.

"We're gamers, we're ready for a challenge" Krista said.

They shared an excitement to follow in the footsteps of their grandfather, whom they nicknamed "Popper" but never met.

"It was honoring my father, finishing his dream," Sarajane said.

William was killed when Sarajane was just 17. A woman stabbed him twice, believing he had harmed her half-sister. She spoke only Spanish and he only English, so he could not explain that her half-sister had collapsed from abdominal pain while cutting mushrooms.

In doing the show, the family wanted to put the incident behind them and focus on his legacy.


Filming the show

The first episode of "Alaska Gold Diggers" portrays the women out of place and clueless, yet determined to work hard and succeed in making their efforts — and $60,000 they raised to get the mines up and running — worthwhile.

Gathering at Fashion Island in October for an interview, the five recalled just how different their circumstances were one year ago.

Krista, who says she plugs her nose when she walks into the perfume section of a department store, felt surrounded by the smell of beer, cigarettes, salt and fish in Alaska.

The women endured living conditions drastically different from the Newport Beach home in which they grew up. There was no running water in the roughly 100-year-old cabin where they stayed, they said. The door was built to stave off bears.

The weather dealt the hardest challenges, they said. Rain felt like icicles piercing their skin. The sun seemed never to go down. All concept of time wore away. The ground froze.

The women let their usual makeup routines slide and continued to don multiple layers of clothing day by day.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," Korre said. "There's the gold."

Without nameing the value, Sarajane said the amount of gold they collected before the weather made mining impossible proved enough to make her want to return this past summer.

"It's like the best Easter egg hunt you could ever imagine," she said.

At Fashion Island, they donned the designer sunglasses that the production team denied them during filming because each woman needed to be identifiable.

When they walked into Neiman Marcus, salespeople identified them just fine, waving hello in recognition as they entered.

And yet, while examining Christian Louboutin heels last week, Tori fielded a call from Alaska with joy in her voice.

"I mean, really, this is what we do," said Sarajane, looking on. "We're shopping and we have to deal with Nome, Alaska."

[For the record, 9:26 a.m. Oct. 11: An earlier version incorrectly reported the girls' nickname for their grandfather was Poppers. It was actually Popper. Also, it incorrectly stated that William Bartholomae came west in 1848. He was not yet born then.]

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