History of Madera

On May 16, 1893 Madera County officially became a County of the State of California, but it was in 1876 that the first lots of the proposed village were put on the auction block and the future Madera County seat had its beginning.

Actually, Madera was a Johnny-come-lately. As the Southern Pacific Railroad laid its tracks south through the San Joaquin Valley in 1872, it brought into existence the towns of Modesto, Merced, Minturn, Borden, and Berenda – but not Madera. Likewise, before Madera was even conceived, in the foothills the older mining communities of Buchanan, and Grub Gulch flourished, as did the towns of Coarsegold, Finegold, and Fresno Flats (now Oakhurst) higher up in the mountains.

Finally Madera came on the scene, and the announcement of its founding was greeted with something less than excitement, given the fact that it had no connection with mining and was not part of the Southern Pacific’s plan for the San Joaquin Valley. Madera’s birth certificate was issued in a story in the October 11, 1876 issue of the Fresno Expositor. It read in part, “The new town laid out by the California Lumber Company at the point where the company’s flume intersects the railroad has been graced with the name of Madera – the Spanish word for lumber. It promises to be quite a flourishing town, and the demand for lots is great.”

The Expositor went on to report that a public sale of lots was scheduled to take place on Tuesday, October 24th, at the town site. The lumber company was ready to bring its raw product down the recently completed flume, where it would be finished at the new planning mill. Everything was set; Madera was ready to roll.

One month later, County Supervisor Hensley informed the Expositor “Building is going on at a lively rate at the new town of Madera. More than a dozen buildings are in the course of construction, and others will be built as soon as workmen can be obtained. The continuous sound of saw and hammer and the busy activity of the workmen impart a prosperous, business-like appearance to the town.”

On January 10, 1877, the Expositor sent a reporter to Madera to determine for himself precisely what the current status of the valley’s newest burg was. What he found was astounding! From the sands of the Fresno Plains, in a matter of weeks, a town had arisen where formerly only jackrabbits and antelope played. “But a few weeks ago there was not a dwelling within a mile of here,” noted the reporter. “ Today there are probably 25, some of which are better by far than the casual observer would at the first glance believe could be built and fitted up in such a short time.”

The most “pretentious,” according to the reporter, was a house erected by a Mr. Jason that was used as a hotel. Jason was apparently in the process of expanding his building in order to make it a true hotel, both in name and substance.

The next building in size was Captain Mace’s saloon. It was a rectangular building, 24 feet by 56 feet, with the long side facing the mill reservation, which became Yosemite Avenue. Apparently Mace was also busy transforming his building into a first rate hotel, for the reporter asserted that, “The Captain intends making certain additions in the spring…” Evidently he was successful, for it was the jocular Mace who is credited by all responsible historical authorities with owning the first real hotel in Madera.

Next to Mace’s saloon, in these early months of Madera’s existence, was a saloon built by C.E. Strivens. It was reported to be a comfortable, neatly fitted up saloon, and its owner was said to be making himself generally agreeable to all comers. Just beyond Strivens’ place stood a small building owned by a Mr. Sanford.

Across the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks to the west was the public house of Mark Anderson, which was adorned with a “bold and artistically formed sign which bore his name and indicated that he was there to do business in his old friendly was, so familiar to the food people of the whole country round about.” At this time there were no merchandise stores in Madera, although there were about 20 private residences. As promising as the up-and-coming town of Madera appeared, not everyone welcomed this upstart newcomer. The Expositor reported that “just a slight tinge of jealousy is now and again manifested between Borden and Madera. This apprehension on the part of the citizens in the town just four miles south of Madera was well justified. In a few short years, it was totally eclipsed by its lumber town neighbor.

Within a few months, the residents of Madera were thinking about the education of their youth. On March 21, 1877, a public meeting was held to discuss the erection of a school building. Those early Maderans decided that evening to begin work at once. The building was 50 feet by 30 feet, had a 16-foot ceiling, and embraced all of the “modern improvements.” The school was built on two acres of land and was fenced and planted with numerous shade trees. Upon completion of the school, plans were made for the first church.

By April 1877, Madera, having no newspaper of its own, was getting regular press coverage in the Fresno Expositor. Under the heading of “Madera Items,” it was reported that a drove of antelope had crossed the railroad tracks at Madera on April 4th. Additionally, C.H. Evans had built a handsome verandah in front of his saloon and planned to cover it with an awning like the one above the entrance to the El Capitan Hotel in Merced. Further, Dr. Brown had purchased Sanford’s saloon, poured the whiskey out into the dirt street, and fitted up the building as a drug store.

In 1896, Madera became the county seat of newly created Madera County. During the same year construction on a new courthouse, jail, zoo and County Park began. In March of 1898 the first Chamber of Commerce was formed. Forty-nine men paid $2.50 charter membership dues.

Madera soon moved into the 20th century and continued to grow with the main part of town being three blocks long. The City of Madera was incorporated on March 27, 1907. Until pacing in 1912, those three blocks and the rest of the wide main street named Yosemite Avenue were chuck-holed and billowing with dust in the summer, thick with mud miring wagons to their axles in winter. The only relief from the dirt were several lengths of wooden sidewalks.

Several grocery stores including Rosenthal-Kutner, at the corner of Yosemite and E Street, sold general merchandise; everything from a pocket handkerchief to a harness as well as groceries. Others were Franchi’s Grocery, Rochdale, Wehrman-Meilike, Moore-Plate, Petty’s and Friedburger and Harder. Lacy Robertson’s Saloon at the corner of D and Yosemite had a swinging door on the corner. Depending on which report is read, it was one of 14…or 21 or 23… saloons on Yosemite Avenue. There were two banks on the same block, First National on one end and the Commercial Bank on the other end of the 200 block.

Other businesses included several Chinese restaurants, Mugler’s Harness Shop, several blacksmiths, McCabes Rooming House, Curtin’s Livery Stables, which took up a quarter block, and Brammer’s Shoe Store. Preciado’s, where Wells Fargo Bank is today, was a family store. Sporting goods, newspapers, millinery and stationery were available and an ice cream parlor with homemade ice cream. It was also where most Maderans gathered to listen to national radio broadcasts of important happenings such as elections, prizefights, baseball games and horse racing. Next door was the large Tighe-Breyfogle Company, a department store with yardage, shoes and men’s and women’s clothing.

Hunter’s Drugstore was the cool spot to be in the summer heat. They had ceiling fans over the front door and inside, ice cream chairs and tables and homemade ice cream. Mace’s Yosemite Hotel, the largest in town catered to the railroad passengers who spent the night before traveling on to Yosemite Valley. Others were the Southern Hotel on North B Street and Barsotti’s on the west side of town. The Southern was known as a “first class family hotel-no liquor sold.” Barsotti’s advertised meals for 25 cents. The arrival of passenger trains usually attracted a large number of people watching to see who got off and who was getting on.

There was a skating rink on the second floor of a south D street building that swayed when it had a crowd in it. It was the home of the Madera Polo Team that became the State Champion Roller Polo Team of California.

So, within half a year of its founding, the town of Madera began building its destiny, but not without some growing pains. Such was downtown Madera through the first two decades of the century and now we begin the first decade of the new century in which “history” will be created, then described in some future period. It’s all just a matter of time!

It was the lumber industry that gave birth to the town of Madera, but for a while it was just barely alive. Twice its heartbeat almost ceased, and it was only through the courage of a handful of citizens that it was resuscitated.

Within a year after the founding of Madera by the California Lumber Company, that concern was in deep trouble. The devastating drought of 1877 created a panic throughout the entire San Joaquin Valley. Lumber piled up in the new Madera yards awaiting customers who never came. On February 20, the short-lived operation was declared bankrupt, and its properties passed to a San Jose bank.

On May 21, 1878, the officers of the bank, led by a man with the unusual name Return Roberts, incorporated another lumber company, the Madera Flume and Trading Company. This successor to the California Lumber Company continued the Madera logging operation and helped save the town from an early death. Two sawmills were constructed in the mountains, and soon lumber was once more making its way down the flume to the new little village of Madera. Adversity, however, remained poised and always threatened.

In 1881, a disastrous fire completely destroyed the lumberyards of Madera, and in the 1890’s, a nation wide depression put the Madera Flume and Trading Company on the verge of extinction. At that point, along came Elmer H. Cox, who with Return Roberts and Michigan lumber magnate Arthur Hill formed the third major lumber company in Madera. Under Cox’s astute direction, the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company was incorporated, and on May 8, 1899, it took over the assets of the Madera Flume and Trading Company.

The old lumber flume was rebuilt and extended. Logging techniques became more sophisticated as a logging railroad was pushed into the woods to enable loggers to cut timber at greater distances from the millpond. By the 1920’s, seven locomotives were needed to bring timber to the mill.

The Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company existed for more than three decades and made money nearly every season. It harvested more than 50 million broad feet of timber annually and continued to pump life into Madera. Then in 1931, economic depression again raised its ugly head. Once more a nationwide depression destroyed the market for lumber, and the last log was finally cut.

Although the Madera yards continued to function for two more seasons, the mountain camp was closed for good. In due time, the locomotives, mill equipment, and other properties were sold, and the corporation known as the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company quietly disappeared. Today little remains of what was once the single most important economic force in Madera.

For more than 50 years the fortunes of Madera were inextricably bound to lumber; from 1876 to 1933, the town was nourished by timber. To a large degree, it was the resiliency of that industry that kept the town alive. By the time the death knell sounded for the lumber men, the farmers, who already had been contributing to the economy for many years, stood ready to fill the gap. Diversified agriculture took up where lumber left off, and today, Madera and Madera County harbor a rich farming economy.

Its eventual demise notwithstanding, the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company continues to be remembered. Its role in Madera’s history is too important to be forgotten. The legacy of its lumberjacks and the men who worked the mills in Madera will always enrich her story.

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION… Celebrating 100 Years 1907-2007
On March 27, 2007, the City of Madera celebrated its 100th Anniversary. The City of Madera organized a Centennial Committee to develop plans for a series of events throughout the year. The following Centennial events were held and the public was invited and encourage to attend: the Old Timer’s Parade in September 2006 kicked off the year with a Centennial Theme; the City of Madera hosted a Centennial Kick-Off Celebration in January 2007 with an Open House at City Hall, followed by a City Council meeting with the reading of a Proclamation, by Bill Coate, designating 2007 as our Centennial Celebration year; the Madera Chamber of Commerce, along with the Madera Rotary Club and Madera Sunrise Rotary, hosted a Century Luncheon on March 27, 1907 celebrating our City’s 100th Birthday and heritage – a look at Madera’s Past, Madera Today, and Madera’s Future. This event also honored Jay Chapel and the Madera Tribune, celebrating over 100 years in business in Madera; the Madera City Council and Staff hosted the dedication of ‘Centennial Park’ (renaming Swimming Pool Park) located at the corner of 4th and Flume Streets. Mr. Mike Hinton and students of Madera High School presented the city with a Time Capsule; the Madera Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in celebration of the City’s century mark, the event honored individuals that have, and continue, to play a key role in defining the City of Madera. The City of Madera Parks and Community Services Department invited members of the community to join in the celebration of the City of Madera’s 100th birthday by adopting a Centennial Tree. Trees were planted on April 27th and October 20, 2007.

A portion of this information provided courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society and Bill Coate, a retired teacher from Sierra Vista Elementary School and writer for the Madera Tribune