In 1957, Maderans had cause to stop and take stock. Fifty years earlier, in March 1907, the town became the only incorporated city in the county. That event set Madera on a course that would lead its citizens away from their pioneer traditions toward modernity.
At that time the Madera Mercury, looking forward, advised its readers that, “The old-time warmth, energy and ingenuity will be needed during the coming half century to continue the fulfillment of a prediction made after the successful election for incorporation. All of the good things promised for Madera will not be done at once, but they will come in time…and little by little, improvements will come that will mean much for the moral and physical welfare of the city.
Well here we are, and that “coming half-century” to which the Mercury alluded, has come and gone. As to whether that “old-time warmth, energy, and ingenuity still exist in Madera is probably debatable, but one thing is certain: there was a time when it was alive and well.
This week “Pieces of the Past” will continue to eavesdrop on Maderans, as some of them, in 1957, looked back on their past.
“Drummers used to say that this is the liveliest town on the road,” remembered Hermann Glas, one of Madera’s first constables.
Mrs. Will Curtin, a native of Fresno County, recalled that every child growing up with the town “had a wonderful time.”
“Everyone worked together and was sociable and nice, Glas explained. “We just used to do things to make people come to town.”
“The merchants donated, and the community worked together to throw festivals. Waiting for the Fourth of July to come ‘round was almost unbearable for the kids.”
“There were weekly dances in halls and sometimes on Yosemite Avenue. Minstrel shows, theatrical troupes, medicine men and carnivals came through.”
“Small but active clubs and lodges held social functions in the town’s leading hotels, with the Southern on North B Street and Yosemite Avenue a favorite. There were parties in the homes for families and friends or perhaps just buggy rides and strolls through town.”
George Kenney especially remembered the jackrabbit drives when the whole town turned out and finished the day with a barbecue.
“The sporting crowd raced dogs after the rabbits in the fields now covered with homes, attended boxing matches, bet on horse races held at a track near the present Cleveland Avenue, north of the river, played roller hockey and had “darn good” baseball trams.”
“Within a few years after the incorporation of Madera, rodeos were held along the east side of the railroad tracks between Yosemite Avenue and Sixth Street, and community band concerts were presented near there. At that time, with no highway, the courthouse park extended to the railroad tracks.”
“Then there was always Chinatown with its strange, noisy festivals, topped by firecracker-celebrated New Years and its dice games that children sometimes wandered through to be treated kindly and given a handful of candy.”
Glas recalled that once “everyone chipped in to send a Spanish speaking local resident to Mexico for a matador and built fences and grandstands for an arena beside the railroad tracks on North E Street. The town then produced bullfights for a week.”
“Working through the Chamber of Commerce, organized in 1905, the citizens gave time, money and effort to make their town grow and prosper. Nello Barsotti, an early-day and long-time manager of the chamber, recalled the time Maderans pledged $150,000 to entice the Sugar Pine Company (not to be confused with the Madera Sugar Pine Company) to locate its mill here and $4,000 to promote the “Sea to Yosemite” road through the town.”
“Both of these projects failed. The mill went to Pinedale and was responsible for the development of the community there. State legislators from Merced County defeated the Yosemite Highway bill.”
“Other efforts, however, were successful and provided visible landmarks of progress today. The long-awaited Friant Dam, the Madera-Yosemite sign at Yosemite Avenue and F Streets, and the highway bridge were all community-supported chamber projects. These things were done because the townspeople had only themselves to depend upon for prosperity and entertainment.”
“With the development of rapid transportation, closure of the mills, and other changes and modernization, the town grew in one sense and disintegrated in another. The new faces and different ways and means of living have made the City of Madera, at age 50, less closely bound together and occupied with more varied and scattered activities.”
“But although the minstrel shows and buggy rides have been replaced by other things, the gracious hotels and Chinatown have disappeared, and many needs filled, the spirit of those years can never be outdated.”
And that was the view half a century ago. One has to wonder what they would think today.