Judge Conley led fight for Madera County's existence

August 1, 2017

Courtesy of Madera County Historical Society
Superior Court Judge William M. Conley is seen here sitting in his chambers in the brand new courthouse in 1903, 10 years after he won the election to serve as Madera County’s first Superior Court judge.

Eighteen ninety-three was a watershed year in Madera’s history. That is when the northern portion of Fresno County was sliced off to form Madera County. The battle to accomplish this is well-known, but what is not so well known is the part that Madera County’s first Superior Court judge, William M. Conley, played in the drama.


In 1892, Conley ran for the office of Merced County district attorney but was defeated. Casting about elsewhere for a more propitious place to build his future, the 26-year-old lawyer came to Madera to rest after his campaign. As fate would have it, the sentiments for county division were running rampant here. They were absolutely uncontainable, and Conley hopped on the bandwagon.


The alert and ambitious young attorney promptly made a couple of speeches in favor of the proposed county division. The next day a group of very impressed local citizens asked him to represent Madera in Sacramento in the effort to create Madera County since he knew many of the state legislators personally.


This area was represented in the state senate by George W. Goucher. Its two assemblymen were George W. Mordecai and H. D. Jacobsen.


Goucher and Mordecai promptly came out in favor of division while Jacobsen, pressured by some of his mountain constituents, led the opposition.


It was Goucher who got Conley aside to tell him that some expression of desire from the local citizens would be necessary before the legislature could take up the question, and that is how that famous “howling time” took place on the evening of Jan. 28 at Kutner Hall in Fresno.


Conley returned to Madera to report this, and the meeting was arranged. On the day of the gathering, over 400 Maderans boarded a special train to make their wishes known in Fresno. Their instructions were to march directly into Kutner Hall and fill every seat in the house. This left hardly any room for latecomers.


At the appointed hour, Miles Wallace of Sanger called the meeting to order, and just as the debate began, the fire alarm went off. Of course, all of the Fresno people left the scene to go fight the fire (It should be noted that Fresno’s fire chief was William H. Hughes, who later became treasurer of Madera County).


When the fire bell’s warning turned out to be a false alarm, the Fresnoites returned only to find the seats taken by the Maderans.


Wallace, calling for a standing vote, counted all who were standing, including the Fresno voters who had no chairs. The vote tally produced a lop-sided victory for division.


So the triumphant Maderans came home with an expression of the people’s will to show their legislators. Mordecai promptly introduced a bill to create Madera County in the Assembly and Goucher followed suit in the Senate. The legislature passed the measure, and a countywide election was ordered for May 16, 1893 (only those living in the proposed new county were allowed to vote).


On that day, the voters would decide not only whether or not they wanted to create Madera County but also who its officers would be. At that point, Conley hopped into action and threw his hat into the ring for Superior Court judge. His opponent was W.H. Larew.


Larew was one of the prime movers of the county division fight, but Conley was nominated. His first campaign speech was given in Grub Gulch.


Given his tender age, it came as no surprise that he was heckled somewhat by the Grub Gulch miners on the subject of his youth. When Conley pointed out that the passage of time would take care of that, somebody suggested they wanted their candidate to be a married man. Conley was again equal to the task. He promised that he would be married in 60 days!


On election day, the proposal for the creation of Madera County passed by a margin of two to one. At the same time, William M. Conley was elected Madera County’s first Superior Court judge. 
Judge Conley served on the bench in Madera County from 1893 to 1921. After trying over 1,300 cases, only four were reversed on appeal, and of those, two were jury trials.


So, the young lawyer who came to Madera to lead in the fight for the creation of Madera County wound up rendering justice here for 28 years. Judge William M. Conley was an uncommon man in uncommon times.

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