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Whitecaps whip up justice in foothills

Madera County Historical Society

The Hildreth Hotel was the scene of a 1901 conspiracy to administer foothill justice to William Sellers for telling the law about some illegal timber harvesting by a few of his neighbors. The lawbreakers laid their plans for retribution in the hotel saloon. 


The Hildreth Hotel stood in the center of the little community, which carried the same name. The two-story structure had several upstairs rooms for rent and a well-furnished saloon on the bottom floor.


On any given Friday or Saturday night, the miners and lumberjacks of Hildreth could be found unwinding after a week of hard labor in the foothills of Eastern Madera County.


As a general rule the booze flowed freely in the friendly atmosphere of the Hildreth Hotel, but on May 1, 1901, trouble was brewing in one corner. A handful of mountain men with blood in their eyes was hatching a revenge plot against a stoolpigeon who had caused them considerable trouble.


Oliver Chetwood was the ringleader of the bunch, which included Ben Parrent, Fred Noble, John McMann, John Benson, and George Muller. They were all respected cattlemen in the hills, but recently they had run afoul of the law over some lumber, all on account of their neighbor, William Sellers.


It seems that they had been helping themselves to some of the nearby government timber, and Sellers found out about it. Seeing it as his civic duty to report the pilfering, William reported them to George Borstadt, special agent for the General Land Office.


It didn’t take long for the timber thieves to settle on Sellers as their nemesis; hence they gathered at the Hildreth Hotel to plan his recompense.


The next night, as Sellers and his two sons, 14-year-old Alonzo and 11-year-old Claude were crawling into bed, they heard something at the door of their tiny cabin. At first they didn’t give it much thought. After all, they were located next to the Zebra mine where strange noises in the night were commonplace. As things turned out, they should have been more attentive.


Suddenly someone shoved the door open, and the room was filled with men wearing barley sacks to cover their faces. One stepped forward and asked for some tobacco. The request had no sooner been made than a second intruder pointed a gun in Sellers’ face and ordered him and his sons out of bed.


William and his boys were taken outside naked, and the father was tied to a tree. The sons were bound with ropes and stretched out on the ground. With that, one of the masked men began to give Sellers the whipping of his life with thick, stiff branches.


Finally, with blood flowing down his back and legs, Sellers was let down and a rope was tied around the neck of Claude, the youngest son. The boy was dragged to the tree, and the rope was thrown over one of its branches. For a moment Sellers thought they were going to hang his son, but his assailants apparently were not quite ready to commit murder.


They lifted Claude up for a few seconds and then dropped him to the ground, only to pick him up and drop him again. This operation was repeated several times, and then it was Alonzo’s turn. Like his little brother, up and down he went at the end of the rope.


William Sellers and his sons endured their torture for two hours. Then the men gave them clothes and marched them down an old cow path for more than three hours.


At the end of the trail, everyone stopped, and that was when Sellers was told why he and his sons had been assaulted. This was what would happen in the future to anyone who would interfere with the clandestine lumber operation.


Sellers was told to take his sons and leave the area. He was told he and his sons would be shot on sight if they remained in the Madera County hill country.


With that, the masked men faded off into the woods while Sellers and his sons waited until morning. When the sun came up Sellers and his sons walked to O’Neals to give Constable Bigelow an account of their ordeal. He told the lawman that he could identify the men by their voices.


On May 7, 1901, Bigelow arrested the alleged vigilantes. They included Oliver Chetwood, Ethan Allen, F. Anderson, John McMann, Fred Noble, John Benson, and George Muller.


Judge Klette of Bellview examined the defendants and ruled that they had to stand trial in Madera’s Superior Court. However, if Sellers felt vindicated, it came too soon.


In September 1901, the Madera County “whitecaps” went free. The jury was hung and could not return a verdict.


As it turned out, everyone went back to square one. The cattlemen returned to their ranches, and Sellers went back to hauling legal timber by wagon.


As for Land Agent Borstadt, he was no longer needed in the area. Apparently the “whitecap whippings” put an end to the illegal harvesting of timber in Eastern Madera County.