Madera County Historical Society
This photograph of Fresno Flats taken circa 1910 shows a sleepy little mountain village. In time that would change as it took on a new name and became a 20th century tourist attraction known as Oakhurst.
John Robert Nichols has been given credit for being the first Anglo settler in the Fresno Flats area, arriving there in 1858. Located near the head of the Fresno River, White Ash trees abounded. Since most mountain meadows were known as flats, the spot became known as Fresno Flats, drawing upon the Spanish word for Ash trees, but it wouldn’t carry that name forever.
Over the next few years, Nichols was joined by other settlers; those who were interested in starting a permanent settlement as opposed to the fly-by-night mining camps that proliferated in the mountains at that time. Soon they were raising hogs, sheep, and planting orchards at Fresno Flats. Within a short time, the lumber industry would give the fledgling village a jump-start, and then tourism would take over to lay the permanent foundations for what it was to become one day.
This is not to say gold was never important to the economy of the area. By 1880, one of the best-developed quartz mines in the area, the Enterprise Mine, was located near Fresno Flats. In that year, the operation employed 40 men and produced gold ore worth between $7,000 to $8,000 every month. This factor notwithstanding, lumber, stock-raising, and tourism remained the economic mainstays of Fresno Flats.
In 1868, the first school in what is now Madera County opened near Fresno Flats. J. Beasore, George Sharpton, and Tom Winkleman shared the work and expense. It was a one-room, log cabin affair, located on the road to Crane Valley (Bass Lake). The first teacher was Hiram Cornet. In 1871, it was moved closer to town, and in 1874, a brand new building was constructed from cut boards. It was built on land owned by Robert Nichols.
A slight controversy apparently developed when both Beasore and Sharpton claimed the lumber from the first school building. Each man thought the logs should revert to him. They offered to sell to one another, but neither one thought he ought to pay. The debate grew hot and heavy, until an accommodation was reached when they decided to split the spoils. Each man took half of the schoolhouse. The building was cut in two, and each of the contestants moved their respective shares to his own property. Beasore is reported to have used his for a corncrib and a cooling house.
By 1873, Fresno Flats was ready for its first store, which was opened by a man named Balleau. In August of the same year, the Fresno Flats Post office was opened. Previous to this, the mail came to town from Mariposa via horseback. In 1874, the California Lumber Company and later its successor, the Madera Flume and Trading Company, began its flume approximately eight miles from Fresno Flats. Then in 1879, the wagon road from Madera to Yosemite was completed. Now, serving the needs of travelers became the town’s chief industry.
By 1880, Fresno Flats could boast a population of 200 people, two stores, two hotels, a blacksmith shop, a skating rink, three saloons, and a dance hall.
The town maintained its existence in spite of the fact the new road from Raymond to Yosemite took some of the tourist trade. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, it remained a sleepy little village on the route to Yosemite. It was not to stay that way for long, however.
According to an account given by Mrs. Albert Wider and transcribed by June English, Fresno Flats lost its name in 1912, through a petition circulated by a young bride, who whenever the name of Fresno Flats was mentioned, always remembered, “That’s where the fellow lived who robbed the stagecoach.”
Not wanting her hometown to be remembered as a den of iniquity, the petition was very quietly sent to Washington. As a result, Fresno Flats became Oakhurst through an Act of Congress, as the report goes. The old-timers never learned the names of the petitioners, but they did know the names of those who were not on the document, which included most everyone they knew.
Where did all of the signatures on the petition come from? “Never underestimate the power of a woman,” was the response. The postmaster of Fresno Flats, much to his surprise, was then notified that the official name of the town had been changed.
Today Fresno Flats exists as Oakhurst, and the name is not the only thing that has changed. Tourism has resumed its rightful spot at the heart of the community. Today, as one rides past the Talking Bear on Highway 41, there is no indication the town was ever anything but prosperous or that it was ever known as Fresno Flats.