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Madera matches lit the sky

March 13, 2019

Madera County Historical Societyt

In 1903, C.M. Petty let go of his vision of operating a match factory after it burned to the ground. However, he didn’t give up on business in Madera. Always the entrepreneur, he opened this grocery store, and he and his son, Willis, operated it for years. Petty is shown here inside his Yosemite Avenue store in 1938.

The month of May held a high and a low for Madera’s self-esteem. A visit by President Theodore Roosevelt represented the zenith of community pride, but then came the nadir. Just eleven days after Roosevelt’s departure, Madera‘s Pacific Coast Match Factory went up in flames. At 1:30 in the afternoon of May 29, 1903, C.M. Petty’s dream went up in smoke. In just half an hour it had turned into nothing but a mass of smoldering ruins.

 

The Pacific Coast Match factory had been riding the crest of the spirit of optimism which pervaded the business community as Madera progressed into the 20th century. Agriculture was on the rebound after the economic disaster of the 1890’s. The old flume of the defunct Madera Flume and Trading Company had been rebuilt by a new enterprise — the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company — and fresh lumber was shooting down the huge water slide from the mountains to the town’s new mill site. It was a great time for business, and that’s why C. M. Petty was so excited.

 

The Pennsylvania transplant had been in Madera for two or three years when back in May,1901, he announced that Madera was going to have a new factory. This latest local enterprise would be dubbed the Pacific Coast Match Company, and it would be the only producer of parlor matches west of the Mississippi River. According to Petty, it couldn’t miss. He fully expected to break the nationwide monopoly held by the Diamond Match Company, and it would all start right in Madera.

 

Petty was joined initially by James E. Smith, W. A. Moore, and John Richardson. After forming their corporation, the men sold shares at $1 each and quickly raised $7,000 of the $15,000 they would need to build their plant and install the machinery. Wood for the matches would come from the pine blocks, which were sold for fuel by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company. Petty estimated that when the Madera match factory reached its full capacity, it would produce 72,000 boxes per day. He was quick to point out that this would total 720,000 matches!

 

It didn’t take Petty long to learn that word of his Madera match factory idea  had spread to San Francisco. Hass Brothers, the well-known wholesale grocery firm, wrote that it was interested in distributing Petty’s product. At that point, the entire town came alive with enthusiasm. Heeding the advice of the editor of the Mercury, Maderans lined up to purchase shares in Petty’s Pacific Match Company. In one day alone, he sold 300 shares! Petty and his partners made ready to purchase a site and build their plant.

 

They settled on sixteen lots in Block 8 of the Lankershim addition, where they built their factory. Twelve men and four women initially constituted the work force; within a month that number doubled. The monthly payroll climbed to $2,000.

 

In the months that followed, Petty was on the road constantly, drumming up business for Madera’s new match factory. He visited every town along the Southern Pacific Railroad line and experienced great success. He introduced his matches in all of the retail stores and new orders flooded the Madera office. The outlook was great, and everyone was encouraged. Then the unthinkable occurred.

 

No one knows just what happened, but somehow the Madera match factory caught on fire before it had been in operation a full year. The flames were discovered in the afternoon, and by night fall, despite the fire department’s valiant efforts to save the new establishment, Petty’s dream came crashing down — with no insurance to cover the loss. Almost as quickly as it was born, Madera’s Pacific Match Company went up in a giant puff of smoke.

 

C. M. Petty let go of his vision of a match factory after the fire, but he didn’t give up on business in Madera. Always the entrepreneur, he opened a grocery store which he and his son, Willis operated for years, and inside that store, Petty displayed several boxes of Madera matches, more as a momento than anything else. Today his descendants have what is left of that inventory — the only known remnants of Madera’s match factory.

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