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Barnett knew a lot more than he told

April 27, 2019

Madera County Historical Society

One of George Barnett’s favorite stories had to do with his family and their fighting roosters. Pictured here in 1917, from left to right — top row, Constable and soon-to-be sheriff John H. Barnett and his brother-in-law, Walter Brown. Below them sit Fred Barnett, holding “Sureshot,” and Frank Barnett.

Am I wrong? Have 18 years passed since George Barnett died? Can that be true?

I often reflect on some of those great stories he told of early Madera. He knew where all of the skeletons were. One was buried at a certain place on the West Side. He had been shot by a highly respected Maderan for horse stealing. Another one had to do with his uncle, John H. Barnett, who was sheriff of Madera County from 1918 to 1928. 

 

George told me that this uncle, who was born prematurely, was so small that he spent his first few nights sleeping in a cigar box. Now, I was never really certain whether George was spinning a yarn or telling me the truth on this one — sometimes it was difficult to tell when he was pulling my leg. However, I never heard George recant the story of his uncle’s premature birth and tiny size, so I rather think he believed it. They just may have used cigar boxes as incubators in 1878, especially up in the foothills around Mariposa where the Barnetts lived before they moved to Madera.  

 

That cigar box story and the shooting of the horse thief weren’t the only tales that George shared with me, and they weren’t the last. Another episode that stands out in my mind concerns a community activity — cockfighting. Today it is illegal, but at the turn of the 20th century it was all the rage and knew no cultural boundaries.

 

The Barnetts had just settled in Madera in 1890. John R. Barnett had opened up a butcher shop on Yosemite Avenue. It was a family affair, and everyone worked hard. They played hard too, and among their favorite pastimes was cockfighting. 

 

Now it just so happened that one night shortly after the Barnetts’ arrival, Madera hosted a well-advertised cockfight, pitting its local birds against those brought down from Merced. After much haggling, the negotiators finally settled on an “11 cock main.” This meant that each city would bring 11 birds to the fight. The first to win six matches would win the “main” and take home the booty; the losers would bury their birds. 

 

News of the impending battle spread quickly, and on the appointed evening, cockfight fans, including the Barnett boys and their father, poured into the arena. The Fresno Expositor reported that “A large contingent of Fresno sports were also on hand, and they each carried well-filled sacks containing the coin of the realm which they desired to place on the Madera birds.”

 

At 10 p.m. the action began. The first two birds that entered the contest were “beauties,” both weighing approximately 5 1/2 pounds. When the referee ordered the birds to be dropped, Madera’s representative, a Black Pyle, was beset by bashfulness; at first he seemed a bit shy of his adversary. Soon, however, he began to strut around the ring and finally made a dive at the Merced Red, which managed to evade the thrust. The Black Pyle quickly struck again, this time knocking a few feathers out of the Red. After a round of ferocious fighting, the Madera bird drew first blood and went on to win the match. The Maderans were delirious!

 

The second event turned out to be the longest; it ran for 20 minutes. When the dust had finally settled, the Merced crowd was given a chance to crow, for their bird was the victor. 

 

In round three, the two smallest birds were pitted against each other. This fight was deemed “the most spirited of the evening.” The Madera bird cut his opponent to the ground in seconds and began crowing proudly over his victory. The Merced bird, however, was not finished. While down on its back, it continued to peck at the Madera bird. Finally the coup de grace was applied, and the Madera crowd cheered once more.

 

Madera lost the fourth event, setting the stage for a crucial fifth round. It was to be the quickest. The excitement ran high through the stands. With six more contests to follow, the momentum would be with the winner of the fifth fight.

 

The Merced handler came to the line with a Black Spanish, while Madera unveiled its “Unknown.” A quizzical ripple ran through the Merced section. “What is it?” was the question most asked. The Madera handler bid the spectators to “Never mind; just watch it.” They crowd didn’t have long to wait.

 

The Madera “Unknown” made one desperate jump at the Merced bird and knocked him a distance of five feet. The bird never got up; it had received a fatal wound in the head. All eyes quite naturally then turned to the Madera bird. It had no tail nor comb and very few wing feathers. In fact a close examination revealed it to be a mere scrub hen!

 

With this revelation, the Merced folks refused to proceed with the fight and left Madera in a huff. The Expositor reported that “The Merced sports all returned home with rumpled feathers, not unlike those worn by their defeated birds, while the Fresno and Madera boys who had placed their money on the victorious cocks, walked with high heads, assumed a boastful attitude, and stated that they never had been — nor ever would be — defeated. 

 

After that 1890 contest, hardly a cockfight was held in Madera in which a Barnett did not participate, but they weren't the only Maderans who fought roosters. Lots of folks in these parts participated in the “sport,” but according to George, for the Barnetts it became a family affair. His father and uncles all had their favorite roosters. “Sureshot” was the choice of Fred Barnett, Georges Dad.

 

On another occasion, in 1905, Fred Barnett, with his brothers John and Frank and his brother-in-law, Walter Brown, were involved in a “15 cock main.”

 

In that particular match, after the Madera men lost the first five fights, it was discovered they were doing something wrong. They had been “booting” their roosters in the dark and then dropping them suddenly into a lighted ring. Realizing their mistake, the Barnett brothers began to put the spurs on their chickens under the lantern, giving them time to adjust to the light. The Madera birds then went on to win the main, and the Barnetts pocketed $500, a sizable sum in the early 1900s.

 

In time a more refined and “civilized” Madera rejected the “sport” of cockfighting, but there remained memories of those “wild and wooly” days in early Madera, when roosters and owners alike crowded into the arena to strut their stuff. George Barnett never admitted to me that he ever fought a rooster, but he could hardly tell the stories without an impish smile spreading across his face.

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