Wendy Alexander/The Madera tribune
Former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates meets with Dixieland students at Berenda Slough to tell them what he remembers about the Chowchilla Kidnapping. At left is current Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney.
The bus load of students pulled away from Dairyland School and headed for the Berenda Slough. It was Monday morning, and the Dixieland 8th graders from Angela Lindsay’s class were on a mission to retrace the exact route another bus had taken 43 years earlier when 26 children and their bus driver were kidnapped.
This time, however, the kids had the law with them. Behind them was Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, and riding with them in the bus was former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates. He would be their teacher that day as he shared his memories of the most horrific crime ever perpetrated on his watch as sheriff.
The MUSD bus took Bates and the kids on the same country road that the Dairyland bus driver Ed Ray had taken his precious cargo in 1976. They passed the three stops Ray made before he came upon the two vans stopped in the middle of the road. They passed the place where three men hijacked his bus at gunpoint. Within minutes they were at the point where the kidnappers forced Ray to drive down into the Berenda Slough.
The Madera bus pulled over and stopped. Bates and the kids stepped off the bus and gathered on the bridge overlooking the slough. They were joined by Sheriff Varney. With pencils and notepads in hand, the young historians listened as Bates told them about the drama that played out on that very spot so many years ago — how the kidnappers forced Ray and the kids out of the school bus and into two vans and then drove them to a quarry in Livermore where they were entombed in a buried semi-trailer.
The Dixieland students took it all in. “It gives us a better understanding of what really happened. I feel like we are connected with the story,” said student Liza Amezcua.
After their lesson at the slough, the students reboarded the bus for the ride into Chowchilla where they stopped at the police/fire station. There Bates gave them another first-hand account of how things really were. He explained how the fire station became the command center while the search for the kidnapped children was being conducted — a search he had led. Bates reflected later on the irony of his participation that “an old guy like me, 94 years old, was able to tell them first-hand what really happened. There have been all kinds of stories,” Bates said.
Following their stop at the fire station, Sheriff Bates and Sheriff Varney departed, and the kids and their teacher had lunch in Ed Ray Park in Chowchilla.
Their field investigation ended at the museum in Bright’s Nursery near Le Grand. There the students were able to see the actual bus that had been hijacked. With a sense of awe, they boarded the bus and walked down the same aisle as the kidnapped children had walked. They looked out the same windows that those kids did four decades ago and wondered what it must have been like.
On the ride back to Dixieland, their teacher reflected on the day and thought about the next steps she and her class would take. She had grown up in Chowchilla and knew many of the children who had been on the Dairyland bus. Her own students would benefit from those connections as they pursued the story of Sheriff Ed Bates and the Chowchilla Kidnapping.
As for Sheriff Varney, he gave the project a thumbs up. “Although it was an event that turned out well in the end,” Varney said, “it was very horrific while it was going on. It is so important for the younger generation to know how this happened.”
The investigation of the Chowchilla Kidnapping by the Dixieland students is part of a project being conducted by students in four Madera Unified schools: Dixieland, Howard, La Vina, and Eastin Arcola. Eighth graders in those schools are researching and writing a book on the history of the sheriffs of Madera County and the outlaws they had to face.