Barcroft, Dr. Butin halt health hazard


Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

This three story structure, once known as the Barcroft Building, is still standing on the south side of Yosemite Avenue. In 1904, three newcomers to Madera tried to open a Chinese restaurant on its east side, which raised a “big stink” all over town.

What a horrible smell! It was so bad that passers-by along the south side of Yosemite Avenue had to hold their noses. The local paper reported “a stench filled the air that would equal the corpse-laden fields in front of Port Authur.” One gentleman who was dining at a restaurant on D Street had to leave the table. The problem was coming from Conrad Breslin’s empty lot next to the Barcroft Building.


Fire had destroyed the frame structure that had formerly stood on the lot, and when the opportunity arose for Breslin to rent the property, he jumped at the chance.


Now, it just so happened that three men from Sonora: Leong Sing, Leong Tai, and Chung Kee, had moved to Madera with a view in mind to opening a Chinese restaurant. They had an acquaintance by the name of Ah Linn, a Maderan of long-standing, who owned a restaurant building that he was willing to sell. In a short time, an agreement was worked out.


The three Sonorans would buy Linn’s building, rent Breslin’s lot, and move the structure there. F.T. Hardell was contracted to move the building to its new home on Yosemite Avenue; however, before the moving could commence, some work on the sewer had to be done. On Oct. 1, 1904, the three business partners got their shovels and began to dig, but they had reckoned without the possibility of noxious odors emanating from their labor. By noon, vile oaths as well as foul smells filled the air as Maderans caught the powerful scent. Onward the three men worked while, “they were cussed liberally by all who passed.”


Finally, the stench penetrated the brick walls of the building which housed the office of Dr. Mary Butin, Madera County Health Officer and first of her gender in the United States to hold such a position. As the passing breeze brought the odor to Dr. Butin, she scented lots of danger to the health of the people, and telephoned Justice of the Peace Barcroft to get out a complaint against the Chinese workers. Meanwhile, the would-be restaurateurs steadily continued their work.


Judge Joe Barcroft hastily drew up a complaint against the Chinese, and after Dr. Butin swore to it, he gave it to Constable Hollister, who proceeded immediately to serve the papers. Upon Hollister’s arrival at the scene, the three workers for some reason began to run, but not fast enough. The constable ran them down, arrested them, charged them with maintaining a public nuisance, and took them to jail. While the new-comers contemplated their predicament, the county filled in the hole on Yosemite Avenue and “liberally sprinkled it with chloride of lime.”


Once things had returned to normal, it was quickly recognized that the three incarcerated restaurant men were really not to blame. Considerable feelings of ill-will were raised against Breslin for renting the lot to the men. Many of the town-folks reasoned that the property owner must have known that the three Chinese were planning to move a wooden building onto his lot, an action that everyone but the Chinese knew would violate a county ordinance.


In 1902, the Board of Fire Commissioners had passed the ordinance which made it illegal “for any person, firm, or corporation to hereafter build, erect, construct, or to place upon any lot or piece of ground within blocks 39, 40, or 60, of the Madera Fire District… any wooden building capable of being used as a barn, storeroom, or intended for such or any commercial use.” Every property owner on Yosemite Avenue was well aware of the law.


Most of the public’s wrath, however, was directed toward Ah Linn. His restaurant on D Street had been condemned as a “rattletrap,” and when he learned that his country-men were seeking a location for a restaurant, “he craftily sold his building to them.” The unknowing trio from Sonora had, in good faith, bought the building and proceeded with complete abandon.


Although Leong Sing, Leong Tai, and Chung Kee were released and charges were dropped, their real dilemma remained. They had bought a restaurant building that was condemned and had rented a lot that they could not use. Moreover, they had already contracted with Hardell to move the structure. By the second week of October, however, all bets were off. Fred Barcroft obtained an injunction against any further attempts to place the condemned restaurant next to his building.


Within a short time, the district attorney notified the Board of Supervisors that the wooden building was obstructing the street and should be hauled away. The three Chinese gentlemen, already smarting from the treatment they had received in Madera, refused to invest any more money in their project. The supervisors then engaged Hardell to move the building to a location of their own choosing. He hooked W.A. Griffin’s team of 20 mules to the structure and hauled it to the outskirts of town.


It is not known what happened to Ah Sing’s restaurant building--except that it never found a home on Yosemite Avenue. As for the three Chinese new-comers, they must have gotten over their pique with Madera, for they stayed here and lived out their lives. With their demise, they were buried in the Borden Chinese Cemetery, never having realized their dream of becoming prosperous restaurateurs.

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