Opinion: Thanksgiving in Madera, but where the heck is that?
Imagine that you’re in some other place. Where, you may ask? The answer is anywhere outside Central California. Now, imagine a conversation in which a person asks what you’re doing for Thanksgiving this year. Of course, we’re being coaxed to shelter in place because of the pandemic, but you have a more pressing need to go home. So, you tell the person, “I’m going to Madera.” Unless this imaginary person is also an imaginary geography buff, his or her next question can be conjured without the use of a crystal ball, scattered bones, or exotic tea leaves. “Where the heck is Madera?”
One possible and very short answer would be, “Northern California.” But, there doesn’t seem to be consensus as to what that means. For example, when I first arrived here 22 years ago, I was told that Madera is the “Heart of California” (hence the title of this column for most of the past two decades; after all, it is the heart that produces a pulse.). When I inquired as to the origin of that expression, I was told that our city is the geographic center of the state.
Well, that’s not exactly correct. According to the National Geographic website, the true center of the state is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park. The spot is 22 miles east of Raymond, about 9 miles southeast of Bass Lake, and 14 miles from Oakhurst in a place known as North Fork.
Historically, it is was home to the Mono people, and the first white settler there was Milton Brown. So, for a while it was simply known as Brown’s. But its name changed when it became the site of the North Fork Lumber Company and the first post office opened in 1888. However, Madera is the closest incorporated city to the state’s geographical center.
Pine and palm
Then, the question arises: If Madera is the city that is closest to center of the state, does it mark the division between Northern California and Southern California? The answer: Well, sort of.
If you drive south on SR 99 from an area that might be considered to be the “heart” of the City of Madera (perhaps the location of City Hall and the large cube in which the county Board of Supervisors meets), you’ll eventually roll under the Avenue 11 overpass. A few hundred yards farther south, you’ll notice a pine tree planted beside a palm tree in the highway’s median divider. That spot is considered to be the state’s dividing line; pine indicating north, palm for the south.
As the world neared the beginning of a new millennium (and I don’t want to revisit the argument about whether that was January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001), I was teaching at the facility that is now Madera Community College and was approached by a number of women who wanted to place a historical marker alongside the two trees. However, they needed some sort of documented evidence that the spot was, indeed, the official dividing line.
I couldn’t find a reliable source of information, so I phoned Bill Coate who I considered to be the ultimate authority on all things Maderan and whose historical articles grace the pages of this newspaper. Bill told me that he had attempted to pin down the dividing line several times, but there are a number of markers throughout the area, and none of them have official recognition.
Unlike pinpointing the state’s geographical center, or even its population center (which is a whole different animal), finding the exact dividing line between Northern California and Southern California is tricky and subject to different interpretations. Here’s the simplest solution: place a map of the state on a table; then, using a ruler, draw a horizontal line east, beginning at the northern border of San Luis Obispo County. According to a number sources, everything above that line is Northern California.
But, others argue that the state is not a simple rectangle, like Wyoming or Colorado. So, to get an accurate separation between the two regions, the line would be diagonal, starting at the northern border of SLO, bending a bit to cut through Fresno, and angling slightly north through a point just a bit above Mammoth Lake.
Regardless of the method used, ,most sources that I consulted for today’s column seemed to agree that Madera is located in the northern part of the state, while Hanford is in its southern sector. That leaves about 60 miles of territory in the San Joaquin Valley that is not clearly defined. Lucas J. Meeker, who did one of the calculations, states, “Bakersfield is definitely SoCal and Modesto is definitely NoCal, and nobody wants to claim Fresno, the apparent regional culture DMZ.”
I think it’s kind of harsh to describe Fresno as being like the wasteland known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea. Still, I try not to go Fresno unless it’s absolutely necessary nor do I spend my money there, naively thinking that if I spend it here in Madera it will encourage more shopping to be located in our fair city.
Meeker attempts to ameliorate his comments about Fresno by writing, “Hey, at least it’s not Riverside.” And, I’ll throw in a comment about Madera: “Thanks heavens, it’s not Los Angeles or San Francisco.” It’s home to a lot of friendly people, and I’m happy to be here in CENTRAL California. Besides, it’s a good place to spend the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!
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Jim Glynn is a retired professor of sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.