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Madera, lumber had a ‘lovers’ quarrel

Courtesy of Madera County Historical Society

These workers shown here at Thurman’s Sash and Door Factory in Madera had steady jobs until they went on strike in 1917. W.B. Thurman, the owner, shut the doors of his factory rather than give in to his employees’ demands.


Any history lesson about the lumber industry in Madera normally would be that of a love story. It was lumber that gave Madera its beginning as a town as well as its name. For over 50 years, lumber was Madera’s economic mainstay, and during that time, not a word could be uttered against the industry that kept food on local tables.

Then along came the year 1917. There were a few weeks in that year when the town and the lumber industry went to blows.

It was the city’s first serious dispute between capital and labor, and it struck at the center of what was then its economic heart. The local captains of industry were faced with rebellion in the ranks of their employees. The Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company and the Thurman Sash and Door Factory, both located on the south end of town, became the objects of discontent, as their employees went on strike. The lumber company survived the ordeal, but the Thurman concern became a permanent casualty.

On March 11, 1917, the Madera Union of Carpenters and Joiners of America Number 1266 was organized and immediately began signing up Sugar Pine and Thurman workers. For more than a month the union sought recognition from the mills, and when the employers refused, the workers walked out.

The Sugar Pine mill had just commenced its new logging season, so the numbers involved from that site were relatively small. However, the Thurman Sash and Door Factory lost 100 of its 150 employees to the strike. So drastic were the implications of a prolonged dispute in Madera that a citizens committee was formed to attempt to settle the discord It was made up of E.M. Saunders, F.E. Osterhoust, J.M. Griffin, Joseph Barcroft, Sherwood Green, John Franchi, George Marchbank, Leo Friedberger, and W.C. Tighe.

The citizens met with each side and stripped the debate to its essence. If the union was recognized, both the Sugar Pine mill and Thurman’s would be required to reduce their workday from 10 hours to eight. Since the employees were paid by the day, union recognition meant a considerable increase in production costs for the employers. Sugar Pine employees were earning a minimum of $2.50 per day and a maximum of $5. The Thurman mill wage scale ran from $2.25 to $6 per day. Both employers maintained that a reduction in daily hours was economically impossible, so on the strike went.

Just when it looked as if the cloud of labor strife was going to settle in permanently on Madera, Elmer H. Cox made a trip to his old hometown from San Francisco. Cox had first come to Madera in the spring of 1884, “without one coin to rub against another.” Initially he obtained employment with the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company. Later he was hired by Return Roberts as a cashier for the Madera Flume and Trading Company. Under the tutelage of Roberts, Cox lived frugally, invested wisely, and in 1899, became the secretary and general manager of the newly formed Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company.

On May 9, 1917, Cox announced his intention to remain in Madera until the labor difficulties were settled. He insisted that the union would not be recognized and that he intended to hire whom he pleased, “whether they belong to the union, to the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, or what.” Cox was emphatic and declared that he had no intention of shutting down his Madera operation.

Under Cox’s direction, arrangements were made for the importation of cook houses and portable living quarters for the temporary workers that would be needed if the locals did not acquiesce in the dispute. In the meantime, advertisements ran in “l’Italia,” the largest Italian paper on the West Coast, for 150 men to work in Madera. The fat was clearly in the fire.

By May 12, Cox had brought in 100 outsiders to man the Sugar Pine Mill in Madera. Operations resumed, and the union cause looked bleak. As a consequence, 57 of the Madera men decided to return to work. So optimistic was Cox that he telegraphed his San Francisco “employment agents” to cease their efforts.” All over town the belief was expressed that the trouble was over.

By Wednesday, May 16, 1917, Cox had whipped the union. Virtually all of its striking employees had returned to work. The mill in the hills was running night and day and large loads of lumber came coursing down the flume, signaling an abundant season. E.H. Cox, satisfied that everything was returning to normal, boarded the train for San Francisco.

The Thurman Sash and Door Factory was not so lucky. Without the resources available to Cox and the Sugar Pine Lumber Company, the strike against W.B. Thurman continued. Nearly everyone expected Thurman to give in to the union. It seemed that he had no choice. This majority, however, had reckoned without Thurman’s resolve. On May 28, the former sheriff of Madera County announced his intention to shut down his plant permanently.

The closing of the Thurman mill meant shutting down an operation worth $200,000. It also meant that 150 men would have to find jobs elsewhere. Thurman did not equivocate; he held firm and declared there to be “absolutely no chance ...of continuing the plant.” He disposed of his stock and wound up his business inside of a month.

Thurman laid the blame for the closing at the feet of outside agitators. He claimed that his own men “who were formerly well satisfied, have become so inflamed that they have lost sight of the only conditions under which this plant could operate, as well as the steady employment we have always been able to give.” Thurman pointed to a man named Gray as the major instigator.

So, while the Madera Sugar Pine Company was able to muscle through the crisis, the Thurman Manufacturing Company failed. As a result, Madera lost about $350,000 annually, $120,000 of which represented wages earned by Thurman’s 150 full-time employees. Tangentially, many homes became vacant, and real estate values dropped. In addition, Madera’s merchants suffered proportionately.

It is difficult to draw modern parallels to this economic dislocation. At the time, the population of Madera was less than 3,000, so the sudden cessation of employment for 150 men was significant to say the least. Today the conflict has become a piece of the past and engenders more curiosity than feeling. It must have been far different, however, for those who lived through it.

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