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The richness of Howard School’s history

Madera County Historical Society The history of Howard School begins with the Howard/Wilson land colony. This photo shows the first land leveling efforts of the colony that later produced Howard School.


Madera has been blessed with thousands of young scholars during its 142-year history, and from time to time their academic pursuits have put them on the trail of their own school’s past.

In 1938, the fifth and sixth grade classes at Howard School researched the roots of that district, and, in June, their work was presented to the school community. Today, that student publication is housed in the Madera County Library and serves as a monument to the young scholarly efforts. It also represents one of the first attempts by students to chronicle a slice of our county history.

Their account of the history of the Howard District begins with the activities of two real estate men from San Francisco, William H. Howard and Robert M. Wilson. In 1888, the two men bought 23,000 acres and formed the Howard and Wilson Colony Company.

The partners then formulated an aggressive colonization plan; the land was subdivided into five-acre tracts and roads running north and south were laid out every quarter of a mile.

In 1891, the land was placed on the market, and agents were hired to scour the eastern states in an advertising blitz that knew no bounds. As buyers were found, the colony planted the plots to whatever crop that was desired by the prospective colonists. So successful was this colony venture that it was soon divided up into two sections.

The eastern part of the area constituted Howard and Wilson Colony number one. Next to it was the larger Howard and Wilson Colony number two. The land was watered by one of the many canals running from the Fresno River, and as the months rolled on, more and more colonists abandoned the midwest and the East Coast to settle on the fertile plains of the San Joaquin Valley, and with them came the need for educational facilities.

The Howard and Wilson Colony existed for three years before there was a school to serve its residents. Throughout that time, the children walked to Madera to attend Westside School. Then, in 1894, two schools were opened in the Howard-Wilson area. The school in colony number one was called Howard School, while the school in colony number two was named Wilson School. In 1897, the two schools merged and kept the name Howard School.

Within two years of the consolidation of the two schools, a $1,200 bond for a new school was passed, and a brand new Howard School building was erected.

For a number of years there was only one teacher at Howard School, then as the enrollment increased, a partition was put in the building, which allowed for two teachers to practice their art. A short time later, a third room became necessary, so an addition with canvas windows was made. For a long time, the only light in the room was that which could penetrate the canvas.

All around the schoolyard ran a board fence, along which eucalyptus trees were planted. According to the student research, many of those trees were still standing in 1938.

In 1922, a new Howard School was built after the community passed a whopping $12,000 bond. The old building was moved out near the county hospital, and four more acres were purchased and added to the original site. The Howard district was preparing for the “Grapes of Wrath.”

The dust bowl migration from the Midwest touched every part of California. Thousands came to escape the economic dislocation in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other parts of what had been the nation’s breadbasket. Every public agency was affected, especially the schools, and Howard School was no exception.

The fields of Madera County offered the participants of this huge demographic movement some temporary relief from the ravages of unemployment. In particular, the cotton fields beckoned hundreds to the area.

In 1930, a migrant education program was initiated in the Howard district for the children of the farm workers, and a special “migratory school” was started. At first, it was held in a spare room of the Howard School, but then a makeshift building was erected closer to the fields to save on transportation costs.

The migrant building was a crude, one-room affair, but it was school nevertheless. The first teacher was Vera Rector, and on average the session ran from October to February of each year.

In 1936, an addition was made to Howard School, and in 1937, a second school was built. By 1938, the Howard district consisted of Howard School, West Howard School, and the Howard Migratory School. Together they housed 258 students and eight teachers. In addition, Truman A. Bratton, Henry Schroeder, and George Clark served as principal, bus driver, and custodian, respectively.

More than 80 years have passed since those 10 and 11 year-old students at Howard School prepared that first history of their district. Their teachers have all passed on, and the school they once knew and wrote about is no more. The youngsters are no longer transported to school by horse and buggy, and the little hand pump has been replaced by water faucets. Obviously many other changes have come to Howard School, and the starkness of those changes have been preserved by young minds who could not have dreamed so long ago that someday through their work they would all become teachers.


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