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Madera: The first 25 years

Madera County Historical Society

In 1900, Madera celebrated its 25th birthday. In that quarter of a century, it had grown from a village into a town, as this photo of East Yosemite Avenue shows.


In 1876, George Armstrong Custer died at the Little Bighorn. Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency of the United States, and the town of Madera was born.

Rocked in the cradle of a wooden flume that carried lumber from the mountains 60 miles away, Madera grew rapidly, and its economic base broadened. Visitors arrived by the hundreds to catch the stage to Yosemite Valley.

Irrigation gave an impetus to agriculture, and by 1890, Madera had become a thriving little community of 1,500 residents. With lumber, tourism and farming pumping its economy, it grew from a village into a town.

Now, more than 140 years after its birth, Madera has grown into a city, which boasts a population of more than 60,000 people, and its face has changed dramatically. With the appearance of shopping centers on its perimeter and changing demographics at its center, Old Madera seems gone forever.

Gone are the old cigar stores and bicycle shops. Gone are the majestic Victorian homes in which the lumber barons lived. Gone are the pioneer grocery stores whose owners at one time delivered their goods by horse and buggy.

No doubt about it; the face of Madera has changed, but the memories linger.

It was on Oct. 11, 1876, that William H. Thurman, the head of the California Lumber Company held a sale of lots on the townsite of what would one day become Madera. Captain Russel Perry Mace purchased the first lot and built the town’s first building, the Yosemite Hotel.

The Yosemite Hotel quickly became the headquarters of the Yosemite Stage & and Turnpike Company’s stage line to the mountains. Soon other hotels began to dot the downtown area — The Southern Hotel on North B Street — The McCabe Lodging House, Madera’s first three-story building, on the south side of East Yosemite Avenue; The Russ House on West Yosemite at the edge of Madera’s Chinatown — they all had their welcome mats out by 1890.

During the horse and buggy days of the 19th century, Yosemite Avenue became Madera’s main street. In spite of the dust that swirled up from the unpaved boulevard, residents flocked to town to do their shopping. There was nowhere else to go.

By 1900, Yosemite Avenue had crossed the railroad tracks and headed west. It passed Chinatown on the north and Madera’s first slum housing on the south. In time the shacks would give way to Courthouse Park. Meanwhile, the business district on East Yosemite continued to grow.

Madera had three bicycle shops during the 19th century. The Clipper Cyclery was the first and most popular. Many Maderans used bicycles for transportation, including the sheriff.

The Preciado family built a stationery and notions store and a millinery shop. C.S. Payne opened a cigar store between D and E Streets on Yosemite Avenue. He did such a land office business that he soon lost his monopoly when M.E. Kirby erected his own cigar stand in the next block.

By 1890, Madera had a brand new post office, which operated under the watchful eye of Postmaster L.O. Sharp and his clerk, George Parsons. Maderans also built a jail in the 19th century. At first it was just a wooden affair, which looked more like an outhouse than anything else. Then they drew up plans for a new hoosegow that had an office for the sheriff and an apartment for the jailer, and in 1888 they built a brick and granite edifice that reminded folks of a medieval castle

Then in 1900, Maderans finally decided to build a courthouse. It was a glorious day when nearly the whole town assembled for the laying of its cornerstone. Soon huge blocks of Raymond granite dotted the courthouse lawn during the construction stage, and in a couple of years a government center that housed the Superior Court judge, the treasurer, the tax collector, the county clerk, and the county assessor, stood proudly beside the new jail.

Early Madera also had a first-class firefighting force even though its only equipment was a cart that carried about 500 feet of old-fashioned, rubber hose.

Old Madera could also point to a modern schoolhouse, Eastside School, on Yosemite Avenue. By 1892, the village needed yet another educational facility, so Maderans built Westside School to accommodate families who lived in the growing neighborhoods that were sprouting up west of the railroad tracks. In the next year, they started a high school and housed its students in the second story of that building.

By 1900, Madera the village was on the verge of becoming Madera the town. Transportation needs could be met at any one of several livery stables that vied for local business. Maderans could quench their thirst at one of the dozen watering holes, like the Mint Saloon, on Yosemite Avenue, or they could participate in one of the many community functions like the frequent jackrabbit hunts that provided the people with a chance to socialize and at the same time help the farmers get rid of their perennial nemesis, the ubiquitous jackrabbit.

For a time the lumber industry remained Madera’s economic base, as the rough-cut boards traveled out of the mountains in the flume to the mill in Madera. Scores of men found work with the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, and it continued to be the community’s largest private employer.

Meanwhile, agriculture grabbed a foothold in the environs. The surrounding land was sectioned off, leveled and made ready to farm. Huge crews banded together, in a cooperative effort to get the job done.

In time agriculture would replace lumber as Madera’s economic foundation and hasten its transition from a village into a town, but then that’s a story for another time. Savoring the first 25 years is enough for today.

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