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Neighbors: Oral History from Madera

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

Marcella Andrews, right, and Fred Gartner take the dance floor for his 100th birthday party.


This is an excerpt from a new book titled Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California by local author Lawrence F. Lihosit. The author offers real-life stories by Maderans as well as maps and a chronology of important local events. It is available on-line at books and at these locations; MailDrop, G.B.S. and the Vineyard.


There are all sorts of history books. Some are based upon numbers from old records, others discuss ideas and some review “facts.” This book is based upon testimony. Called oral history, it begins with an interview which is then transcribed.

My experience with taped interviews has been that the subjects will often digress. They remember something and backtrack to correct themselves. An exact transcription is as frustrating as trying to listen to a buddy tell a good story while his wife is vacuuming under your chair. “Huh? What’d he say?” For this reason, this book contains edited interviews set down as a monologue, without the questions and without hesitations like “hmmm” to form a personal story.

In other words, the interview was cut up into pieces and reassembled, like remixing a recorded song in a studio. All subjects had the opportunity to edit factual errors and/or omissions.

Numbers can offer insights. For instance, Madera is and has been a Hispanic town for decades. According to the 2015 U.S. Census estimate, more than three quarters of the inhabitants were Hispanic (79.8 percent). Nearly one third (32.2 percent) were born in another country and of these, the vast majority were born in Latin America. The population is younger, less educated and much poorer than the California average.

But numbers have limits.

Madera has been Hispanic for years, until recently representative government was selected at large. At one time, three of the city councilmen all lived within blocks of one another in a tiny rich enclave about a quarter mile from my house. The city council only included pink faces. The school board was much the same until the California courts deemed this voting practice unfair.

Within two years, the school board, city council, city mayor and county supervisors were elected by district. Today, there are electoral districts and the faces of our representative government look much different, resembling the townsfolk.

Sometimes, numbers are meaningless. How do you measure bravery, loyalty, patience, persistence? How do you measure what boxers call heart — the sheer will to get back up? For this reason, you will find very few numbers in these interviews.

This book is not scientific. My intent was never to measure but just to listen and share. Likewise choosing the subjects had nothing to do with the scientific method. This is not a random sample survey to be used for a poll. These are true stories from my neighbors.

Listening to peoples’ stories and writing them down is not new. Ancient Greek writers Herodotus and Thucydides traveled extensively doing just that more than 2,400 years ago. Here in the United States of America, oral history has been popular since the advent of sound recording machines to aid such work.

A famous example was funded by the U.S. Congress in 1935. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration), the Federal Writers’ Project sent writers to seventeen states to interview and record former slaves’ testimony. Between 1936 and 1939 they recorded 2,300 first person accounts which were saved and later selectively published in book and sound recordings.

Beginning in the 1970s, writer, actor and radio personality Studs Terkel made oral history popular with the publication of a number of best-selling books about the Great Depression, the second World War and even jobs.

This is a description of life in Madera, Calif., during the later portion of the Twentieth Century and the first wisps of the Twenty-first. The participants, representing all rungs of the economic ladder, describe how they grew up and survived.

Everyone is an expert about their own lives. Each person has carefully stitched their own unique panel into our American quilt. Just as Madera has changed from a small railway community exporting wood in the first half of the Twentieth Century to a town with manufacturing to support mega-agriculture, so it will change in the future.

My original intent was to divide this book into sections based upon types of work. The largest historical employer in Madera has been farming and food processing, but it is nearly impossible to find anyone who has spent their entire life doing this because it involves such long hours and so completely physically destroys people that men and women seek other types of work at the first opportunity.

People do all sorts of work to survive. Today, one in three Madera jobs is related to agriculture. About half of the people I interviewed have had some experience growing or processing food. For this reason, the book is not divided up but lists all participants in alphabetical order.

All of those interviewed live and work in or very near the City of Madera. Note that as the town has evolved, so have work and travel patterns. Today, Madera enjoys a fairly balanced economy which is less susceptible to economic down-turns.

However, the workforce also travels. Nearly one third of Madera’s residents drive to a job outside of the city limits since it is becoming a suburb to Fresno. Once the new bullet train (now under construction) is operational, the number of commuters should increase, provided there is potable water.

Currently, there is an alarming depletion of underground aquifers upon which the town depends. In addition, an increasing number of wells are being abandoned due to toxic pollutants. Having grown up in Arizona, I am very aware of what a ghost town is. If ground water poisoning continues, the Central Valley will be home to many ghost towns.

As an aid, a chronology has been included which very briefly describes Madera’s founding and evolution. Some may wonder why it includes the publication dates of environmental books. When discussing problems, the easiest answer is to throw up one’s hands and respond, “We didn’t know.” Well, we did know. Everyone has known for more than one half century that we have not been good custodians of this land and its treasures.

Also included in the appendix are maps to illustrate key points about development and a list of major employers.

In order to create this book, I had to be a good listener. When reading their words, our townsfolk come to life, offering a rich picture. Farmers discuss water. Policemen describe crime. Politically active citizens talk about race relations and labor. Field hands describe farm work. Teachers explain what is happening in public schools, etc.

However, this is not an expose. There are no villains for one simple reason: we are all neighbors just listening to each other so we might work together better.

— Lawrence F. Lihosit,

resident since 1995

• • •

Marcella Andrews, Madera resident since 1958

Born in Jackson, Mississippi on February 8, 1938, Marcella Andrews and her family were part of the great migration from the south to major cities during the Second World War. They moved to Chicago where her father found work in a steel mill. She completed her education there, which included a technical high school and art at the famous Art Institute of Chicago. She married young and soon moved to Madera where she and her husband raised six children. Ms. Andrews served as a Madera County Planning Commissioner for a decade and volunteered for many community-action groups such as United People for Progress, NAACP, Madera Parents and Teachers Association and the Madera Action Committee. She is now retired.

• • •

When I was a year old, we moved to the south side of Chicago. We moved to a neighborhood where we were wanted which was good because I did hear about intimidation. If black people moved into neighborhoods where they weren’t wanted, others might break the windows or even burn the house down.

White flight was about complete in that neighborhood. There were only two white families on the block when we arrived. They were elderly people without children who stayed until they died. Most of our neighbors were black. At my school, there were a hand full of white kids. It was primarily black. The white parents almost lived at the school. These women were progressive and did not want their children to grow up in segregation.

We were a large family and there was a lot going on in the household. My oldest siblings married without moving away from home because we had a big house. When the men went away to serve in the military, the women stayed at home.

My father had a terrific physique. My father looked lean at 215 lbs., similar to Muhammad Ali. He was strong and very fit. Like Laila Ali, I’ve got good genes.

My parents did more to shape me than society did by bringing us up in church, teaching us right from wrong, teaching us the value of family and by example.

My mother taught me to cover up, how to set a table, how to make a bed. We learned how to work without being abused by it. We learn what we live. I learned how to cook, sew, can, just by watching my mother. She never said, “You have to do this.”

I was brought up to believe that spiritual values meant something. My mother was very protective of us because she didn’t want us to fall prey to bad influences. I only swam in Lake Michigan once. We didn’t go to a movie except for once.

My father worked very hard at a steel mill. It was dirty and dangerous work but high-paying. Each day he commuted twenty-two miles to work, then back. My parents took the sacrifice that he made to give us piano lessons, voice lessons and a good standard of living for a black family. We had a grand piano in the living room and hired a young woman to clean the kitchen and tidy up the house. There were no alcohol or drugs. We grew up with a solid foundation.

One year, the steel mill decided that they would give all of their employees a free movie. They rented the whole theater and the workers were given tickets but it was called a Christmas party. Our whole family got dressed up and went downtown to the Christmas party at a movie theater. So naturally, my mother wasn’t going to tell everybody to go home. So that was the first time I ever saw a picture show.

When I was in eighth grade, my teacher recruited me for the Lucy Flower Technical High School for girls (located on West Fulton Avenue) which was a public high school, the only one like it in the whole city. They taught millinery, dress making, child care, cooking and health education.

There were three technical high schools for boys but only one for girls. To get there, I took a street car and the El train (the Elevated). It was a hardship to go there every morning. My grade school teacher had encouraged my mother to send me there, convincing her that it was worth the sacrifice. I didn’t have a whole lot of contact with white people until I went to high school.

My father worked for a paint company for a while before a doctor told him to retire. So, my parents bought a farm in Michigan. As I mentioned earlier, our Chicago house had two generations in it, so when my parents moved to the farm, they left me with my older sisters. My sisters did not time me when I came home from school.

Besides that, I had a scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute for after school and weekend activities which was a big part in my life. I was introduced to culture. I was no longer expected to come directly home from school because I went to the Chicago Art Institute on Michigan Avenue. It seemed so huge and imposing when I was a teenager. I’ve been back and the lions at the foot of the giant staircase are not so big any more. In my mind they were huge but when I went back, they were medium-sized.

We actually had live models to draw on Saturdays. There were classes several afternoons a week too so my sisters didn’t keep close track of my time. I went to all the museums by myself. I went to the Chicago Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Museum of Natural History.

I got introduced to my first husband. I just looked at him as an option. I didn’t want to live in Michigan. The things that really excited me, my mother didn’t want me to do. What I really wanted to do was to get a job as a housekeeper. My school had taught me how to run a household. That option wasn’t really open to me because I was young.

My mother said, “We haven’t spent all this time trying to educate you so that you can cook in some white person’s kitchen.” My family and my people were well aware of how Afro-American domestic servants were treated. They thought that things would happen to me that I would not fully recover from.

Getting married out of high school was almost expected and certainly approved. Going to college was a good thing but it wasn’t expected as it is now. So, I chose the marriage option. We lived in my parent’s house for a little while and then found an apartment two blocks over.

During World War II, everybody could get jobs and move around. They had opportunities that they had not had before. My first husband’s father worked as a cook on the railroad. He decided that he did not want to go back to Texas. When the war ended, he was old enough to retire.

In the Bay Area, they advertised properties in the San Joaquin Valley at such low prices that anyone could afford it. He bought an acre of land near Madera, thinking that it was big enough for all of his eight children. He thought each would have a fifty foot by seventy-five feet lot. I didn’t even know about it until the Ford aircraft engine plant where my husband worked closed. There weren’t any more jobs like that so he decided we should go back to Texas where he came from.

While drawing unemployment compensation, he looked for a job as a welder which is what he did at the aircraft plant-journeyman welder. They told him, “We don’t have any black welders. You can be a welder’s helper.”

Racism was out in the open. During the war, lots of minority people had gotten used to a decent wage and regular paychecks. He didn’t want to go back to being someone’s helper. In many cases, the helper did the job while the “welder” breezed through the day. The helper did all the hard work but the “welder” got all the pay. It’s like having two people for the price of one.

After just a few months in Texas, we moved to California and took over a corner of that lot my father-in-law had bought. Eventually he gave us half of the lot. I always wanted to have my own house and we built it by trial and error. It was amazing.

We picked up broken concrete and used bricks laying alongside the road like people might collect bottles and cans. We laid them out where the foundation would be and then poured concrete over it to save money, to save more money, we placed the two by four studs at two feet apart. That was against the county regulations which required sixteen inches on center. We had to tear it down and rebuild the frame. They did allow us to work with reused lumber. Somebody wanted to move an old house. They paid two hundred dollars. We took the nails out, salvaged some of the windows, a hot water heater and used some of the wood.

In the beginning, we both did field work. I had never even seen cotton grow until I left Chicago and came here. I had a very short career because I was no good at it. The last time I picked cotton, I did not earn enough to pay for my cotton sack. I made a steadfast decision: the only way that I would ever pick cotton again would be because I was hungry.

The cotton plant has little hard points like carpet tacks on the boll when it opens. They pierce your fingers like needles but you couldn’t wear gloves because the cotton would stick to them and you would waste time shaking the cotton off. You wanted a quick pick and a quick drop into the bag.

I also harvested grapes, tomatoes, almonds and potatoes. Back then, the almond farmers did not have the belts to shake the trees but used a huge rubber mallet. You hit the tree trunk with the mallet. The trouble was the mallet vibrated and you felt it in your upper body later. The sensation, the shock comes back to your shoulders. If you knock almonds all day long, you will feel it. Mostly, men did this but I tried, too.

Tomato picking was all bending and you felt it later in the lower back.

I had had a good life and I did not feel resentful. I looked at my situation as an adventure.

My husband ended up working at the winery. He worked there for a long time. It wasn’t really that much money but we weren’t experiencing bone-crushing poverty. We had two vehicles. I also got a job cleaning house.

There were two restaurants on Yosemite that had the same sign in their windows: “No Mexicans, Indians, Niggers or Dogs Allowed.” All my children were from the same man, but some of them had lighter skin. White people have different colored hair. Well, black people have dark hair but different shades of skin.

My youngest son was strong, agile and handsome but was dark skinned. He took two buses to and from school. When he was fourteen, one late spring, hot day he missed the second bus and walked through an all-white neighborhood. A policeman pulled up and made him lie on the hot pavement face down, touching burning asphalt while the policeman questioned him. I knew the grandmother of an undercover policeman who enrolled in the high school as a student. The cops entrapped students.

We did not even know at that time that Madera had active Ku Klux Klan members with an agenda of destroying people without shooting. The best friend of my neighbor also cleaned houses, including the house of a Madera judge. One day the judge’s wife decided to clean closets out.

Way on top she asked that the cleaning woman take down a box to see if it could be gotten rid of. There was a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood inside. The judge’s wife almost fainted. I worked part-time for the city briefly and a man in another department invited me to lunch at Farnesi’s. I think he wanted everyone to see him in my company. I found out later that his son, who worked at the winery, was the Grand Dragon of the local KKK. I guess that he did not share his son’s convictions.

When we first moved here, I was unaware of such deep hatred. I was not equipped to protect my children. If we allow people to go hungry and to be treated as second class citizens, we have failed. It’s national disgrace; a shame on all of us. We teach people and make them strong. The Catholic Church, aside from its problems, feeds the poor at Griffin Hall five or six days every week. It doesn’t make them lazy but strong so that they can give back. The thing that is most important is love. Everything good and lasting comes from love.

Years ago, while I worked for the city, I met Jess Lopez, the first non-white person I’d ever seen running for a county Board of Supervisors seat in Madera. I told him, “I’m on board.” My husband and I helped him to get elected, the first brown face. I am proud to have been there in the beginning.


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