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Shenanigans on board of supervisors

Madera County Historical Society

Herman L. Crow began his business career in his father’s store in Berenda. He went on to become a prominent citizen in Madera County.


Herman Crow was a business man who held fast to the principle of square dealings, just as his father before him had done. Herman D. Crow, a Civil War veteran, came to Madera from Wisconsin and established a merchandise store in Berenda. His son, Herman L. Crow took over operations of the store when his father retired. He went on to develop one of Madera’s most profitable construction companies.

Everyone in Madera knew that Crow would brook no nonsense when it came to business, especially the public’s business. That’s why they weren’t at all surprised when he went public with an allegation of wrongdoing against a Madera County Supervisor.

It was election time in Madera County, and Frank D. Brown was running for another term as supervisor from District Two. He had no idea that Crow was about to level a charge of embezzling public money on him.

It isn’t clear just why Herman L. Crow waited over a year to blow the whistle on Brown. Maybe it took that long to investigate the matter, or perhaps Crow was politically motivated — no one really knows. What is plain, however, is that in July 1914, he went public with the charge that Brown was an embezzler, and as a result, he filed a complaint against the supervisor.

In the official document, Crow complained that in April of 1913, he had approached Supervisor Brown concerning a quantity of old steel that had once served as a cattle guard and had been lying unused on county property for years. Brown agreed to sell the steel at a price of $65. Crow wrote a check out to Brown for that amount on April 9, and the next day Brown cashed it.

Now there was nothing unusual about individual supervisors selling county property in private sales. Subsequent testimony revealed that the practice was common and perfectly legal for the times. The only stipulation was that the amount could not exceed $75, and the money was supposed to be turned over to the office of the treasurer. The fly in the ointment was that there was no statutory time limit for doing so. Apparently it was at the discretion of the supervisor who made the sale.

The wheels of justice, however, rolled swiftly in this case, and within hours, a hearing was held on the matter. Brown maintained that he had simply forgotten to turn the money in and that Crow had maligned him because the latter had lost two bids for contracts to build bridges in Madera County. The accused man further suggested that Crow had waited for the most politically propitious moment to make his charge — on the eve of the election of 1914 — over a year after the sale!

The case was continued until August 4, 1914, with Raleigh Rhodes and Francis Fee, attorneys for Brown, and W. H. Larew, Madera County District Attorney concurring. Then a strange thing happened. On August 3, 1914, the day before the newly scheduled hearing, the Board of Supervisors held a special meeting for the purpose of receiving money owned to Madera County. At that time, Supervisor Brown made a full report on the sale of the steel, and the Board accepted it, thus satisfying the law.

District Attorney Larew, who was present at this special meeting and concurred with its legality, stated that he, nevertheless, intended to proceed with the prosecution of Brown. Apparently he was convinced that the supervisor had indeed committed a crime. The next day, the preliminary hearing was held, and it was determined that there was enough evidence to warrant a trial. August 18 was set for jury selection, and on that date another strange twist occurred.

It took the entire day to select the jury for the Brown case. Time after time, prospective jurors were excused because they were good friends of either Brown or Crow, and sometimes both. Shortly after dinner, a panel of Brown’s peers finally had been selected, and the case was ready to be heard. Then for some odd reason, it was agreed by all of the parties concerned to move right to the trial — that very night. So at 7:30 P.M., the testimony began.

It took just two hours to hear the story, and then the jury was excused to deliberate. Within ten minutes they returned to the courtroom.

“Not guilty” was the verdict, and Brown beamed with gladness. Oddly enough, so did District Attorney Larew, who hastened across the courtroom to offer his hand and hearty congratulations to the acquitted supervisor.

Now 105 years after the fact, the questions remain. Did Brown intend to keep the county’s money? Was this complaint an example of vindictive politics? Who knows?

One thing is certain, however. If it had been Crow’s intention to sabotage Brown’s reelection bid, he was successful. The people in Brown’s district turned thumbs down on him. One week after the “Not guilty” verdict, voters in Berenda, Buchanan, Chowchilla, Fairmead, Minturn, and Sharon chose W.D. Cardwell to be their supervisor, and F. D. Brown was turned out of office. One is left to wonder to what extent Henry Crow’s $65 embezzlement charge affected the outcome of the Madera County election of 1914?

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