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Divorce cost Price his life

Madera County Historical Society

Ray Northern looks much more peaceful here standing behind the counter on the right than he must have as a town marshal in a shootout at the Club saloon.


That story about the Fountain Saloon from last week’s column reminded me of another trouble spot on Yosemite Avenue in the early part of the 20th century. It seems that things got just as rowdy in the Club Saloon as they did in the Fountain. They wound up with a dead man to prove it.

It all began on July 9, 1910, when Will Price decided to go have a brew at the Club Saloon. Little did he know that his father-in-law, gold miner Frank Kates, was heading for the same watering hole at the same time.

Normally this would not have been a source of trouble, but in this case the meeting had all of the portents of the spilling of bad blood.

Kates had been conducting a running quarrel with Price for having filed for a divorce from his wife, who happened to be Kates’ 21-year-old daughter, Agnes, and on this particular Saturday afternoon, both men showed up at the Club Saloon armed with pistols. It didn’t take long for trouble to break out.

Ed Harper was tending bar and had just served Price when Kate walked in and ordered a drink. In less than a moment, the two men had moved toward the end of the bar and began an animated conversation. That’s when Harper called the City Marshal, Ray Northern, to warn him there was going to be trouble at the Club Saloon.

Northern arrived just in time to see the action begin. As he approached the two men, Price turned and walked toward the lawman. Northern inquired as to the difficulty, and Price said that Kates had threatened to kill him. With that, the two men walked to the end of the bar to talk to Kates.

Price began by accusing his father-in-law of threatening to kill him, which Kates denied. Northern tried to defuse the situation and told the men, “There is no use of wrangling; this jawing will lead to trouble.”

Kates responded, “There will be no trouble,” whereupon Price said that his estranged wife had told him that her father intended to harm him. Kates again denied the accusation and said that he had heard that Price was carrying a gun. When the younger man reached into his pocket, Kates yelled, “We both may have guns; I’ve got one now,” and he pulled it out. With that Price pulled his pistol, and while Northern and Harper hit the floor, the shooting began.

Price got off two shots, one of which penetrated Kates’ hip and came out the small of his back. Kates managed to fire three times, mortally wounding Price in the left eye.

Northern then got up and took the wounded Kate’s pistol and placed him under arrest. Within moments, Judge Joe Barcroft entered the saloon and saw Price lying on the floor in a cramped position with his head near the wall. As the jurist walked over to straighten the man out, he noticed a 32-Colt automatic pistol lying under Price’s knees. He also found two bullets and shells belonging to the Colt on the floor.

Shortly, Doctors Ransom, Hely, and Rinker were on the scene and pronounced Price dead. Kates was taken to the hospital.

Coroner Robert Jay conducted an inquest into the killing and heard testimony from all of the witnesses, including Doctor Hely who performed an autopsy on Price’s body. The physician testified that the bullet that killed him had entered above the left eye, tore a groove between the skull and brain and lodged at the base of the skull. Deputy Corner Jay produced the bullet, which had been extracted by Hely.

They held Price’s funeral two days later at the residence of his parents, one mile east of Borden. A large number of friends gathered to pay their respects and relatives from different parts of the state showed up. The Rev. Duncan Wallace of Fresno officiated at the service, which concluded with the burial at Madera’s Arbor Vitae Cemetery.

As for Frank Kates, the shooting of his son-in-law was ruled self-defense, and he moved back to the mountains with his family to continue his work in mining.

The record is silent on Agnes Price after the killing of her husband. We do know, however, that by 1920 she had not married again and was still using her married name. Further, she had moved from Madera to the Buchenau Ranch near Daulton Station where she kept house and was raising her son John.

Thus it seems that most folks landed on their feet after the 1910 shootout, all except Will Price and the Club Saloon. By 1920, he had been in his grave for a decade, and the popular bar had been torn down. Apparently there were some wounds that time just could not heal.

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