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Madera went from town to city

Madera County Historical Society

Madera knew it had become a city when Greyhound named one of its buses “City of Madera.”


The first two decades of the 20th century produced several watersheds in American history. William McKinley was elected President in 1900, World War I began in 1914, Alcoholic beverages were outlawed in 1919, and by 1920, tiny Madera had completed its transition from a village into a town.

One sure sign of the change lay in the civic pride generated by music and sports. With no television or radio to entertain them, Maderans filled their leisure time with music right in their own front yards, while occasionally a group of prominent citizens performed a comic opera. On special occasions, the Madera band under the direction of Richard Curtis Jay played concerts in Courthouse Park.

Baseball became an important community pastime and thrilled spectators who came to see their team at the local baseball diamond, and in 1908, Madera’s roller polo team won the state championship. On one occasion more than 2,500 people filled the makeshift grandstand on North E Street to watch Mexican matador Gonzalo Hernandez battle the bulls.

Meanwhile, Yosemite Avenue took on a more business-like look as horse and buggies had to vie with the automobile for the right-of-way on Madera’s mainstreet. All the while, business boomed in Old Madera. Tighe and Breyfogle became the leading downtown merchants. Customers could purchase anything there from men’s clothing to sundries.

Brammer’s shoe store specialized in the latest fashions in footwear, and grocery stores abounded on Yosemite Avenue, while George Clark kept the people informed from the Tribune newspaper office. John Robert Barnett operated his butcher shop on the corner of Yosemite and D Street, and one block east, Virgil Gordon tended to the town’s automotive repair needs.

Local finances, of course, took a giant step forward when it followed the lead of the First National Bank of Madera. Other signs of civility included Richard Curtis Jay’s new Studebaker hearse, which replaced his horse drawn funeral carriage.

In those early days of Old Madera, one was apt to see just about anything on Yosemite Avenue, whether it be horse-powered house movers or the likes of William Jennings Bryan giving a stump speech in his run for the Presidency.

By 1915, the town had a modern fire department with an honest to goodness fire engine and a brand new high school. Gender walls came crashing down as an all-female jury decided a criminal court case for the first time in Madera’s history, and women held political street rallies before they could even vote.

All things considered, the village-turned-into-a-town was a grand place to live and work. People pulled together, and pride made Maderans of a later generation look back with envy at those halcyon days that could not last. Meanwhile, the town marched on to become a city.

During the Roaring 20s, America kicked up its heels. In the 1930s, she endured the Great Depression. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, she went to war, and through it all, Madera grew from a town into a city.

Prohibition kept Sheriff John Barnett hopping as he tried to stamp out the local liquor traffic and wipe out the subterranean opium dens and gambling establishments in Chinatown. Barnett and Undersheriff Clarence Osborn were known to city residents as “the untouchables” as they made their rounds.

Local lawmen, like Officer Clarence Pickett, put their lives on the line to protect the people. In 1923, Pickett stopped two men who were driving a stolen dodge coupe. The criminals shot the officer, and Madera lost a third of its motorcycle cops in an instant.

The 1930s were propitious times for the city. The U.S. Postal Service inaugurated the first airmail flights from Madera, and in 1931, Madera launched “Old Timers’ Day.” Young and old participated in the celebration of Madera County’s history, and by the 1940s, thousands were lining Yosemite Avenue to herald Madera’s growth.

Not to be outdone by other cities, Madera built a beautiful movie theater in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, in 1940, it burned. Ever resilient, the theater was rebuilt, but in time it fell into disrepair. Finally the wrecking ball applied the coup de grace in the 1990s.

As the city grew, so did its business community. Hunter’s drugstore installed a new soda fountain, and Preciado’s became the hub of social give and take on Yosemite Avenue. Willis Petty opened a grocery store with his son in 1938; the Green Frog Market offered housewives the convenience of same day home delivery, and A. Franchi’s store was popular with shoppers in the 1940s.

The Crappa Brothers ran an American and Italian grocery on Gateway Drive and Fourth Street, and Ray and Hattie Northern’s soda shop served as the local bus station.

With all of this progress, it is not surprising that the face of Yosemite Avenue would change. The wide, neatly paved boulevard beckoned automobiles and trucks instead of the horses and mules of an earlier time. For entertainment, Maderans could attend performances by the Eddie Sims Orchestra at the Madera Theater or visit the zoo in Courthouse Park. They could purchase a car from Conrad Shebelut or ride the train out of Madera for all points north and south.

Although it wasn’t a regular occurrence, once in a while, like that time in 1962, Maderans enjoyed a real blizzard and built snowmen on the courthouse lawn.

By the 1960s Madera the city had come of age. She had buses and warplanes named after her. She had reached the apex of her growth as old Madera. Now she was no longer a village or simply a town. Now she was a city in every sense of the word.

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