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Madera County sought solvency right from the start

Madera County Historical Society

More than a dozen watering holes, like the Peerless saloon shown here, at one time lined Yosemite Avenue. They did a land office business but had to pay their fair share in taxes.


All of Madera County was buzzing in 1893! Had we separated from Fresno County only to be eaten alive by our own newly created bureaucratic monster? Some thought so.

Creating the new county was hard work, and there were obviously delicate issues with which Madera County’s first Board of Supervisors had to deal — like revenue. In the summer of 1893, the young county fought for solvency, and business owners were among the first to be targeted.

The first group of entrepreneurs to fall under the scrutiny of the new board were the saloonkeepers. Now this was not a simple task. There had to be some means of distributing the load equally among establishments, which varied in size; therefore, Section 12 of County Ordinance 13 was composed.

The Board in its wisdom decided that “every person who sells spirits, malt, fermented liquor, or less quantities than one quart” would be divided into two classes. The first class would constitute saloons, which were operated in “all towns having a population of 20 or more inhabitants residing therein in the County of Madera.”

“All towns having a population of less than 20 inhabitants residing therein and all road or wayside places” constituted the second class. The license fee for the first class was $40 dollars per quarter, while those of the second class got by with just half of that amount, provided that they didn’t charge to water the teams of their patrons.

Since prostitution was rampant and legal in those early days, the Supervisors couldn’t allow the world’s oldest profession to exist immune from revenue assessments. If a saloonkeeper also operated a dance hall or sold his liquor in ‘’any building connected with any house commonly known to be a house of ill fame,’’ the charge was $1,000 per quarter! As heavy as this fee appeared to have been, there is no record of any of these businesses folding because of the cost of the license.

Then there were the ubiquitous traveling peddlers. It was determined that “every traveling merchant, hawker, or peddler who carries a pack of goods, wares, or merchandise of any kind...shall pay a license tax at the rate of $3 per month. Now, if the peddler used a wagon in which to haul the merchandise, or if it was loaded onto the back of an animal, the fee jumped to $10 dollars per month.

Saloonkeepers and traveling medicine men did not shoulder the entire burden of raising revenue among Madera County’s business community. For instance, auctioneers had to pay ten dollars per quarter; toll bridges and ferry keepers were assessed $5 dollars per month. Pool halls were assessed at the rate of $5 dollars per quarter per table, and bowling alley owners had to cough up five dollars each month for each alley.

Nor were theater owners exempt. In those days before the movies, when stage productions were in vogue, each night’s performance cost the operator five dollars for a business license. In addition to entertainment providers, bankers paid $25 dollars per quarter, and pawnbrokers’ license fees ran $20 dollars per quarter.

Traveling circuses were especially hard hit by Madera County’s first license fee structure. “For every exhibition of a caravan or collection of animals included with a circus,” a daily fee of $300 dollars was charged. If the menagerie was not connected with a circus, the fee decreased to $200 dollars per day. For every sideshow connected with a circus, when a separate admission fee was charged, a $25 dollar fee was assessed. Not even the merry-go-round operator was excluded. His levy was $20 dollars per day, in advance.

Another form of license revenue was the propagation fee. The ordinance read, “Every person who keeps a stallion, jack, or bull and who permits the same to be used for the purpose of propagation for hire, must pay a license tax.” There were four classes of these propagation licenses. The first class consisted of horses hired out by the season at a rate of $100 dollars or more. In this case the license was $35 dollars per year. If the stud fee fell between $50 and $100 dollars, the license fee was $25 dollars. The third class, those animals hired out at a seasonal rate of between $25 and $50 dollars, carried with it a $15 dollar fee. The fourth class owner who received less than $25 dollars per season had to shell out $10 dollars.

In contrast to the horses, the business license for the services of jacks and bulls was considerably less. In the case of the former, the charge was $10 dollars, and the latter brought five dollars per year.

Taxes and license fees are never popular, and someone nearly always decried the distribution of the revenue load. Madera County’s first Board of Supervisors was subject to the same criticism. This did not deter them, however. They were determined to see that everyone paid their fair share. The voters had elected them to lead, not to be cowed by obstreperous malcontents. That first Board did its job in fine fashion.

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