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First city council barely survived

Madera County Historical Society

The First National Bank in Madera shows Dr. J.L. Butin on the far right. In 1907, he was elected to Madera’s first city council. He was hard on saloons, but easy on the Red-Light District.


The city of Madera was 32 years old before it was able to govern itself. Having been founded in 1876, its citizens were governed first by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, and after 1893, by the Madera County Board of Supervisors. It wasn’t until 1907, when its citizens voted for incorporation, that the first Madera City Council was elected and took over.

The first meeting of Madera’s trustees, as the council members were then called, took place on March 29, 1907, and set into motion a series of political pyrotechnics that made folks wonder if local government would make it to the year’s end. Disagreements and outright hostility tore at the body politic right from the start. Within eight months, two of the original trustees had quit, and another had almost stopped attending the meetings.

When the people voted for incorporation, they elected Dr. J.L. Butin, E.M. McCardle, J.R. Richardson, J.G. Roberts, and C.W. Wagner as trustees. At their first meeting they chose Roberts as the town’s first mayor and then tackled the perennial problem of saloons. How much should their owners have to pay for licenses? Although it was a simple question, the answer revealed the cleavage in town over the issue. It became obvious that the “saloon crowd” had Wagner and Mayor Roberts in their pockets, while the so-called “good government” party had McCardle, Butin, and Richardson in its camp.

The battle opened with a motion by Wagner to assess the saloon owners a license fee of $75 per quarter. This died for lack of a second. Then McCardle moved to set the fee at $125 per quarter. Butin seconded the motion, and then all Hades broke loose. The audience came unglued as J.G. Porter and Superior Court Judge William Conley rose to make a vigorous case for the lower fee and to remind the trustees that they would soon need the support of the saloon keepers to help pass Madera’s first bond. At that point it was the Mayor’s turn. He indicated his support for the $75 fee. This turned the debate to white-heat indignation. That left Richardson to be heard. Although he was in favor of the $125 fee, he proposed a compromise. Set the fee at $75 until July 1 then increase it to $125. Both sides saw that this bought time, so Richardson’s motion passed unanimously.

For the next few meetings, the city council dealt with mundane issues such as whether bicycles should be prohibited from the town’s sidewalks and what kind of bridge would be best for a crossing over the canal on Yosemite between H and I Streets. Then as July 1st drew near, the saloon issue was put back on the front burner.

At the June 21 meeting of the trustees, McCardle moved to increase the saloon license fee to $125 in accordance with the earlier compromise and Butin seconded the motion. That’s when Richardson dropped his bombshell. By some strange flush of insight, he informed the council that he had changed his mind and was now going against his own earlier motion and would instead vote to maintain the saloon fee at $75. Everybody’s jaw dropped, especially Butin’s, who then raked Richardson over the coals. With Wagner absent, when the vote was taken, the status quo held, 2-2 — McCardle and Butin voting yes and Richardson and Mayor Roberts voting no. The saloon fee remained at $75 per quarter by default. Then the real explosion hit.

Trustee McCardle rose to resign his position on the council. “Now, Mr. Chairman, I feel that I cannot further serve with this board with credit to the board or myself, I hereby tender my resignation to take effect immediately” With a “good night gentlemen,” he left the meeting.

The trustees then appointed A.L. Smith, who owned a laundry, to replace McCardle. He didn’t last long. He sold his business and moved out of Madera in September, after giving up his seat on the council. On Sept. 13, 1907, the trustees appointed Craig Cunningham to replace Smith. The new trustee was described as “a rising young business man who is engaged in grain and real estate.”

With the council now restored to a full complement of members, it was prepared to take on the next crisis — the Red-Light District.

The issue came to the town council on November 16, 1907, when F.H. Floto complained that he couldn’t sell certain parcels of land to builders because of the houses of prostitution that were operating in his vicinity. He wanted something done about these dens of iniquity. Once again, the trustees, in search of a solution, chose off sides.

Trustee Wagner thought that there was no need to stall. All that was necessary was to tell the officers to “tell those people to move,” and Trustee Richardson agreed with him. Butin, however, thought it only fair to give them time to find another location. Cunningham, for his part, didn’t think it was fair to other people to move the objectionable houses near them. He would let them stay where they were. This brought out some fight in Mayor Roberts. “Those people are breaking state laws,” he said. “The officers should enforce the laws; they know their duty and shouldn’t need to be told what to do.”

Richardson joined the battle against Butin and Cunningham, stating, “Every officer has taken a solemn oath to enforce the laws and ordinances, but they don’t do It. The officers are just after their salary.”

By the next week, heads had cooled a bit, and trustees were able to reach consensus. They decided to close Madera’s houses of prostitution but to give them 60 days to move out of town where they could still operate.

So that’s how things stood at the end of 1907. After dealing with the volatile issues brought on by saloons and prostitution, and after having to replace two of their number, making 2/5ths of Madera’s first city council appointed instead of elected, the town’s trustees looked with trepidation at the coming new year. They had every right to be apprehensive. 1907 had not been an easy beginning.

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