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The queen of Bethard Square

Madera County Historical Society From left to right, Emma Josephine Bethards, her grandmother Josephine Eugenia Lentz Bethards, and Millie Ellen Bethards. Taken about 1914, in the old Bethards home where Bethard Square is now located.


Up in Coarsegold, not far from the Chukchansi Casino, lived a grand young lady who, at the time I interviewed her in 2003, had reached the age of 96. Armed with a perky smile, a sharp wit, and tons of memories of early Madera, Emma Josephine Bethards Brooks held this writer spellbound for quite awhile.

At the invitation of her daughter, Janet Brooks Walters, with whom she then resided, I made a Sunday afternoon date with her mother, grabbed a video camera, and headed for the hills. Two things about my 96-year-old host piqued my interest. First, she was born in 1907, January 26, to be precise. (Great guns! Teddy Roosevelt was President then.)

The second thing that made an interview with her exciting was the fact that she was born in Madera. Let’s see; Madera in 1907 — that’s the same year our town became an incorporated city. In fact, Mrs. Brooks beat Madera’s incorporation by three months. That means she was born in Madera County before it had a single incorporated city. The Board of Supervisors was in charge of everything at the time.

With a little prompting from her daughter, Janet, Mrs. Brooks began to open the pages of her mind so that I could get a peek, and what a sight it was.

Did you know that Madera once had an alligator in its zoo in Courthouse Park? Of course; everyone knows that.

Ah, but did you know how that alligator got here? Actually the reptile came from southern Alabama. It was picked up along side the road by John Ollie Brooks (Emma’s future father-in-law), put in a crate, and brought to Madera. Upon his arrival, Brooks gave the alligator to William King Heiskell, who built a home for it in the park’s grotto.

Did you know that Bethard Square was supposed to be Bethards Square? At least it would have been spelled that way if Emma had had her way when she sold the family home place. The developer didn’t want to add the “s” because some might have considered it a possessive, and assumed the Bethards family still owned the property.

Emma Josephine Bethards Brooks was born in the house built by her grandfather, Ezra Bethards and her father, Grover Cleveland Bethards. It sat not too far from where the Vineyard Restaurant is today. At the time, the Bethards home was considered to be in the country. The family’s only transportation in those early days was a horse and wagon.

When Emma was 18 months old, her sister Minnie Ellen was born, but her mother died giving birth. Minnie was so small she was put in a shoebox and put under the stove to keep her warm. Emma’s grandmother fed the baby with an eyedropper.

With the loss of her mother, and her father’s departure to find work, the grandparents, Ezra and Josephine Bethards, took charge of Emma and her sister.

One of Emma’s earliest recollections in the old Bethards house was a huge bear rug on the living room floor. She loved to play and take naps on the rug, snuggling up to the animal’s head and holding its claws. Only later did she learn that her father had shot the bear near Fresno Flats. He skinned it, and in return for the meat, the Native Americans of the area showed him how to tan the hide.

Emma Josephine Bethards attended Lincoln School through the 8th grade. She remembered well her principal, Mr. Williams, and one of her teachers, Miss Saunders. After graduation from Lincoln, Emma moved to Madera High.

Emma’s life was as fun-filled as that of any young Madera girl in the first two decades of the 20th century. Like most Maderans, she accompanied her grandparents to town on Saturday night, and joined in the street dances that were held in Courthouse Park and on Yosemite Avenue. She took special pride in the dances because her Grandfather Bethards played the fiddle while her grandmother sang and called the dances.

Porter’s Bottling Company on West Yosemite was held in special regard by Emma because on occasion she was sent to fetch a bucket of beer, the suds of which she disposed of before she got home. To this day she enjoys the suds of a fresh brew.

When asked about the east side of mainstreet Madera, Emma quickly provided a mental tour of the high spots on that part of Yosemite Avenue. The Preciado’s and their Arbor Nook, Rosenthal Kutner, Hunter’s Drug Store, Tighe and Breyfogle — they all stood out in her mind.

Likewise, she remembered with fondness Sheriff Barnett, their family friend, William Conley, Madera County’s first Superior Court Judge, Ray and Hattie Northern and their daughter Lena (Adams), Joe Barcroft, the Mordecais, and the Daultons.

Emma Josephine Bethards Brooks was a Madera County treasure — a veritable storehouse of local lore, and it was great fun to hear her first hand account of things and people about whom I had only read. I intended to go back to continue our conversation but never made it. I feel bad about that.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I will ever stop casting about in search of my next source of Madera County history — those old timers who can tell me what it was really like in the “good old days.”

They prove that old saying, “Local history is the best kind of history because it has so much of ourselves in it.”

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