County’s home was long time coming
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
A crane lifts a block of Raymond granite in place as construction of the Madera County Courthouse proceeds in 1900.
As cranes eased the granite block into place on the morning of Oct. 29, 1900, construction of the Madera County Courthouse began. It had been a long time in coming, and the people of Madera turned out in throngs to witness the setting of the cornerstone. After a seven-year vagabond existence, the seat of county government would finally have a place it could call home.
In 1893, when Madera County separated from Fresno County, its governmental offices were scattered all over town. The Board of Supervisors met in the Masonic Hall, which was then located at 126 East Yosemite Avenue. Other offices were housed in the old Dworack Building, which later became the roller rink. All the while, the Superior Court of Madera County held its sessions in the upper story of the first Rosenthal-Kutner Building on the northwest corner of D Street and Yosemite Avenue.
In the face of this crucial need for space, hopes were raised in 1897 when real estate men, W.C. Maze and George J. Wren, offered to sell to the county all of Lot 10 in the Hughes Addition, which comprised about half of the present courthouse site. The asking price was reasonable enough — one dollar!
Now everything appeared to be coming up roses until the Madera Flume and Trading Company, which owned the other half of the desired site, dug in its heels. It was not about to give its land away, so the county proceeded to condemn the property. In the face of the inevitable, the company relented and sold its lot for $2,500, making a handsome profit.
Meanwhile the Supervisors, desperate for more space, moved the county offices and courtroom to the Russ House, a large, two-story hotel on West Yosemite Avenue. They signed a two-year lease on February 8, 1899, with the $185 per month rent payable strictly in advance. The litigation of two private citizens, who claimed to have a better plan, notwithstanding, the county occupied the Russ House until a new courthouse could be built.
In February of 1900, the Board of Supervisors was ready to advertise for architects to submit plans for a courthouse. The specifications called for the building to be constructed of granite, absolutely fireproof, and at a cost not to exceed $60,000.
There was no need to be extravagant. Folks remembered how the Madera Tribune had declared in 1893, that “just the dome of the courthouse in Fresno cost enough money to furnish Madera with county buildings which would serve our purposes for years.” Such, unfortunately was not the case. The successful bid came in at $59,963, but when the cost of furniture, fixtures, and miscellaneous items were added, the total reached almost $100,000.
Once the bid had been awarded, county officials began to prepare for a celebration. The citizens of Madera saw to it that its cornerstone vouchsafed important pieces of the past. A call went out for memorabilia that could be placed in the time capsule that would be encased in the granite cornerstone. The response was overwhelming. The supervisors donated plans and specifications for the new courthouse as well as the proceedings on the formation of Madera County. Asa M. Holbrook turned over the regimental flag of his New York Civil War unit. Wells Fargo agents, Ring and Donahue, produced an 1882 wanted poster which sought the capture of Black Bart. F.C. Ninnis brought in his photographs of the old jail and Madera’s first schoolhouse.
Someone brought in a Confederate $20 note, and the residents of Chinatown collected more than 100 copper coins for the occasion. In addition, William Hughes donated his silver mounted rabbit’s foot and H. Brammer gave up one of his buttonhooks.
When everything was in place, the county sent out invitations to the celebration, which included horse races, a barbecue, and games. In the cornerstone, they chiseled the names of the men who were most responsible for building a permanent home for the county government, then placed inside that granite block that very first collection of artifacts of Madera’s history.
Today at the northeast corner of the building, the cornerstone can still be seen, reminding the visitor that the Madera County Courthouse still serves the people. Just as it once pointed to the future by collecting the many arms of government and placing them under one roof, now it preserves the past as the Madera Courthouse Museum. The Madera County Historical Society invites you to come by and see for yourself.