Fire cleared way for Courthouse Park
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
It didn’t take long for Courthouse Park to take shape after a fire in 1909 cleared the property of every building except the courthouse and jail. A water wagon can be seen fighting the dust on Yosemite Avenue a year later.
In 1909, the Madera County Board of Supervisors saw the need for a courthouse park, and they became involved in some heavy negotiations. They were attempting to purchase the east side of block 25, which was that area that lay between the newly erected courthouse and F Street.
The talks were not going well. The parties could not get together on a price. At issue was a row of businesses along F Street, beginning with the Japanese Boarding House whose proprietor was known only as “George.” It stood on the corner of Sixth and F Streets. Known as the “Shady Corner,” the structure was one of the earliest commercial buildings to be built in Madera and at one time housed the Lucca Hotel, operated by a branch of the Simi family.
At the other end of the block, on the corner of F Street and Yosemite Avenue, stood McCluskey’s saloon and barber shop. In between were the Chinese store of Lee Sam, his two story lodging house, and the Yosemite Livery, Feed, & Sale Stable operated by W.B. Coffman.
The property owners were driving a hard bargain. They knew that the Supervisors required the site if the dream to create a courthouse park was ever to be realized, and most seemed quite willing to take full advantage of the situation. Back and forth the talks continued and so did the deadlock, until things came to a head on June 5, 1909.
On that evening, J.H. Lane, who worked for Coffman in the livery stable, had just cleaned the place up and was dumping the sweepings out behind the building when he smelled smoke. Within seconds the hostler saw the flames licking at Lee Sam’s store. Before he could utter a cry, they had jumped across to the stable.
Lane ran to the front of the building and called for help. The “loungers” who were resting along the street seemed paralyzed and gave him no assistance except to alert the fire department. In the meantime, Lane ran back to the stables to cut the animals loose. Some of the steeds ran out, but those in the south side of the building seemed crazed by the sight of the flames and huddled together, bellowing in fright and pain to the end. In addition to the horses, most of the buggies and harnesses were lost.
Of the seven horses that were saved, one was the “fine buggy horse” of W.H. Grubbs. Two belonged to the United States Government; they had been put there by troopers who were on their way to Yosemite. One belonged to R.H. Mace, and another was owned by “Poker Dick,” a Chinese worker down from Sugar Pine. The other two were the property of Coffman, the proprietor.
Within just a short time, the fire department made its appearance. Porter Thede, having gone to the firehouse for the fire hose, came zipping around the corner in his auto. So intent was Thede at getting to the fire, he lost T.C. Yaunch, who was riding on the running board of the car. The latter was thrown several feet through the air and landed on the pavement. Fortunately he was uninjured and was able to run to the scene of the fire to lend his assistance. By the time that the entire contingent of firefighters got to the conflagration, all effort to save the buildings was futile. They directed their efforts toward the McCluskey building, but the obstacles were just too great.
Right off the bat, Joe Walsh was overcome with heat exhaustion and passed out. Then there was trouble with the hydrants; a full head of water could not be had, owing to the fact that many of the residents were irrigating their gardens at the time. And if that wasn’t enough, the old fire hose broke in several places. The worst impediment, however, was the wind, which fanned the flames from one end of the block to the other. When it was all over, all was a mass of smoldering ruins. Gone forever were the businesses of McCluskey, Sam, Coffman, and George. Now nothing stood between the courthouse and F Street (present day Gateway Drive).
The personal losses of the property and business owners notwithstanding, that June fire over a century ago had a direct bearing on the future events that we now know as Old Timers’ Day. Suddenly the county was in the driver’s seat. New ordinances prohibited the rebuilding of frame buildings along F Street, and the property owners had nothing with which to bargain but the ground. Almost overnight a sense of community spirit was aroused and an agreement was forthcoming. The county bought the property and set about to make plans for the much longed for park.
Now in place of a livery stable, Chinese restaurant, and hotels, a peaceful park, full of trees and resting places occupy the site of the great 1909 Madera fire. Fate had its own way of dealing with the impasse.