Jennie Mace lands in Madera
For The Madera Tribune
Jennie Mace (seated) relaxes with a friend along the banks of the Fresno River in Madera County sometime near the turn of the 20th century. Mace arrived in this area after leaving Indiana at the age of 18 to become the bride of John Gilmore, a man who sought his fortune by panning for gold near Coarsegold.
The young Madera County pioneer woman, Jennie Cunningham Gilmore finally settled into her new home on Finegold Gulch. She had come with her husband, John, on their honeymoon journey from Indiana to California in 1855. John mined for gold up and down Finegold Creek while Jennie kept the home fires burning in their “picket and canvas lean-to” that she called home.
At first, her neighbors were few and far between. She had been there two years before she saw another white woman, a Mrs. Lewis, who perhaps assisted in the delivery of Jennie’s first child, Matilda (Tillie), in 1857. Jennie was to write later of her inability to express “the pleasure it gave her to talk with one of her own.”
Like many of the gold seekers, John and Jennie Gilmore decided after a while to mine the miners. They opened a store in what is now the O’Neals area, and “often the day’s receipts would be a thousand dollars, using gold scale weights to designate the amount.” Jennie found that the gold dust, which was the coin of the realm on the Madera County frontier, was stunning. “Nothing looked richer or prettier than grains of gold.” she wrote.
From the viewpoint of Jennie Gilmore, most of the early pioneers of Madera County were “people of honest, generous principles.” If it happened that a “renegade” got into the community, committing theft or other misdeeds, “there was a necktie party held.” Not far from where John and Jennie lived there were “two or three cases in which alleged criminals were found hanging to a tree.” Jennie relates in her diary that such actions served as a warning “to others of like tendency, and were effective.”
In time, Jennie’s isolation was mitigated by the influx of settlers to the Madera County foothills and Valley floor. These newcomers, who injected the area with a modicum of civilization, “had the spirit of pleasure in their veins...and would often travel 75 to 100 miles by horseback or buggy to attend a dance.” Jennie recalled that when the first sawmill of the region was built at Crane Valley (Bass Lake), proprietor Charles Converse gave a ball. People came from all over the county, some making a two-day trip of it. “The dancing was not like nowadays, but (rather) a good old-fashioned hoe-down, lasting all night and often part of the day.”
By 1860 John and Jennie Gilmore had become good friends with Captain Russel Perry Mace and his wife, Elizabeth. On August 12, 1864, Elizabeth died and was buried on Finegold Creek. According to Jennie, the pioneers did not have the opportunity of religious services at first, but “their early training was deeply rooted.” Elizabeth Mace was laid to rest in a simple graveside observance consisting of a reading from the Bible.
Captain Mace continued to mine for gold while John and Jennie operated their store. Then in 1866, John Gilmore died, and in addition to being named the executor of his estate, Captain Mace married his widow. The Captain and Jennie occupied the Gilmore home with her daughter, Tillie Gilmore, until 1874. During that time, Jennie gave birth to three more children: William, Russel Henry, and Mary, all of whom first saw the light of day at Fort Miller on the San Joaquin River, where presumably the services of a physician were secured.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad laid its tracks through the San Joaquin Valley in 1872, it established a number of railroad towns. One of these was Borden, near present day Avenue 12. In 1874, Captain Mace and Jennie left the foothills that had been their home for two decades and opened a hotel in the new little burg. There, Inez, the last of Jennie’s children was born. Two years later, when lots in the proposed town of Madera were put on sale, the Maces were the first to purchase one. They built the Yosemite Hotel on the corner of E Street and Yosemite Avenue and moved in on Christmas Day of 1876. Jennie Cunningham Gilmore Mace’s traveling days were over.
This indefatigable pioneer woman took a very active part in the development of the social life of early Madera. She was the first Worthy Matron of Chapter 92, O.E.S. She helped organize the Methodist Church in Madera and was always active in its affairs. She was an honorary member of the Madera Women’s Improvement Club and was one of the founders of the Madera Cemetery Association. She was also active in the drive to create Madera High School.
On July 22, 1916, Jennie Gilmore Mace died. She never lost that indomitable pioneer spirit that had taken her from worries about Indian attacks to concern over civic affairs.
Thus was the Madera County frontier subdued, and that taming came as much at the hands of strong willed women like Jennie as it did by their male counterparts. There was collaboration between the sexes in conquering the wilderness; this becomes obvious when the lives of women like Jennie, are brought into focus.