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Madera had a turbulent school board race

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Superior Court Judge William Conley is shown here in his office at the Madera County Courthouse not long after he was involved in an altercation over a local school board election.


Madera has a history of hard fought school board campaigns, and every once in a while some of them turn violent—like that one in 1902.

That contest 120 years ago is without peer in laying bare the extent to which contending factions can yield to the heat of passion. So vigorously fought was the race that Madera’s first Superior Court Judge suffered the indignity of a public slapping.

Just one seat on the Madera School Board was at stake. Vying for that single spot were Porter Thede and J.W. Watkins. Supporting Thede were R.R. Cook, Harry Thede, Jack Kingston, and J.G. Roberts. On Watkins’ side were Superior Court Judge, William Conley, Joe Conley, J.M. Griffin, and Ed Leonard. Since both contestants enjoyed the support of numerous influential citizens, it is not surprising that the race reached a white heat by the first week in June 1902.

On the evening of June 5, however, just one day before the election, the contest took on a new wrinkle; a new candidate joined the field. The rather loose procedures of 100 years ago allowed George Marchbank to enter the fray at the last moment. Both Thede and Watkins were stunned! Marchbank was very popular about town and had the ability to garner a sizable share of the votes. So intimidating was his announced candidacy that it caused Watkins to make an announcement of his own. On the eve of the election, at 5 p.m., he withdrew.

Marchbank was approached that evening by the Conley’s with the suggestion that it would be in the best interest of the community for the Johnny-come-lately to reconsider. The negotiations went on into the night, but Marchbank held firm. Thede, all the while holding his peace, was more than a little suspicious of the machinations of his opponents. Being unable to convince Marchbank, the Conley’s got up early the next morning and went to visit their man Watkins.

A good night’s sleep must have strengthened Watkins’ resolve, for on Friday morning he consented to reenter the race. At the same time, Marchbank was thinking more clearly and announced that he would not be a candidate after all. With the opening of the polls at 8 a.m., the trustee race was once more a two-person contest between Thede and Watkins.

In terms of Madera elections, the turnout was heavy. Abe White ran his wagon and team, loaded with voters, back and forth between Yosemite Avenue and the Westside Grammar School. By 1 p.m., 227 men had cast their ballots. At that point, the election turned sour.

Since both candidates had “poll watchers,” a hot argument ensued when a “colored man named Crawford attempted to vote.” Crawford was immediately challenged by Judge Conley, who asserted that the former had not been in the county for the requisite 90 days. Crawford acknowledged that he had been temporarily out of the county, but had been back for over four weeks. At any rate, he claimed his residence had not changed during his absence. Judge Conley remained adamant, and “Crawford settled the matter by declining to vote.” By 2 p.m., the vote count had experienced a mercurial rise to 290 votes!

The Madera Mercury reported that after the Crawford affair, “There was some pretty raw work done by the boosters for Mr. Watkins.” It was charged that a “Mexican harp player” was brought down from Dennis and “attempts were made to vote him.” When asked to take an oath of residence, the man refused, and the matter was settled. At 4:20 p.m., the southbound train deposited two men who were “rushed to the polling place only to be challenged by the ever vigilant Thede supporters.”

At 7 p.m., the polls mercifully closed, and the ballot boxes were opened. Of the 463 votes, Thede received 202 marks, while his opponent, Watkins, garnered 261. The people had spoken, and to the loser belonged the revenge.

A victory celebration was held by the Watkins crowd at the Bank Saloon on Yosemite Avenue. Flanked by E.H. Cox and Pat Roberts, Porter Thede marched into the lion’s den to extract an apology for what he considered outrageous behavior on the part of Judge Conley. Thede, still stinging from his rebuke at the polls, marched right up to Conley, grabbed him by the lapel and demanded a redress. The Judge, surrounded by his friends, stoutly refused to apologize for anything, whereupon he received a resounding slap from Thede that rattled the jurist’s jowls. When it became obvious Conley was not going to retaliate, one of his cronies offered to take up the fight, but upon seeing that a friend of Thede’s had peeled off his coat, he “failed to come to the scratch.” Here the incident ended.

Watkins went on to serve on the Madera School Board, and Thede was soon mollified. Judge Conley continued his brilliant career on the bench, and Madera moved on into the 20th century.


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