Madera High School forced to close
Courtesy of Madera County Historical Society
Madera High School after the storm of 1904 had settled.
One of the first things accomplished by the brand new Madera County Board of Supervisors in 1893 was to create a high school district and start holding classes in the second story of the Westside Elementary School.
In those days, the state had nothing to do with high schools; they were not part of the public school system. The State Department of education only had jurisdiction over the elementary school districts, and only children from 8 to 14 years of age had to attend the required five months. High school districts were formed by county boards of supervisors and supported totally by local assessments.
All of that changed in 1903, when the legislature enacted a law creating Union High School Districts. Under the new law, union high school districts could be formed by attaching elementary districts to high school districts, if they petitioned to do so. In taking that action, the elementary districts lost none of their autonomy and were allowed to put one member on the high school district’s board of trustees. The law also provided for a statewide property tax of one percent for the maintenance of high schools, which brought them into the state public education system for the first time.
When the new system became operative in Madera, only those elementary districts that were adjacent to the high school district could petition to be part of the new Madera Union High School District. Initially, these included Alpha, Arcola, Berenda, Daulton, Deep Well, Howard, Madera, Orange Grove, and Sweet Flower.
After the formation of the new Madera Union High School District, the law allowed for its expansion by allowing those elementary districts that were adjacent to the new district to join. In this way, Minturn, Raymond, Knowles, Webster, Marysdale, Dennis, Wallace, Iron Mountain, and Sesame became part of the union.
Once the new high school district had been formed, its next order of business was to build a school. Ten years of educating high school students in the top floor of Westside School was enough. A school building committee found a suitable site in Block 46 of the Hughes Addition, approximately where the present Madera High School is located. The cost was $1,500.
The property was purchased, and Lindgren Contractors was engaged to build the school. They were given a budget of $22,500 for construction costs, and the board set aside another $5,000 for materials and equipment. The next step was to construct Madera’s first high school building, and that’s when the trouble began.
The contract for building Madera High School had no sooner been let than Maderan W.C. Ring hired a lawyer, F.A. Fee, to file a lawsuit in Superior Court to halt the construction. Ring’s motives have never been made entirely clear, but he began by challenging the legality of the Madera Union High School District on Jan. 27, 1904. That, of course, spread alarm throughout the community. Many feared that the elimination of the new school district would mean that the high school would have to go too.
Madera High principal E.B. Williams, attempted to assuage the concerns of the public by insisting that he would keep the school open, no matter what. In a letter to the Madera Mercury, which was published on the front page, Williams was quoted, “The principal has no authority to order the school closed. He certainly has no desire to see it closed. Patrons of the school may be assured that all instructors will report for duty until relieved by the proper authority.” Unbeknownst to him, Williams would not have long to wait for such an order.
On February 2, Ring had his first day in court. The room was filled with spectators and lawyers. In addition to Fee, Ring’s attorney, District Attorney Fowler was there representing the county; they were joined by W.H. Larew and R.L. Hargrove who represented the school trustees. John M. Griffin, secretary of the school board, sat with his attorneys.
This first session didn’t take long. Fee moved for a continuance to allow for his client to complete his argument for a different plan of attack on the school situation. Fowler offered no objection, so Judge Conley granted the continuance for one week. The audience left the courtroom shaking their heads and feeling as if they had been left hanging. That would change quickly. That afternoon the high school board ordered Madera High School closed.
In a firmly worded resolution, the board noted that the legal quagmire created by Fee had created such an uncertainty about the school district that it was ordering the school closed.
“It is ordered that E.B. Williams, principal, and Mae Heaslip, Anna L. Wright, and Charles E. Haas teachers of Madera High School, do forthwith close said Madera Union High School, and you are hereby notified forthwith to cease teaching and conducting said school, and you are directed to close the doors of said school and surrender the property, furniture and fixtures of said school to the undersigned executive committee: S.G. Owens, W.D. Cardwell, J.S. Osborn, A.D. Cook,--Trustees.
On the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1904, Williams and the rest of the faculty of Madera High School vacated Westside School and the basement of the Courthouse it had been using as classrooms. The doors were locked, and everyone went home not knowing when or if they would return.
Note: To be continued.