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Objections saved Courthouse Park

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

In 1906, fire almost destroyed the Madera County Courthouse, Fifty years later, the City of Madera tried to take a piece of its park. In the end, both were saved.


It has been 65 years now since the city of Madera cast covetous eyes toward Yosemite Avenue and Gateway Drive. It needed a new city hall, and the council thought it saw a solution to the problem in the park that William King Heiskell had built at the turn of the century.

The city fathers, however, reckoned without considering Heiskell’s descendants.

It all started in 1956 when city officials, led by Mayor Al Barsotti, held a meeting with the Madera County Board of Supervisors to negotiate a deal for part of Courthouse Park on which a new City Hall could be built.

As the deal stood, the city would maintain the entire park area for 40 years in return for enough land to build a new building. Under the agreement, the city would obtain title to a block-long strip of the park, 125 feet wide, running just east of the granite divider which separated the courthouse block from the park block. It seemed like a good deal for everyone. Then Supervisor Tom Chidlaw began to raise some concerns.

What bothered Chidlaw was not necessarily the fact that part of the park was in danger of being covered in concrete. Rather, he was reluctant to give up the parcel because the deal seemed too sweet for Madera.

“I haven’t heard their best offer yet,” Chidlaw said. “I think there should be some price set on that piece of property.”

Apparently not all of the supervisors agreed with Chidlaw. Supervisor C.C. Clark said he felt that the city’s proposal was fair enough, and he was joined by Supervisor Virgil Gordon.

Supervisor Art Wachtmann was able to halt any more erosion of support for the courthouse construction plan by pointing out that a public hearing would have to be held on the matter and that any opposition would surface at that time. With that, the supervisors set Jan. 21, 1957, as the date for seeking public input.

Neither the supervisors nor the city council were prepared for the firestorm that swept through the boardroom when the public hearing was held. It came from a group of influential Maderans who made an eloquent plea to keep the park intact. Most of them were descendants of William King Heiskell, the man who had designed and created Courthouse Park.

Heiskell had been a Madera County pioneer. After trying his hand at mining in the foothills, he married one of the daughters of the first Henry Clay Daulton, then in 1898 joined the gold rush to Alaska. When he returned, he obtained the position of guardian of the park and almost single-handedly transformed it into a place of beauty, complete with zoo, aviary, and banks of flowers. It was his daughters and grandsons who showed up that Monday night to protest the attempt to encroach upon the natural beauty of Courthouse Park.

Heiskell’s daughter, Mrs. Frank Desmond, spoke most eloquently. “I feel,” said the highly respected educator, “the taxpayers of this county have an investment. It’s more than money — it’s a sense of aesthetic value.” Speaking of her father’s hand in laying out and caring for the park for a quarter of a century, she continued, “He had a vision — a dream.”

Mrs. Desmond’s sister, Miss Naomi Heiskell, said the proposed City Hall would be a foothold for further use of the site for non-park purposes. Referring to the allegory of the camel and the Arab’s tent, she said, “In a very little while, the entire camel was in the tent and the Arab was pushed out.”

Heiskell’s grandsons, Jack and Jim Desmond, also spoke strenuously in favor of maintaining the integrity of the park built by their grandfather.

After the protests by Heiskell’s descendants, the City began to plan a retreat of sorts. Some suggested the new City Hall could be built on what was then called Lions Park, a playground area two blocks away on Fourth Street between G and H Streets (That is in fact where it was built).

Meanwhile, the objections of Heiskell’s descendents began to shake the resolve of the supervisors, especially Virgil Gordon. The board set Monday, Jan. 28, 1957, as the day to revisit the matter.

That Monday meeting opened at ten o’clock in the morning, and it didn’t take long to settle the business. Faced with, not only the opposition of Heiskell’s descendants, but with a multitude who sided with them, the board voted unanimously to abandon the plan. The City of Madera would have to find another site for City Hall.

Thus did the ghost of William King Heiskell prevail. His daughter and grandsons started a movement that stopped the politicians dead in their tracks. Today the Park seems safe from encroachment.

While the surrounding landscape bears little resemblance to “Old Madera,” the old Courthouse and its park continue to remind us of the place where we began.


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