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Tragedy hit Madera 116 years ago

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Maderans woke up on Christmas morning 115 years ago to this tragic scene. On the night before Christmas in 1906, an arsonist broke into the brand new granite courthouse and set it ablaze. The infamous courthouse fire left most folks numb as they stood silently contemplating the town’s next move. The solution was not long in coming. By the first week in January, work had began to restore the building.


It has been 116 years since all of Madera awoke to the tragedy of Christmas Day. Four walls formed a strange background to the mass of blackened and twisted iron, which emerged from the offices on the second floor of the Madera County Courthouse. The granite building was only four years old, and now on Christmas Day, 1906, it stood mutely protesting the work of an arsonist.

Although the building was not so badly damaged as was first thought — the first floor and basement came through the ordeal in good condition — the second story was a waste of wreck and ruin. The superior court rooms were gutted, and the iron, which formed the dome, lay in a tangled mass in the courtroom.

At first blush, some suggested that the fire might have been caused by a malfunction in the electric wiring, but that theory was discarded quickly because all of the wires in the building ran through pipes.

T.G. Duncan, who was one of the first to arrive on the scene, set all doubts about the origin of the courthouse fire to rest. As he entered the burning building, Duncan made his way to the second story courtroom of Judge Conley. There beneath the steps leading to the Judge’s bench, he found part of a barley sack, which had been saturated with coal oil. A piece of carpet had been thrown over the steps in an attempt to hide the sack.

After the fire in the courtroom had been extinguished, Duncan went up in the attic and found another fire there. At the time the blaze was a small one, but there was lots of smoke. The fire was ten feet away from any light wires, and before he could get a hose to it, the fire spread rapidly as if coal oil had been sprinkled about.

A few moments later, a piece of barley sack was also found in a box of papers in the basement. The sack had been tightly rolled and had a strong odor of coal oil.

The Courthouse in which so many took such pride, had been completed and occupied in 1902. It was constructed of Raymond Granite and cost $80,000 to build. In addition, the building was excellently furnished at a cost of over $50,000. Insurance was carried on the furniture, but there was none on the main building.

The only human casualty of the courthouse fire was that done to the jaw of a zealous member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors.

Jack Sheeler, foreman of one of the hose companies, struck Supervisor D.B. Fowler on the jaw and knocked him to the grass of the court house lawn. Fowler also suffered a badly sprained ankle when he fell. Scheeler claimed that Fowler was ordering his firemen around and ignored entreaties not to do so. Sheeler, at that point, took matters into his own hands.

On Dec. 31, 1906, the Madera County Board of Supervisors convened a special session to determine a plan for repairing the courthouse, and by the first week in January 1907, work had commenced. That’s when the only fatality connected with the courthouse fire occurred.

George A Clause, a local carpenter, was on top of the east wall of the building assisting in the placing of a cornice. He lost his balance and fell to the concrete pavement, breaking his neck and crushing his skull. Death was instantaneous.

The repair work continued, Clause’s death notwithstanding, and within months the structure had regained all of its splendor, topped as it was with a new dome.

As a result, today the old Courthouse Museum stands as a monument to the county’s past. Blood, sweat, and tears have been shed to preserve it, and a century of equity commitment provided by the community deserves some recognition. A visit to the magnificent old structure would be a great expression of gratitude.


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