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Why didn’t Madera celebrate the 4th of July in 1903?

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

While the folks in Coarsegold celebrated the Fourth of July in fine fashion in 1903, the streets of Madera were absolutely bare.


Madera was always alive with Fourth of July activities. Fun, food, and entertainment were the watchwords all over town. Every year Madera kept alive a tradition that had been around since 1877, the year that the town first celebrated American Independence. Our city has always observed the Fourth of July, with one notable exception. No one seems to know what happened in 1903.

Madera had been the county seat for a decade, and that in itself should have been cause for celebration. One would have thought that boosterism would have been strong. There was every reason to expect that Madera would host a real Independence Day blowout; such was not the case, however.

On July 4, 1903, the northbound morning train met a crowd of passengers at the Madera depot. They were headed for Merced. A smaller, but just as enthusiastic group boarded the southbound train for Fresno. Everyone had picnic baskets, and the American flags abounded. Maderans were deserting their hometown to celebrate Independence Day somewhere else.

By noon, Yosemite Avenue was almost entirely devoid of any sign of human habitation, but not everyone had gone to Merced or Fresno. Many Maderans decided to travel up to Coarsegold, where, unlike Madera, the community had planned a patriotic play day which was unfolding with real gusto. If Madera was not going to celebrate the Fourth, the foothills would provide an ideal setting.

A new community hall had just been erected in Coarsegold, and the day’s activities centered around the recently constructed building. At nine o’clock, Judge J.M. Johnson of Fresno Flats announced the opening of the festivities, and the Raymond Quarry Band played a “patriotic piece.” Following the band’s performance, the Reverend Nicholas of Fresno Flats gave the invocation, after which Fred Ninnis read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety.

Ironically, the day’s oration came from a resident of Madera, A.R. Wall. The veteran of the Spanish-American War gave a well-received recitation of the nation’s past military exploits in a speech that was “full of fine patriotism.” Wall included in his remarks a “scattering of verbal bouquets to the ladies” of the audience. An assortment of instrumental and vocal music rounded out the morning, and after a communal picnic lunch, the games began.

First came the races. There was the 150 yard race for men which carried a $4 first prize. G. Larson barely crossed the finish line ahead of Phil Oiler. Then came the “Fat Man’s Race,” which was easily won by Fred Borham. In addition to these contests, there were foot races for women, dashes for kids, three-legged races, and an egg race. The crowd, most of whom were Maderans, was delighted with the competition.

The highlight of the post-race activities was the “double-handed rock drilling contest.” Then towards dusk, the crowd was treated to a fireworks display on the hill behind the hotel. The celebration was topped off by a “grand ball” in the new community hall.

Within 24 hours, the citizens of Madera were treated to a journalistic whipping. How had this happened? How was it that Madera had let the Fourth of July come and go without conducting the traditional celebration? It was pointed out that the Native Sons of California had tried without success to generate the enthusiasm necessary for pulling off such an event in Madera, but alas, their efforts had come to naught.

Just as important, however, as the loss of civic pride was the loss of revenue. Everyone who left Madera to celebrate the 4th of July carried their pocketbooks as well as their picnic baskets with them. It was estimated that the city’s economy lost from $5,000 to $8,000 by not holding an Independence Day observance.

The lesson must have sunk in because within a few weeks Madera was taking steps to see that a repeat of the fiasco of 1903 did not occur. An executive committee was formed and an all out effort was made to not only give the hometown folks a day to remember, but to pull in visitors as well.

When July 4th, 1904, rolled around, Madera was ready. A first rate parade drew floats and bands from Fresno, Merced, and Modesto. W.M. Hughes was the parade marshal, and seats were set up along Yosemite Avenue with ice water barrels liberally distributed for the comfort of the on-lookers.

After the parade, there were the usual Fourth of July activities, complete with orations, patriotic music, and fireworks. Madera had learned a valuable lesson. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when one exists, it is certain to be filled.

In 1903, a vacuum existed in Madera County. Its seat of government seemed to have better things to do than to celebrate the country’s independence, and it wound up the loser. Other towns were there to fill the void and reap the rewards, both tangible and intangible; not the least of these was Coarsegold. But this was to happen just once. Madera would never forget the Fourth again.


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