Once upon a time in Merced County … 170 Years Ago




Special to the Times

One hundred and seventy years ago (1854), a bill to create the County of Merced was introduced in the State Assembly by Dr. Benjamin D. Horr of Tuolumne County. The matter generated considerable interest that divided the Mariposa County residents from the mining camps in the foothills to the rural settlements in the valley. As a result, Merced County was not organized until April 1855.

Since its formation, Merced County has lived up to the founders’ visions and maintained its farming tradition in the Central Valley. Here is a bit of a fact-finding exercise to survey events that impacted our county.

• 160 years ago (1864), Merced County seat, Snelling, was caught in the middle of the Civil War conflicts when the town’s pro-confederate newspaper was damaged by a group of Union soldiers passing through. The paper, started by Robert Steele and his wife Rowena in 1862, never recovered from the destruction and ended its operation shortly after.

• 150 years ago (1874), the Merced Courthouse cornerstone was laid on Wednesday, July 8, 1874 under the Grand Lodge of Masons of California. Inside a case were copies of newspapers, laws of creating the County and Courthouse, Courthouse bonds, tax recorders, great registries, a set of U. S. coins, a pint of wheat and barley, and a school statistical report. The stone is located at an undisclosed location in the building and has been painted over to look like the rest of the building.

• 140 years ago (1884), the Merced County Board of Supervisors reached the current level of board membership. There were only three supervisorial districts when the County was organized in 1855. As the population of the County grew dramatically from about 500 in 1855 to over 5,600 in 1880, the board membership increased from three to five when the Board passed a redistricting ordinance in 1884.

• 130 years ago (1894), the County entered an era of rapid settlement and intensive farming due to the development of irrigation systems. The population growth led to more social organizations. The Merced Chapter of the Order of Eastern Star, a Masonic auxiliary, was started in October 1894 and is still active today.

• 120 years ago (1904), Merced County participated in the St. Louis World’s Fair, formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The Board of Supervisors appointed N. H. Wilson as the St. Louis Exposition commissioner to represent Merced County at the World Fair. His sole purpose was to promote further settlement in the County.

• 110 years ago (1914), a major change took place at the Merced Courthouse when a new two-story addition was built at the rear. It was known as the Hall of Records since it housed the Recorder’s Office on the top floor and the Assessor’s Office on the ground floor. This fireproof structure has steel windows and cast-iron doors that would drop down in the event of a fire.

• 100 years ago (1924), Merced instituted its first air mail service on July 1 under Postmaster A. E. Daneri’s administration. Any available sealed packages within certain weight and size requirements would be flown. It cost 8 cents an ounce. A one-ounce package would cost 24 cents and take over 35 hours to fly from San Francisco to New York.

• 90 years ago (1934), in the midst of the Great Depression, Merced Water Company built a 300,000-gallon water tower at 12th and Canal Streets to help maintain pressure in Merced’s water system. It was 148 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter, known as the largest elevated tank in California. It was taken down in July 2021 since it no longer played a role in the city’s water supply and storage.

• 80 years ago (1944), the annual convention for the California State Council of Carpenters was held in Merced from February 25 to 27. The convention headquarters was the Hotel Tioga, but the conference was held in Odd Fellows Hall. Local Union leader A. C. Allen was the chairman of the hosting committee. Among the many resolutions the convention adopted to protect the rights of the workers was the rejection of the use of war prisoners.

• More than 70 years ago, G Street between 16th Street and the Santa Fe tracks served two purposes – primarily as a street and secondly as a dam against flood waters pouring into the city. It was lowered to grade in 1954 as part of the East Merced Improvement District, and the street was widened from 24 to 64 feet.

• 60 years ago, Merced College held its first commencement exercise at the Merced County Fairgrounds. On June 11, 1964, 35 Students in the first graduating class received their Associate in Arts degrees presented by College President Lowell Barker. The average age of the graduates was over 30.

50 years ago (1974), Le Conte School at the southwest corner of Canal and 23rd Streets was razed to provide a parking site for the new Merced County Administration Building. Le Conte School was built in 1917 for $14,229.

• 40 years ago (1984), Merced’s beloved native son, Bill Bedesen, celebrated his 100th birthday. Bill was elected County Surveyor in 1923 and held that office until his retirement. He designed a number of one-room schoolhouses in Merced County and the magnificent Bloss House in Atwater. When he turned 100, he received many congratulatory messages and legislative recognition.

• 30 years ago (1994), Cruickshank Middle School became the fourth middle school in the Merced City School District, the others being Hoover, Teneya, and Rivera. It served 6th to 8th-grade students until 2013, when 6th grade was moved to the elementary school system.

• 20 years ago (2004), the Bank of Italy Building (Mondo Building) at the NW corner of Main and Canal Streets was restored to its original appearance after an extensive renovation. Built in 1927 at a cost of $250,000, the building was later remodeled and plastered to cover its original columns and medallions. The Tolkin Group of Pasadena spent $3.5 million to rehabilitate the building which was a project of the Merced Redevelopment Agency.

• 10 years ago (2014), Merced City celebrated its 125th anniversary of incorporation. The yearlong celebration was full of festivities from Founders’ Day, April 1, at the Merced Theatre, where over 800 cupcakes were served, to the Courthouse Museum exhibit developed in collaboration with Merced Union High School students. Merced was established as a railroad town in 1872 but was not incorporated as a sixth-class city until 1889.

And now, 170 years after the dawn of Merced County, our historic County Courthouse building is about to have another milestone with its long-anticipated exterior renovation. Meanwhile, the Courthouse Museum continues its operations inside the building with new and exciting exhibitions, including the “What’s That For? – The Stories of Obscure Artifacts.”

Come to check out a wooden bowl that was part of the 1846 westward wagon train and learn about the Donner Party tragedy from “Salt and Snow” author Eugene Hart’s presentation on March 7, at 5 p.m.

For more information about the exhibit, please contact the Museum office at (209) 723-2401.

County of MercedCourthouse MuseumHistorySarah Lim
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