Merced County Times Newspaper
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Courthouse Museum pays tribute to McCorrys, Cunninghams

Archive room named after these two pioneer families


The story of the McCorrys and Cunninghams goes way back to the very beginning of Merced County. Members of the two families have contributed significantly to the development and growth of the region.

So that is why the Merced County Historical Society decided to name the archive room of the Courthouse Museum — which holds a great wealth of local history — in their honor.

A room naming ceremony was held at the museum on June 18 in front of the descendants of county pioneers, James Cunningham and William J. McCorry, along with local leaders and museum supporters.

Among the family members present, Jim Cunningham, 83, and Kathleen McCorry Crookham, 90, were the ones chosen to unveil the new namesake plaque on the archive room door. The two community standouts reminisced about how they grew up together — as neighbors who lived on ranches next door to one another near Le Grand, and as students who rode a rural school bus together on the way into town.

“People thought we were brother and sister,” one of them said.

The other replied, “We have been friends forever.”

How it all started

The history of the McCorry and Cunningham families reflects the history of Merced County, which is largely built on the immigrant experience. As newcomers to America, William McCorry and James Cunningham epitomized hard work, determination, and endurance.

An Irish immigrant, James Cunningham was the chief officer of the clipper ship Canada, which sailed from England to America in the fall of 1850. As soon as his ship landed in San Francisco in February 1851, his entire crew deserted him and headed for the gold fields in the foothills. Cunningham then journeyed to the foothills, where he was very successful in his search for gold.

Cunningham purchased his first piece of land in Mariposa County for stock and grain raising and then expanded his land holdings into Merced County. According to his great-grandson, Jim Cunningham, “This became the nucleus of the large holdings that became the Cunningham Corporation.”

As a prominent citizen of Merced County, James Cunningham helped organize the county in 1855, served as the supervisor for District No. 3 from 1858 to 1860 and again in 1864 and 1866, and took part in the dedication of the Merced County Courthouse in 1875. He also helped build the Cunningham School and served as a school trustee for many years.

Cunningham and his three children, James Charles, Emmett T., and Margaret Evaline, formed the Cunningham Corporation in 1900, which comprised 16,000 acres. The corporation was bought out by Hewlett-Packard in 1973. The remainder of the ranch was sold in recent years.


Good neighbors

The Cunningham Ranch bordered the McCorry Ranch to the north. For over a century, the Cunninghams and McCorrys were neighbors.

Like the Cunninghams, the McCorrys came to settle in Merced County from Ireland. William J. McCorry arrived at the Huffman ranch in Merced County in 1876. Working hard in the fields for some years, in 1885, he saved enough money to buy property five miles north of Planada for farming and ranching.

William McCorry was also an esteemed citizen of Merced County. He served as a trustee for the Cunningham school district for two decades as well as on election boards many times. McCorry was very public-spirited and forward-thinking. When he learned a state highway to Yosemite (now Highway 140) would be built through his property, he donated about 22 acres on the north edge of his ranch for the project. As a pioneer farmer, he introduced modern ranching methods. After 139 years, the McCorry Ranch is still owned by the family.

Standout descendants

In more modern times, Jim Cunningham and Kathleen McCorry Crookham have continued their proud family tradition.

To Kathleen, teaching was her destiny – her grandfather William, a school trustee; her mother Rose, a school board member; Kathleen herself, a school principal; and now her son Dan, an Ag teacher, and daughter Julie, a high school counselor.

To Jim, farming is his destiny; like his great-grandfather James, grandfather Charles, and his father Byron, working on his land and raising cattle was to help feed the world.

Although both Jim Cunningham and Kathleen McCorry Crookham (a county supervisor for District #2 from 1997 to 2008) have deep roots in the Planada-Le Grand area, they have each served the county well through their civic engagement and community participation. They were both instrumental in bringing the University of California to Merced. As community leaders, they are actively involved in various service clubs and organizations. As concerned citizens, they are passionate about preserving historical landmarks and improving our quality of life.

As a historian, Jim writes stories for Merced County Times to promote our county’s history from Old Los Banos to Yamato Colony. With so many stories to share, Kathleen has written her memoir about being a pioneer female educator, leader, and businesswoman while raising three children and managing a family ranch.

Like her grandfather, Kathleen has generously donated her historic ranch for public good, such as hosting dinners to raise money to support Museum programs. Similarly, Jim has contributed the Cunningham papers and artifacts dated back to the Gold Rush days to the Museum Archives. Their stories are just as inspiring as their ancestors.

According to Museum Director Sarah Lim, the new name of the McCorry-Cunningham Archives room, “will provide visitors, children, researchers, and students touring the Courthouse Museum a greater appreciation of the rich history of our county and the contributions of two of our founders.”

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