By SARAH LIM
Built in 1875, the historic Merced County Courthouse, which houses the Courthouse Museum, is one of the most important historical landmarks in Merced County. Located in the center of Courthouse Park, this magnificent building will be 150 years old next year. While the history of the Courthouse is well documented, the history of Courthouse Park is little known even though the park and some of its trees have been in existence longer than the building.
Before becoming known as Courthouse Park, this area was a public square. In the spring of 1872, locust trees were planted all around the square; however, these newly planted trees were soon destroyed by cattle. The County Board of Supervisors then voted to build a fence enclosure around the public square to prevent further destruction.
The establishment of Courthouse Park started in the fall of 1872 when much of the debate in Merced County was regarding the location of the county seat: Snelling or Merced. A special election was held on December 12, 1872 to settle the matter. Snelling, the original county seat, lost the race to Merced, a new town established by the Central Pacific Railroad.
The editor of the Snelling-based San Joaquin Valley Argus believed that the Railroad Company’s influence was one of the reasons that led to Merced’s victory. The Argus pointed out that about a month before the election, the Railroad donated to Merced County a parcel of land in Merced, described in the town map as the “Court House Square.” The donated parcel had made Merced more desirable as a political center. Whether or not this helped push Merced to the finish line, the public square was now known as Courthouse Park.
Bounded by O, 20th, M, and 22nd Streets, the property was given to the County for $1, stipulating that the land was to be used for the enjoyment of the people. In early 1873, new trees were planted all around the square, and a windmill was constructed by F. L. Jackson to pump water to irrigate them. A plan to build a new county courthouse in the public square was soon underway.
Because Courthouse Park was on the northwest corner of town, much of the area surrounding the park had yet to be developed. In the early days, the improvement of Courthouse Park was under the supervision of the County Sheriff. Sheriff Anthony Meany, for example, directed the prisoners to plow and work on the grounds and to prune the trees and shrubbery. Two major improvements during Meany’s tenure (1873-1883) included the graded and graveled sidewalks around the square and the installation of a fence around the Courthouse. To make the park more accessible, Sheriff John “Lee” Crittenden (1884-1886) made four opening avenues from the Courthouse to M Street, O Street, 22nd Street, and 20th Street and constructed a circular walk and driveway around the building.
Sheriff Charles Warfield and his successor, John Swan, ultimately brought the entire park to a high state of cultivation and beautification. During Warfield’s time in office (1888-1902), a fountain was built to the rear of the Courthouse and the beautiful orange orchard was mentioned by a local reporter. “Merced’s court house yard presents a handsome appearance, especially at this time of the year,” writes the Merced County Sun reporter on January 1, 1892, “surrounded by the bright green of some fifteen large orange trees loaded with bright golden fruit.” Sheriff Warfield also planted 200 orange trees outside the courtyard, which had yet to bear fruit. The reporter predicted Courthouse Park would be a well-grown orange grove in a year or two.
Sheriff Swan continued Warfield’s work, designing the park’s landscape, planting shade trees and lawns, and paving the promenades. During his incumbency (1902-1906), the Native of Daughters of the Golden West planted palm trees on N Street between 23rd and 16th Streets, which are still standing today. The park was so well-kept that it was often the center of entertainment. Elmer Murchie, who came to Merced in 1907, considered “Concert in the Park” as one of the most favorite recreations of townspeople because “the older folks would sit around on the grass and visit while the youngsters romped around.”
Like Elmer, early Merced residents took pride in having the largest and most handsome park of any city of its size in the San Joaquin Valley. The park served as a community gathering place where churches held public services on Sundays, where the Merced Concert Band entertained the crowd with ragtime and classical music on all festive occasions, where President Taft stopped and gave a speech on his way to Yosemite National Park, and where Merced County Farm Bureau held its first annual membership meeting and picnic.
Courthouse Park has since changed its appearance with the addition of structures and monuments while other buildings have been removed or remodeled. Today, in addition to the Merced County Courthouse Museum, many other public buildings and government offices operate in and near Courthouse Park. Even though Courthouse Park has undergone transformations, this gift from earlier generations continues to be an important center in present-day Merced.
To learn more about Merced County history, please join us for Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett’s PowerPoint program titled “Rediscovering Merced County” on February 4 at 2:00 p.m. during the Merced County Historical Society Annual Membership meeting. It will be at the Merced County Board of Supervisors’ Chambers at 2222 M Street. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact the Courthouse Museum office at (209) 723-2401.