Merced County Times Newspaper
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Historic photos capture our community spirit

From big sweet potatoes to a smaller, quaint town


By Sarah Lim

Merced County Historical Society’s 32nd Annual Bill Kirby Western BBQ/Auction on Sept. 12 is around the corner. As always, this popular event is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and our auction is most anticipated by history lovers. This year is no exception, as reprints of our vintage photos will go home with the highest bidders.

The first auction item is a framed set of two photos celebrating Merced’s prized produce. They both feature seven ladies, dressed in 1910s attire, with a sign written “Merced County.” In one of the photos (published here), these ag ambassadors pose behind four gigantic sweet potatoes. I have always been amused by how big the sweet potatoes are in the photograph, and I often wondered if this picture may have been manipulated. As a result of further research, my suspicion has finally been confirmed: this photo was “Photoshopped.”

The clues of manipulation, other than the size of the sweet potatoes, rest in the “Merced County” sign and the second lady from the right in the back row. If you look a little closer, you will see something that is not quite right about them when you compare this photo to the other newfound photo in the framed set. I am not going to say more because you will have to see the photos for yourself at our silent auction. Both photos were created by well-known local photographer Frank D. Robinson around 1913.

Frank Day Robinson (or Frank Daniel Robinson) was born on March 17, 1875 at his father’s farm near Merced Falls. Not wanting to be a farmer or a sawmill man like his father, he took a different path, working in various lines of work and traveling to different places to see the world. At the age of 20, Robinson discovered the new art of photography. This became a turning point in his life because he could not only see the world but also capture its beauty with his newly acquired camera.

After an apprenticeship in the Boysen Studio in Yosemite, Robinson worked in the Thullen Studio in Merced and then partnered with John Simon to form the S & R (or Simon and Robinson) Studio. Starting in the 1920s, Robinson worked independently at 617 L Street (now 1717 Canal Street) until the 1930s. With a prolific career, Robinson, no doubt, was the best photo historian and photojournalist in Merced County. This is evident in the photo of these seven women with the “Merced County” sign.

Most of Robinson’s negatives were on glass plates, and although brittle, many of them are still in existence in the Courthouse Museum collection or private collections. So, the photo of seven women with the four giant sweet potatoes was created by at least three different layers: one for the seven ladies, one for the giant potatoes, and one for the sign. How very clever.

A view from above

Going from farm to town, the second photo in the silent auction is an aerial view of downtown Merced, featuring Southern Pacific Railroad, Yosemite Valley Railroad, Hotel Tioga, El Capitan Hotel, Ivers and Alcorn Funeral Home, and Pythian Castle. The photographer is unknown. When the Museum first acquired the digital copy of this photo, I had a fun time trying to figure out when the photo was taken. I have narrowed the time period the picture was taken to either the summer of 1930 or the summer of 1931.

The first clue is the presence of Janss and Ivers Funeral Home (now known as Ivers and Alcorn). In the picture, the L-shaped funeral home at 901 W. Main Street looks like a newly constructed building since it has no trees or landscaping in its front lawn area on the northwest corner of Main and P Streets. To its left is the Veterans Memorial Building, which is surrounded by well-grown trees. The funeral home in the Spanish Colonial style, modeled after the Mission San Juan Capistrano, was completed and dedicated on August 2, 1930.

That puts the photo after August 1930. The El Capitan Hotel is the second clue. Since the Hotel was still intact when the photo was taken, that puts the end of the timeframe to the disastrous fire on August 17, 1931. Again, the trees are full of leaves, which indicates the photo may have been taken in the summer.

Other interesting sights in the photo include the Pythian Castle at the northwest corner of M and 16th Streets. In 1884, the Knights of Pythias contracted with Frank Cotton, who had also worked on the Merced County Courthouse, to build this Eastlake style building on land donated by the Contract & Finance Company (later Pacific Improvement Company).

One of the prominent features of this building was its pointed tower, which served as a landmark for motorists as it stood on the traffic corridor: 16th Street. It was removed in June 1925 as the tower was deemed unsafe during high winds. Sadly, this photo, taken at a later date, shows the Pythian Castle without the tower.

These two historic photos capture Merced County in different times. While one celebrates the rich productive soil of our land, the other showcases our small quaint town during the Great Depression.

Good luck bidding.

  • The Merced County Historical Society will host its 32nd annual Bill Kirby Western Barbecue at Lake Yosemite on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Both live and silent auctions will feature fabulous dinners, vacation getaways, antique items, gourmet food, and artwork. Tickets cost $75 and are now on sale in the Courthouse Museum Gift Shop. For more information, call the museum office at (209) 723-2401. Proceeds benefit Courthouse Museum programs and scholarships.
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