Merced County Times Newspaper
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The Town of El Nido: That’s Spanish for ‘The Nest’

What’s That?

By Jim Cunningham & Flip Hassett

In the early 1800s the area on which the little town of El Nido now stands was land on which a few Indians, various wildlife and wild horses lived. Today, in the area are many acres of rich farming ground covered with many different crops and some very progressive and productive dairies.

There are about 200 residents, a country store, elementary school, fire station, two churches and a post office. At one time they had a combination library/Farm Bureau building that has since closed. The El Nido Irrigation District office was closed when the district was taken over by the Merced Irrigation District.

El Nido is also a place with an interesting past.

In September, 1909, one of the largest land deals ever in California came to light when the Union Colonization Company (aka the United States Farm Land Company) had taken an option on the 108,000 acre Chowchilla Ranch. The land is located on both sides of the Chowchilla River at and above its junction with the San Joaquin River. It took several years but in June of 1912 the deal was finalized. The Union Colonization Company planned to subdivide the land and place it on the market in tracts to suit purchasers. This land is where the town of Chowchilla now stands but the land extended to nine miles south of Merced and included the town of El Nido. Also in the area was the Potter Ranch which was a large cattle ranch with up to 10,000 head of cattle. They also grew feed crops for the animals and had to house and feed their workers

In 1915, the community named “El Nido” meaning “The Nest” was established. Some of the children and grandchildren of the pioneer families still reside in the area. In the early days, it took a whole day to travel to Merced by horse and buggy. You planned your grocery shopping carefully. Also in 1915 the El Nido school, designed by Bill Bedesen, was built and is still standing and used for community functions. In 1952, a new school was built for K-8 students. All of the high school age students attend school in Merced or Chowchilla. The El Nido Irrigation District was organized in 1928 and began supplying water in 1932. At that time cotton was king and a large cotton gin was built there in 1937. The first El Nido post office opened in 1920. The Neighborhood Grocery was in Jackie Bettencourt Anderson family since 1943 until recently sold. The store always catered to the local farmers and field workers. The worlds problems and the weather were always a topic of discussion. El Nido, at one time, had one of the few cooperative telephone systems in the United States. It was established in 1886 and was used by numerous local residents.

El Nido made local and national news from the 1930s to the 1950s because the area was being tested as a potential site for oil and gas development. This created an excitement in the area and some land speculators started to advertise oil land in the local press even before any oil was found. In the spring of 1934 Pure Oil Company of Chicago purchased and leased land in the area to explore for oil. By November Pure Oil had set up a large oil rigging and the first test well was dug to a depth of 8,800 feet. There was some gas that came from the test well, but no oil. Oil testing continued which, in some cases, created battles over title to the land where the testing was located. The oil exploration continued into 1935 but oil was never produced in any quantity for commercial use in the area. This venture did produce some excitement in the area, giving the area a glimmer of hope for great prosperity.

This oil venture put the area in the news for a while but it was winning the biggest sugar beet contest that brought national fame to El Nido. The Newhall Land and Farming Co., in December of 1955, produced a sugar beet that weighed 34 pounds, 4 ounces and was declared the national winner. They also produced the sugar beet that won second place and it weighed 32 pounds, 6 ounces.

The quiet area of dairies, grain fields and other farm crops hides the fact that at one time during World War II, the US Government took over a section of the Potter Ranch (640 acres) and built an airfield in 1942-1945. It was one of the auxiliary bases in the area to train WWII pilots. It was a large square asphalt landing pad where pilots could practice cross-wind takeoffs and landings. It was said that you could see as many as 20 planes taking off at one time. El Nido also had a Spotters Shack which was used to spot airplanes. It was manned 24/7 by volunteers from the El Nido community. It became known as Potter Field. There were other bases near-by in Athlone and at Eagle Field near Dos Palos. After the war the land was reverted back to productive farm ground. The Potter Ranch was later sold to the Newhall Land and Cattle Company.

The El Nido community was and still is a close-knit little community that has a reputation of caring for one another and of serving great food for the local activities. Longtime resident, Jackie Anderson, says she can’t imagine living anywhere else. She likes the people and says “New people move in now and then, but things really haven’t changed much. I love it here.”

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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