Madera County's independence turns Fresno green

Pieces of the Past

February 17, 2011 

It took some people in Fresno County a long time to accept Madera County as an equal. Before the latter was carved out of the former, it had been considered a hotbed of radicalism and secession. Those early pioneers who lived north of the San Joaquin River had a reputation for independence that went beyond what was normal, even for frontier California.

Therefore, when our bold pioneer ancestors decided to separate and form their own county, they didn't surprise anyone. The folks in Fresno were not shocked at all, but at the same time, it was difficult to mask the feelings of superiority that existed south of the river when dealing with the upstarts who lived in what is now Madera County.

The newspapers of Fresno never failed to take pot shots at the incipient attempts at self-determination on the part of the founders of Madera County. Beginning in 1890, the county division movement was regularly assailed, and by 1893, the public tone in Fresno had turned blatantly sarcastic.

How dare these ingrates even propose leaving the nurturing arms of Fresno. When a public meeting, held on Jan. 28, 1893, revealed the determination of the people north of the San Joaquin River to break away, the gathering was characterized as a "howling time." Undaunted, the proponents of separation pushed ahead, and on May 16, the voters ratified the movement.

Although Madera was jubilant, Fresno could barely remain civil. The press, especially the Fresno Expositor, impugned the new county interminably on its front pages. Avuncular condescension reeked from almost every article that referred to Madera County.

An excellent example of these journalistic sour grapes appeared in May 1893. No sooner had the last vote been counted than a headline in the Fresno paper attempted to put Madera County residents in their place. In an article entitled, "Madera County's Little Slice of Schools," the writer pointed his condescending pen north and proclaimed that Fresno County could no longer pay for education north of the San Joaquin.

Continuing his pejorative broadside, the reporter pointed out that "the schools on the north side of the river in the new county of Madera will hence forth and forever have to stand or fall alone, without any support from this side (south) of the San Joaquin."

At that time, there were 27 school districts in Madera County. The largest was Madera, with its two elementary schools, a new high school and 444 students. The smallest was San Joaquin School District with nine pupils. In between, there were one-school districts like Arcola (52 students), Berenda (62), Raymond (60) and La Vina (51).

Other schools dotting the landscape of the new county -- all with fewer than 50 students -- were Alpha (22), Coarse Gold (46), Cleveland (28), Daulton (25), Dennis (22), Eastin (28), Flume (27), Fresno Flats (49), Granite (40), Orange Grove (26), Sweet Flower (24), Spring Valley (40), Sesame (22), Webster (46), Willow Creek (25), Gertrude (31), Green (44), Gambetta (45), Hanover (40), Knowles (20) and Mary's Dale (28).

The Fresno Expositor asserted that education north of the San Joaquin almost paled into insignificance when the student count of both counties were compared. While Fresno County was busy educating 7,170 students, Madera County's pupils numbered a paltry 1,356.

The underlying inference was that the residents of Madera County had been precipitate in separating from Fresno County and would have quite a struggle reaching the intellectual heights that had been attained in schools south of the river.

In the mind of the Expositor's editor, not only did sheer numbers relegate Madera County to second class status, so did its presumed dependence upon Fresno County for part of its educational expenses.

T.J. Kirk, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, stated that since "no further connection in educational matters existed between the two counties," the teachers of Madera County were put on notice that they would have to look to their own side of the river for their pay.

The interesting thing about this public admonishment to self-reliance is that it was completely unnecessary. No officer of Madera County ever indicated that Fresno County would be looked to for financial support. As far as the record shows, no teacher in Madera County ever expected to be paid by Fresno County.

The matter of county division had been explored thoroughly, and Madera County's ability to maintain financial self-sufficiency had been well established before the issue was ever submitted to the state legislature.

Not even B.A. Hawkins, Madera County's first superintendent of schools, escaped contempt from Fresno County. Hawkins began his career in education as a teacher south of the river and once served as Fresno County Superintendent of Schools.

When it became obvious that the creation of a new county was inevitable, Hawkins threw his hat into the race for the top school position in Madera County. With the affirmative vote for county division came Hawkins' election as superintendent.

The Fresnoites were quick to point out that Hawkins would suffer a significant reduction in salary. By taking the helm of education in Madera County, he would earn only $500 per year.

The newspaper, however, sarcastically reminded its readers that Hawkins could hold a teaching position concurrently with his tenure as superintendent, suggesting that he could perform his administrative duties on Saturday. The record does not show that Hawkins ever had to teach school to supplement his superintendent's salary.

In time, Madera County schools came to be recognized as fully equal to those of Fresno County, and today there is considerable pedagogical cooperation among the schools, proving once again that if the politicians will just take their hands off of education, everything will eventually work out.

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