Mountain Memories

In keeping with the theme, “Mountain Memories,” two long-time area couples will be honored as this year’s grand marshals at the 19th annual Heritage Days.

The Kirbys (Ken and Barbara) and Merkles (Al and Helen), who have known each other for decades, remember a time when a 1,400-square-foot home could be built for $11,400, when the French Poodle was the favored watering hole, when Highway 41 was shut down for the parade, and that men, who didn’t sport a beard or wear a Mountaineer Days button along the parade route, were thrown in a jail, built by Ken. Bail was cheap - one dollar for one button.

This is not the first time Ken and Barbara (88 and 86 respectively) have served as Heritage Days grand marshals. In 1985, their oldest son, Rad, (then 37) drove their 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible, while they sat in the back seat waving to the crowds. Heritage Days was called Mountaineer Days then.

Married 67 years, the Kirbys relocated to Oakhurst from Mariposa in the mid-60s. At that time, they owned 120 acres in Mariposa, and Ken was growing weary of his daily commute to Fresno for work. This forced them to move forward with their plans to open a sheet metal business in the Mountain Area. As a result, Kirby Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning opened in 1962, in a building that originally had been a fruit stand. That spot is now occupied by Oakhurst Tire.

In the 60s, there was just one stop sign at highways 41 and 49, and where Road 426 meets Highway 41, there was a yield sign. As far as buildings go, it was pretty spotty. Where Madera County Social Services is now was Colburn’s Clothing Store, but other than that, from the Talking Bear on the corner of Highway 41 and Road 426, all the way up to the Valero station, it was empty land dotted with building pads.

Over the span of several decades, the Kirbys were very community-minded. Ken was one of the founders of the Oakhurst Lions Club, and Barbara is a past member of the Lady Lions, Mountain Community Women, and the Soroptimist International of the Sierras.

“My parents liked the Oakhurst community and wanted to help it grow,” son Jim said. “They were especially involved in building the Oakhurst Community Center. I can remember helping out at work parties when I was in my early teens ... I was the gofer, and carried lots of water bottles.”

The Kirbys volunteered hundreds of hours to help build the center in 1963-65. Ken and other volunteers installed the heating system, fabricated the kitchen vent hood, and made stainless steel sinks, while Barbara helped install the center’s sub floor.

In 1988, Ken was named the Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year. By that time, he was well-known in the area for his 22 years of volunteering for Mountaineer Days, driving his restored car in the parade, leading Grub Gulch work parties, and helping build the Grub Gulch Bank. He and his sons, Rad and Jim, even originated the destruction derby, which came to an end in the mid-1990s. Ken was also a volunteer firefighter for several years, and was instrumental in forming the Citizen Patrol, which patroled Oakhurst businesses overnight.

As the years sped by, the Kirbys are left with fond memories of their part in helping the town grow. Jim said that many of the old-timers who were around during those early days have now either faded into the woodwork, or have died, so his parents are thrilled to be honored (again) for all they have done for the community.

“To be grand marshals for the second time is an amazing thing,” Barbara said. “How many people get to have a second chance at something like that ... it’s definitely something to be proud of.”

Al and Helen Merkle

Al and Helen, former Burbank residents, have lived in the area 55 years.

“I had a friend who had a buddy that owned the Goldside Ranch,” Al explained, “and that’s how I heard about Oakhurst and a hardware store for sale near the bridge on Highway 41 (where the Iron Horse Restaurant sits). Well, the hardware store sold, so I ended up buying a redi-mix business - the Old Corral Redi-Mix - on Road 222, and on Sept. 1, 1960, we moved to Oakhurst.”

The first thing they did after the move was head to Ducey’s for a drink.

“That old man Ducey was quite a guy,” Al said, chuckling as memories flooded back.

“There wasn’t much up here back then,” Al added. “We had the lumber mill where Vons is, there were no banks, and only two or three gas stations. It was very tiny, and we were starving for about 15 years ... once Yosemite High was built, though, the town began to grow.”

“I knew the phone numbers of all the bars in town,” Helen added, “because that was all there was to do up here then.”

The French Poodle was a popular drinking spot. One year, some “crazy” guys rode their horses into the bar, and because it was a typical small town in America - a time when “things were a lot looser, and you could get away with just about anything,” Al said.

After nine years in redi-mix, the Merkles sold the business, and Al switched to working in back-hoeing until he became a licensed contractor in 1979. From that point on, he built homes (14 in Goldside) for 25 years. He also assisted in the building of the Oakhurst Community Center, and he and Helen were active in the Oakhurst Lions Club, VFW, and American Legion.

“It was a lot slower pace then,” Al said. “Everyone knew everyone. All the way to North Fork, every car you saw, you waved because it was someone you knew.”

Given that it was such a close-knit community, it comes as no surprise that the first home Al built after getting his contractor’s license was for Jim Kirby, and his first employee was Jim’s older brother, Rad, who now lives in Auberry.

These days, Al, 89, and Helen, 85, keep busy spending time with their large family - all of whom either live nearby or in California - three children, seven grandchildren (the oldest is 47), and 13 great-grandchildren.

While Al said nothing much excites him these days, he and Helen, married 68 years in October, are happy to be recognized as grand marshals.

“We love it here, and will always think of it as God’s country,” Al continued.

The Merkles encourage everyone to attend the Heritage Days celebration, not only because of the history, but because “it’s a chance to see some of the old-timers. You know there really aren’t too many of us left. It’s amazing just how fast life flies by.”