City of Chowchilla, California

   
  CITY HISTORY                                          
   
   
 

History of Chowchilla

1976 Bus Kidnapping

Did You Know?

 
   
 

Chowchilla's History

   
 

Chowchilla’s colorful past began in the spring of 1844 when John Fremont and his party were making their way across what is now Madera County.

In Fremont’s memoirs we find the following recording: “Continuing along we came upon broad and deeply-worn trails which had been freshly traveled by large bands of horses, apparently coming from the San Joaquin Valley.  But we heard enough to know that they came from the settlements on the coast.  These and indications from horse bones dragged about by wild animals – wolves or bears – warned us that we were approaching the villages of Horse-thief Indians, a party of whom had just returned from a successful raid.”  This brief mention of the “Horse-thief Indians” gives us an introduction through the eyes of the white man, of the early inhabitants of the Chowchilla area.

The Chowchilla Indians lived along the several channels of the Chowchilla River in the plains region of Central California.  According to one authority, the Chowchilla tribe may well have been a very populous tribe.  At least we know they were a warlike one and the name Chowchilla was a byword for bravery to the southernmost end of Yokuts territory in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

The growth of the Chowchilla area and subsequent development of the town does not need such fiction to make a thrilling but true story.  From the days of the “Killer Indians” and the struggles of the early pioneering families to the dreams of O. A. Robertson, we have all the color and romance a student of history needs.

Mr. Orlando Alison Robertson was born in Prosperity, Pennsylvania on August 18, 1858.  Having lost his mother when only a small child, he was raised by an aunt on a farm near the place of his birth.  By thrift and hard work, he managed to secure an education, finally graduating from the California Normal School at California, Pennsylvania.

Not long after Mr. Robertson graduated from college, he married Miss Frances Mackey of Pittsburgh.  They moved soon after to Campbell, Minnesota where Robertson taught public school.  He also engaged in farming and real estate.  In time, he became the County Superintendent of Schools in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota.

Robertson saw the possibilities in land speculation and gathered the financial backing of several men in the community.  He began to buy large tracts of Northern Pacific Railroad land at ninety-nine cents an acre.  This group of men was called the First Minnesota Land and Colonization Co., and altogether they purchased over a million acres of land in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, California and in two of the three provinces of Canada.  They also purchased extensive coal mining properties in England and had lumbering interests in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Around 1910, Robertson became interested in land development in California.  It was during that year he organized the United States Farm Land Company.  He established a general office in Sacramento and maintained offices in Winnipeg, St. Paul and Denver.

At the time Robertson became interested in the Chowchilla area, he was estimated to be worth over four million dollars.  Those who knew him described him as a man of compelling personality and boundless energy.  Though he was a man of sound integrity, he was also something of a philosopher and dreamer.  Robertson believed that Chowchilla was ready for immediate development and held ambitious hopes for transforming the land into prosperous farms owned by happy people.  He put all his money into the Chowchilla venture against the advice of his financial counselors and, as we shall see, it cost him heavily.

On May 22, 1912, Robertson purchased the Chowchilla Ranch from the California Pastoral & Agricultural Company Ltd.  Over half of this ranch was divided into tracts for sale to farmers and the northeast corner of the property was set aside for the site of the town which became known as Chowchilla.

Robertson’s ambitious plans were soon carried out.  Surveys were completed and maps were made.  Streets in the town site and about 300 miles of country roads were opened.  This included the 12 mile palm tree lined Robertson Boulevard.  A large hotel and office buildings were erected.  Soon, a town water system was put into operation and streetlights were put up.  Later, some 12 miles of railroad (now abandoned) was laid in connection with the Southern Pacific Line.  The purpose of the railroad was to aid settlers and expedite the new colonizing efforts.

October 15, 1912 was the date set for the grand opening of the colonization project.  An extensive advertising program had been conducted and on that date some 4,000 people responded to the invitation to look over the new land, see the rodeo and partake of the free barbecue lunch at noon.  The day was hot and dry, and according to those present, the beans were salty, causing many to drift to Tom’s Saloon at Minturn (six miles north) to slack their thirst.  October 15, 1912 is still remembered as the day Minturn went dry.

In 1917, Louis Swift, a Chicago packer, and Robertson purchased the Western Meat Ranch which was roughly 40,000 acres of adjoining property.  It has since then been operated as a cattle and farming operation under different managements.  Then in 1919, Robertson purchased 26,000 acres of the Old Bliss Ranch.  The land was again subdivided and sold in small tracts.

Robertson had much of his money tied up in extensive land speculation ventures, and when the country began to experience the recession and subsequent Great Depression of the late 20’s and early 30’s, he became more and more pressed for funds.  When Robertson passed away on May 23, 1933, he had lost his vast fortune and died practically penniless.

Though Chowchilla lies in the center of California and beside the main lines of the Southern Pacific, it was not the outgrowth of a geographic or economic need.  It was, in fact, the result of the thinking and planning of one man: O. A. Robertson.  The Chowchilla colonization project was not unique in California’s history.  Other small communities such as Kerman, Wasco, Shafter, Patterson, Oakdale and Laguna de Tache were all the products of such private land company efforts.  But taken collectively, they are a part of a unique story; the story of a group of farsighted real estate promoters who saw the future and agricultural productivity of this Valley.

   
 
 

1976 Bus Kidnapping

   
 

Although this is a day that the community of Chowchilla would like to forget forever, it is a piece of Chowchilla’s history. It was a crime that transfixed the nation and affected many people in our quiet farming community.  The following information was gathered from printed newspaper accounts:

            On July 15, 1976, a busload of children aged 5 to 14, and their school bus driver, Ed Ray (then 55), were abducted on a country road in Madera County about 4 p.m. on their way back from a swim outing at the fairgrounds.  The bus was later found empty covered with bamboo and brush in a drainage ditch nine miles west of town.  The victims, 19 girls and seven boys, along with Ray, were driven around for 11 hours in two vans before being entombed in a moving van buried in a Livermore rock quarry.

            After 16 hours underground in a 8’ X 16’ space, the victims dug their way out and were found in a remote area near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park.  They were then taken to the nearby Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, where they were pronounced in good condition.  The children and their bus driver returned safely to Chowchilla by a police escorted bus shortly before dawn on July 17, 1976.

            Investigators dug up the van and learned it apparently had been buried in the quarry in November 1975.  The 100-acre Portola Valley estate of the quarry owner, Frederick Nickerson Woods, was searched.  Woods’ son, Fred Newhall Woods IV, 24, was missing.  Authorities issued an all-points bulletin for young Woods and his two friends, James Schoenfeld, 24 and his brother, Richard Schoenfeld, 22, sons of a wealthy podiatrist.  Officials said they discovered a rough draft of a $5 million ransom note on the Woods estate.

            On July 23, Richard Schoenfeld, accompanied by his attorney and father, surrendered voluntarily in Oakland and was held in lieu of $1 million bail.  On July 29, Woods was captured in Vancouver, British Columbia, and James Schoenfeld was arrested in Menlo Park while reportedly preparing to surrender. 

On November 5, a Madera County judge ordered the trial be moved from Madera County and on November 10, it was assigned to Alameda County.  In 1977, on July 25, Woods and the Schoenfelds pled guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom and the prosecution dropped 18 counts of robbery.  Then on December 15, 1977, a Superior Court judge found the trio guilty of three counts of kidnapping with bodily harm, which normally carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

The trio was sentenced to life in prison. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled from prison in 2012 although his brother, James Schoenfeld, currently remains incarcerated at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, California. Frederick N. Woods is serving his sentence at the Soledad prison also in California.

            The only remnant of the incident in Chowchilla today is a simple granite monument dedicated to the victims which is located at the Government Center. 

   
 
 

Did You Know?

   
 

¨      The famed Chowchilla arch, built in 1913, was built to attract attention to the land colonizing efforts taking place, but quickly became a ‘trade mark’ beacon to many travelers.  The arch originally read “108,000 acres”, however, when O. A. Robertson purchased the Bliss Ranch, the arch was changed to read “134,000 acres”.  This advertising gimmick turned landmark burned to the ground on August 28, 1937.  How it burned no one knows for sure, however, stories were circulated about the possibility of electrical wires shorting out or vagrants lighting fires under the arches to keep warm.  

¨      The first grammar school classes were held on September 11, 1913 in the First Presbyterian Church, which was built on land donated by Robertson.  Construction of the school was completed four months later and a high school opened in 1915.

¨      Thousands of acres of rice were planted in the early 1920’s (a good majority in the Red Top area), but because of sub-marginal land, rice never became a successful crop in this area.

¨      Chowchilla’s first fair was held October 14, 1916.  Plans were developed for the fair in 10 days.  It was held on the then vacant lots between Second and Third Streets on the south side of Robertson Boulevard.  1,800 people were served at the ox-roast barbecue.  The Chowchilla Elementary School team defeated Munich (Dixieland) 7-0 in the afternoon.

¨      A 100-acre fairground facility was donated by O. A. Robertson for the town of Chowchilla in 1919.  Plans were made for the main exhibition building to be constructed not less than 60 by 100 feet, sides to be enclosed in the future.  In the center of the building, there was to be a dance floor and a suitable area to be used for an orchestra stand.  Contests of various kinds were being arranged and entertainment feature negotiated and the stock and farm products committee would have the largest show of that kind seen in the Valley north of Fresno.  A racetrack was planned for the opening of the Fair in 1920.

¨      In 1946, the first modern day fair was held since the closing of the original fair in 1929.  Coordinated, as has been the case since with the Chowchilla Spring Festival activities, it was originally a war homecoming activity but became the first of many junior fairs.  Since there was no fairgrounds at that time, the fair was held at different locations in the City.

¨      Hotel Chowchilla, a landmark that established Chowchilla as the location of one of the finest hotels in the state, suffered through several fires in its existence.  According to a Nov. 29, 1933 newspaper article, only a fifteen-room smoke and water stained wing remained of the 65 room $100,000 Hotel Chowchilla.  Years ago, many would remember the remnants of that building as Woodbury’s variety store at the corner of Third and Robertson.  Today, Rose Furniture occupies the building.

¨      The first custom grain elevator in California was built in Chowchilla in 1916 by Culley and Browning Elevator Company.  The elevator was located approximately where the Corn Growers facilities are located today.  It was reported that the elevator met its demise from fire.

¨      Chowchilla had its own railroad line.  Chowchilla Pacific Railroad served the Chowchilla area for 40 years.  If it operated today, it could be classed as one of the shortest operating lines in the nation.  Constructed in 1913 by O. A. Robertson, the road hauled the cars of household belongings and farm stock of many of the early-day immigrant families.  One of the cars, the 175 HP Hall Scott coach, renamed the Chowchilla Pacific No. 101, was a 50 foot long car with a six cylinder, 150 horse-power Hall-Scott engine and weighed 76, 000 pounds.  The school kids called the railcar the “Chowchilla Terrific”.  The Hall Scott was sold in 1924 to Visalia Electric as its second #301 and was scrapped in 1937, ironically, the same year Chowchilla lost another famed landmark, its arch.  The old train station was bought and moved to 245 South 5th Street which is now the VFW Hall building.

¨      The following information was taken from the May 1, 1930 issue of the Chowchilla News:  George Rogers, census enumerator for the municipality of Chowchilla, was one of the first around these parts to complete his work.  The count was 847; two illiterate over 10 years of age, that no adult resident was without employment, no houses unoccupied.  It was the first tally since incorporation.

¨      In 1942, a light war tank was christened “City of Chowchilla” at a July 4 ceremony.  Marion Nimerick, appointed by Mayor Percy Williams to represent Chowchilla at the ceremony, christened the 10-ton light tank, “City of Chowchilla” in the gigantic military rights.  The “City of Chowchilla” was equipped with three machine guns and a 37 mm cannon.

¨      At the end of 1942, with the nation’s sons off to war, labor shortages became a fact of life.  In that year, it was noted that volunteers from town picked 6,582 pounds of seed cotton.  In 1944, the labor need was so great; Chowchilla came up with a solution.  In the Oct. 19, 1944 Chowchilla News issue, it was reported that the high school would be taking a vacation so the students could spend two weeks picking cotton.

¨      Reports state that O. A. Robertson originally wanted to name Chowchilla “Lone Oak”, after the single tree that stood in those early days near the airstrip.

¨      In the beginning of the days of Chowchilla as the streets were completed, they were given different names.  One unconfirmed story is that the names of the streets were derived from Robertson’s female friends.  The names were: Kathryn (Ventura), Florence (Kings), Julia (Sonoma), Edith (Trinity), Isabel (Monterey), Henrietta (Lake), Gertrude (Riverside), Dorothy (Orange), Caroline (Humboldt), Bernice  (Alameda), and Anice (Colusa).  The names were changed to the present names in the 1920’s to represent State counties.

¨      The palm trees along Robertson Boulevard were planted in 1913 and have stood tall many years.  Robertson Boulevard is listed as a scenic highway on the State Register.

¨      In 1913, the 100-foot width dimension of Robertson Boulevard was determined so that a team of horses could comfortably turn around without a problem.

¨      The City of Chowchilla was incorporated on February 7, 1923.

 

                                        

 

 

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