History of Chowchilla
1976 Bus Kidnapping
Did You Know?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.