HISTORY OF TULARE, CALIFORNIA
By Derryl Dumermuth
double ribbon of concrete and asphalt that we call Highway 99, no irrigated fields and orchards,
no cities or towns with buildings in brick or stucco, no power lines and poles, and no smog to
obscure the Sierra Nevadas.
In 1773 California was still a part of the “new-world” controlled by Spain. In that year
Commandant Tagus, emissary for the Spanish Governor, led a contingent of soldiers from one of the mission settlements in a continuing effort to arrest army deserters, when he viewed the San
Joaquin Valley from Tejon Pass. What he saw was a huge shallow lake surrounded by miles of
marshland, a forest of oak trees, and the smoke from the natives’ campfires. The lake he christened “Los Tules” for the tule reeds, or cattails, that grew along the shore of the lake and the
banks of the rivers. Tule later became Americanized to Tulare as the name of the lake, town and
county. By the way, some of you may know that another TULARE exists in our nation. It’s in
South Dakota and claims only 300 residents, who insist that it be pronounced Too’lair. At least
four people present this afternoon have visited this little town – Tom & Evelyn Hennion in 1985
and Wanda and I five years later. And another town with the same combination of letters can be
found in Yugoslavia. The huge lake viewed by Tagus varied in size a great deal annually, depending on the snow-melt from the mountains to the east, but in most years it covered as much as 750 square miles, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River.
No other foreign visitations are recorded until 1805, when Captain Moraga, from the Presidio in San Francisco, started south in pursuit of a band of Indian marauders, who had penetrated into the bay area, committing many acts of thievery. He chased them as far south as the Kings River, which he named Rio de los Santos Reyes, which the English-speaking settlers translated into the short name by which it is known today.
A quarter of a century was to pass before Jedediah Smith, in 1827, after several confrontations with the Spanish authorities on the coast, led the first white Americans, a party of adventurers and trappers, into the San Joaquin Valley. He was the first American to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and he found the natives, the Yokuts, twenty thousand strong, a friendly, peaceful people. The Indians were not farmers, but were “hunters and gatherers”. Their principal food was the acorn provided by the thousands of oaks, supplemented with game, nuts, seeds and berries; and fish and mussels from the lake. Inevitably, as more Americans came into the valley, the good relations between the two cultures deteriorated, resulting at times in open warfare. The first serious altercation took place in 1850 when 14 men led by John Woods were clearing land east of the present Visalia. After ignoring an ultimatum to leave Indian lands, most of them were
massacred by a large force of Yokuts. Woods himself, it is reported, was captured and supposedly skinned alive.
The first written description of the San Joaquin Valley and its Indians was penned by John C. Fremont in his diary, as he traveled through this area in 1844.
After 10 years of bloody fighting, Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and California became one of the northern provinces of the new sovereign nation. Early in 1846 the
same John Fremont was leading a trespassing party of surveyors through northern California when war broke out between the United States and Mexico. He hurried south to Sutter’s Fort (now called Sacramento), raised an army of volunteers from the American settlers in the region, and marched along the coast toward Los Angeles, a mud-walled village of 3000 Mexicans. By the time he arrived, the Mexican garrison had abandoned the post and General Kearney had defeated the Mexican defenders of California in a battle near San Diego. Meanwhile, a group of Americans had gathered at Sonoma, and in the midst of drunken revelry, proclaimed the independence of the short-lived “Bear Flag Republic”. Before the war with Mexico was over, California was recognized as a territory of the United States and was admitted to the Union as a
Free State in 1850.
One of Fremont’s volunteers was Daniel Killis Berry, whose family had safely crossed the Sierras in the summer of 1846, just a few months before the ill-fated Donner Party. When Fremont found no one to fight at Los Angeles, he dismissed his men and sent them home. Daniel passed through this valley on his way to Sutter’s Fort, was impressed with what he saw, and after he married and started a family, returned to his area in 1874 and started farming six miles west of Tipton. Our Museum features the Berrys as one of our pioneer families.
150 years ago, in January of 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and the influx of fortune hunters from all over the world, but primarily from the eastern states, changed the course of California’s history. Most miners found little or no gold, and many returned empty handed to their homes, but some remained in the west, and a few found their way to the San Joaquin Valley. Among those who settled in or near Tulare we include Isaac Wright and Israel Ham. Isaac Wright is properly considered the father of Tulare, for he arrived here in 1870, two years before the town was founded. he homesteaded the land surrounding this museum and built a cabin for his family just 6 blocks from this spot. Naturally the Wrights are recognized in this museum as one of five selected pioneer families. Descendants of Isaac still reside in Tulare. Israel Ham built several impressive building in the commercial area – buildings that have been much in the local news of late.
Tulare was founded and named by the railroad when the tracks reached this area on July 25, 1872, with Andrew Neff as engineer of the first steam engine into Tulare. He later married Isaac Wright’s eldest daughter, Victoria, and in 1888 built a house on the site of his father-in-law’s cabin. That house is maintained in very good condition yet today by Mr. and Mrs. Wim Meyer and can be seen at 457 South H Street. Some call it “The Centennial Gem”, since it was constructed the same year Tulare was incorporated.
The citizens of Tulare voted for incorporation on the second try in 1888, promptly built a combination City Hall and Fire Station on the west side of the 100 block of South K Street and elected Charles F. Hall as the first mayor. At that time there were only 38 stars in the flag flying over the new building. The April 20, 1888 edition of the “Tulare Register” reported that the city trustees met the night before and fixed the salaries of the city employees as follows: “City Clerk at $400 per year; City Attorney $25 per month; City Assessor, $400 a year; Marsh, $80 per month; Recorder, $25. H. A. Charters was elected City Clerk and J. F. Boller, City Attorney.”
The other pioneer families that we honor with an exhibit in this museum are the Gobles, Gists, and Heiskels. Dr. Peter Gobel was our first doctor, arriving the same year the town was founded. His son John became a prominent Tulare banker; his grandson Frank founded the Gobel Mortuary. Jabez Gist brought his family from Kentucky by covered wagon in 1879 and started farming north of town. His grandson Brooks became Tulare’s favorite author and historian. J. D. Heiskel was born in Sonora, in the gold country in 1862, during the Civil War – The J an D stand for Jefferson Davis, so you know where his parent’s sympathies lay. He started a feed business here over 100 years ago, in 1886 – a business that is still owned and operated by the family. You can learn more about these five pioneer families during a tour of the museum.
The first two decades saw rapid growth of our city. Shortly after the arrival of the railroad, Southern Pacific build a roundhouse and machine shops south of Inyo Avenue, and established Tulare as its’ Division Headquarters. By 1890 the population had mushroomed to nearly 3000, and soon surpassed the older city of Visalia. As a matter of fact, Tulare remained larger than our neighbor to the north until the mid-1950’s.
A healthy rivalry has persisted between Tulare and Visalia on the athletic field for much of the twentieth century, but the bitter feud between the two cities during the 1870’s was far more serious than any ballgame. In 1870 Southern Pacific announced its intentions to build a railroad through the San Joaquin Valley and started laying tracks from Lathrop, instead of Stockton, when that city failed to raised the $300,000 subsidy demanded by the railroad as the price for its location there. It proceeded southward, by-passing the line of established towns in the foothills, all of which had also failed to deliver subsidies. By February the railroad had founded the town of Merced, and 20 year Visalia was facing impending disaster, for in those days, a town without a railroad was considered doomed. A delegation of Visalians, sent to Sacramento to kill Tulare before it was born, implored the Southern Pacific officials not to bypass the county seat. They announced their failure on April 25, 1872 with a telegraphic message home which read “Ephesians, Chapter 2, Verse 12”. This bible verse proved to read, “Cut off from the commonwealth of Israel”, and was rightly interpreted to mean that the railroad would proceed along its original survey, establishing its own town, Tulare. The Southern Pacific announced plans for a large city here – Tulare was destined to become the major terminal in the southern valley. The infant city, on the railroad’s main line, and billed as the future county seat, attracted settlers immediately – some of them Visalians who convinced that their city would die. Many Visalians felt that the only way of saving their community and investments was to move the courthouse, city buildings and everything else that could be moved to some point on the railroad. Few agreed, however, that the point should be Tulare. The dispute raged with little progress on either side for four years until the state legislature settled the matter with a law authorizing Tulare County to issue $75,000 in bonds for construction of a new courthouse – in Visalia. Tulareans demanded an election to determine the location of the county seat, but no election was ever held, primarily because of the influence of Visalians with the county supervisors. In mid 1876 the contract for construction of the building was let, and the dispute was over.
Actually, Tulare was a two-railroad town. The Santa Fe line, completed in 1990, crossed the Southern Pacific tracks between San Joaquin and Cross Avenues, and connected Tulare with Corcoran and Visalia. Their depot was located just east of K Street on the south side of the tracks. The two rail lines crossed at right angles, and since Southern Pacific always had the right of way, a tower was erected near the intersection, and in those early days before automation and computers, a man was employed to set signals to stop Santa Fe trains from colliding with Southern Pacific. Apparently the tower-man never got drunk or fell asleep on the job, for there is no record of any spectacular collision. The Santa Fe depot was razed in 1973, the Southern Pacific was destroyed by fire in 1980.
A few words about the Tulare/Visalia rivalry. As Visalia’s population outstripped that of Tulare, more and more shopping dollars left out city. During the last few decades we’ve read many “letters to the editor” and appeals from the chamber of commerce to “shop at home”. But this problem is not of recent invention. An editorial printed in the November 23, 1888 edition of the “Tulare Register” read as follows. “Until within the past year or two there were several lines of goods, dress goods in particular, that it did not pay our merchants to keep good assortments of, but as the town has grown they have stocked up better on these lines and now merit patronage that they do not get. Much money goes out of Tulare to rival towns and foreign firms that should go to our merchants. Possibly goods can be gotten some cheaper, but what do the merchants of San Francisco do for Tulare? Look over our town. Who built that business house, and that one; that handsome house and that one? Our merchants! What they have made they have invested here and have thereby enriched you and your neighbors as well. We do not believe in submitting timely to extortion, but competition is so brisk now that prices are much as possible if we are to build up our town and we cannot do it better than spending our money at home whenever possible.” It seems that everything old is new again.
A town without churches is a town without a soul. Tulare was only a few months old when a committee of residents persuaded Dr. J. H. Warren, superintendent of home missions for the Congregational Church, to come from San Francisco to direct the organizing of a church. Upon his arrival, he joked that he had ridden the train’s cowcatcher all the way from Goshen in an effort to beat the saloons to town, but it was obvious to him that he had lost. The sanctuary was
completed in 1876 burned in 1898, and was relocated on its’ present site in 1900. It remains our oldest church building in continuous use by one denomination. Other churches soon followed – the Methodist, Christian, Baptist and Episcopal in that order. Today, over 50 churches hold services in Tulare.
At first, education was provided in a one-room school near the present-day intersection of J Street and Cross Avenue, with one teacher, and children from grades one through eight. The enrollment soon grew to the point that a second teacher had to be employed, and in 1884 a handsome two-story brick building was built on the site of this museum. In 1890 high school students were enrolled for the first time, and in 1908 a separate high school was built where Tulare Union now stands. The town even boasted a college for a short period of time. Smith’s College, a branch of USC, was built by Dr. William T. F. Smith in 1885. The three-story building stood at the corner of Elm and D Street, but the institution thrived for less than 10 years, when it fell victim to the worldwide depression of the 1890’s.
Ten years after the birth of Tulare, in 1882, the railroad built what was known then as “Library Hall”, a library and recreation center for their employees and other citizens. The building still stands after 116 years and is today called the “Women’s Club House”. The books were moved to the new library built at the corner of Kern Avenue and I Street in 1905 using funds provided by the Carnegie Foundation. When the town outgrew this library it was in turn replaced with a modern facility in 1962. Also in 1882 the Masonic Lodge was chartered and the first newspaper, the “Tulare Register”, was published. In 1903 a competing daily newspaper, the “Tulare Advance”, was founded by Tom Jones and in 1926 the two papers were merged under P.D. Nowell to become the “Advance-Register”.
The early years were not with discouragement. Fire swept through