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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.









pg. 11




The Early Vision of Irrigation



More romantic than imaginative fiction and fully as interesting as any of the other achievements of Stanislaus in the realm of civic or agricultural progress is the story of the development of the irrigation movement in this county.


The story of irrigation has its beginning at the time of the county's organization and continues to gradually unfold until the fondest dream of the most zealous irrigation pioneer becomes realized in the wonderfully fertile acres of Modesto and the Turlock Irrigation Districts, with their massive La Grange and Don Pedro dams, their miles of irrigation ditches, their numerous reservoirs, their unparalleled production, their dense population and their opulent cities.


The inhabitants of these districts who now perceive the abounding richness of this irrigated area and who yearly witness the wealth of produce that it sends out to the markets of the world, cannot appreciate the years of turmoil and strife, the decades of argument and debate, the obstacles encountered, the frequently selfish opposition to projects advanced that promised to bring water to the arid plains of central Stanislaus, nor the course of the interminable and sometimes hopeless litigation that preceded the final accomplishment of these two great undertakings in communal irrigation.


Nor can they realize the fervor that animated those irrigation pioneers who, by their early activity, laid the lasting foundations of the prosperity and productions that are visible within the confines of these two districts – the men who made the forthright battle for progress and who have passed on. They encountered almost insurmountable impediments. They overcame every obstacle.


That the irrigation of the county's vast, pristine interior – originally a trackless wilderness covered with natural


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grass, inhabited by the deer, the antelope, the grizzly bear and the coyote, and traversed only by the aborigine Indian, and whose broad exterior was rendered uninviting by the piercing rays of the summer sun and the violent northern winds – was in the mind of the original settlers is reflected in the report of Silas Wilcox, the county's first surveyor to the Surveyor General of the State of California. The law then required county assessors and surveyors to file yearly with the Surveyor General as report of the economic conditions of their respective counties.


Surveyor Wilcox returned the first report from Stanislaus county on November 10, 1854. It contains interesting data and furnishes a birdseye picture of the economic condition of the county in the year of its birth. In this report Mr. Wilcox touched upon the subject of the irrigation of the plains. Understanding the topography and the possibilities of the county, and with that sagacious foresight characteristic of many of the county's pioneers, he wrote:


“The plains in this county could be irrigated by taking the water from the rivers running through it at the foot of the mountains by means of canals. It is not expedient at present for it would be attended with great expense and have but few consumers. We have good reason to believe from the situation of the arable land of this county that artesian wells could be sunk successfully; if so, it would be more convenient than any other mode of irrigation.”


This report spoke of the overflowed lands, the location of the population, and the uses to which the land of the county could be put, specifying grazing and tillage particularly. The mining industry on the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus rivers was also referred to.


Apparently, from the best information obtainable, the first settlements in what is now known as Stanislaus county were on the banks of the San Joaquin river in 1849. From that date there was a continuous flow of immigration into this territory until in 1854 the bottom lands of both the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus rivers were all occupied and under good cultivation. The population of the county was approximately a little less than one thousand people. Many of the settlers had already entered upon the uplands adjoining the overflowed lands with the intention of pre-empting and in the hope that the state would dispose of the overflowed lands in such a manner that each settler or the oldest settlers would be entitled to enter at least 160 acres adjoining his pre-emption.


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That all the county's land was primarily only fitted for grazing was apparently the opinion of Mr. Wilcox. In his report he asserted that the overflowed lands were only valuable for this use. The land west of the San Joaquin river, he said, was a rich soil, well adapted to tillage and grazing. The low hills of the West Side, he asserted, would be valuable for grazing in course of time. Of the land on the east side of the San Joaquin he said that the low hills and plains were all arable and that nearly all of it would be desirable for either grazing or agricultural purposes, if it were not for the scarcity of water and timber. It is, indeed, noticeable that the county's first surveyor, with his knowledge of the country, stressed the lack of water on the plains.


Mr. Wilcox reflected in his opinion the practice of the original settlers. The overflowed lands were devoted to cultivation while the low hills and the plains were utilized for grazing purposes. No statistics are available for the year 1854, but on November 5, 1855, E. B. Beard, the county's first assessor, reported that there were approximately 6982 acres under cultivation with a production of 55,260 bushels of wheat, 44,620 bushels of barley and 1500 tons of hay. The number of livestock in the county is thus stated: cattle, 9947; mules, 215; hogs, 1416; horses, 1210; sheep, 3747; goats, 100. There were 873 fruit trees and 449 vines.


Mr. Beard also reported; “Miners at work, 250; amount of gold per annum, $225,000; mills, 2 – one saw mill and one grist mill – one run of stone; ferries, 15. Supposed to be about 40,000 or 50,000 acres of overflowed lands.”


During the following few years Stanislaus definitely established its reputation as a “cow” county, by which it was known for many years until wheat became the prime staple. The assessor's report for 1857 is particularly full and complete and demonstrates the advance that the county had made in the cattle industry. The cultivated area is given as 9798 acres, distributed in acreage and production as follows: wheat, 787 acres, production, 7038 bushels; barley, 3298 acres, production, 45,078 bushels; oats, 80 acres, production, 1600 bushels; rye, 38 acres, production, 542 bushels; corn, 120 acres, production, 4380 bushels; beans, 3 acres, production, 30 bushels; potatoes, 13 acres, production 148 bushels; sweet potatoes, 3 acres, production 62 bushels; onions, 38 bushels; hay, 498 acres, production, 500 tons.


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As to livestock, the report schedules 2775 horses, 189 mules, 6763 cattle, 5480 sheep, 22 goats and 560 hogs. The stock slaughtered for market is reported as follows; 3150 cattle, valued at $78,750; 1260 hogs valued at $12,600, and 1575 sheep, valued at $11,025. There was one water power grist mill, and two run of stones. The value of the water power was $1,000. Also one saw mill, valued at $4,000, run by water power.


This report places the production for this year as follows: 929 pounds of butter, 3372 pounds of cheese, 5735 dozen eggs and 170 pounds of wool. The number of fruit trees in the county is reported as follows; apple, 868, peach, 1293, pear, 89, cherry, 74, quince, 15, apricot, 29, fig, 270, orange, 2, pomegranate, 1, persimmon, 38, filbert, 1, and vines, gooseberry, 7, raspberry, 3, strawberry, 960, grape, 3020. There were also reported 7865 chickens, 564 turkeys, 38 ducks and 13 geese.


The report for 1856 is as follows: wheat 1696 acres, production 16,960 bushels; barley, 2790 acres, production 33,480 bushels; oats, 1355 acres, and corn, 54 acres. The production was 1000 tons of hay. There were 2320 horses, 184 mules, 10,882 stock cattle, 981 cows, 802 calves, 3482 sheep, 205 goats, and 976 hogs in the county this year, as well as one flour mill, one saw mill and 15 ferries according to the report for this year.


During the next few years the county grew rapidly in population. The federal census of 1860 assigned it a population of 2245 people, distributed as follows: Branch, 713; Buena Vista, 219; Emory, 771; Empire, 288; Oatvale, 165, and Orestimba 89. The most noticeable feature of this census report is the fact that it shows that the predominant population was settled in the eastern portion of the county. The report also shows that the West Side as well as the vast interior of the county in 1860 was sparsely settled territory. That this vast interior – Empire precinct, in which at a later period are located the cities of Modesto, Paradise, Tuolumne City, Salida, Ceres, Turlock, and the old colony of Westport and which under irrigation has become the most thickly populated portions of the county – contained only 288 people in 1860, is a startling historic fact.


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In this precinct the population was resident along the river.


While the acreage under cultivation had measurably risen, the increase in stock and sheep is noticeable in the assessor's report for the year 1860. The acreage under cultivation is placed at 12,062 acres, while the area enclosed is given as 29,442 acres. There were 3257 acres devoted to wheat with a production of 65,140 bushels; 4362 acres to barley with a production of 140,860 bushels; 328 acres to corn with a production of 9840 bushels; 4046 acres to hay with a production of 4046 tons – the remainder of the acreage being divided among rye, beans and potatoes. The total livestock is estimated as follows: horses, 2313; mules, 223; cattle 21,734; sheep, 6259; goats, 80; hogs, 2609; chickens, 9081; turkeys, 1144; ducks, 40; It was estimated that in this year the production of butter was 10,000 pounds, of cheese 5000 pounds, and eggs 25,000 dozen. The estimate of stock slaughtered was cattle, hogs and sheep, 1000 each. The output of wool for this year was placed at 25,036 pounds. There were approximately 3000 fruit trees and 33,049 grape vines in the county this year with a growth of 50 tons of grapes and with the value of the fruit crop placed at $6000. The assessed value of property is given as follows: real estate, $161,986; improvements, $153,225; personal property, $654,659; total, $969,870.


These early reports show that the assessed value of that property of the county in 1858 was $750,000; in 1859 it was $748,246. They also show that the output of produce in 1858 was as follows: butter, 2500 pounds; cheese, 500 pounds; eggs, 3500 dozen; wool, 75,000 pounds; value of fruit, $3000. The report for 1859 was: butter, 3000 pounds; cheese, 600 pounds; eggs, 8000 dozen; wool, 25,000 pounds; value of the fruit crop, $5000.


The purpose of the quotation of these statistics of this early era is to present the economic situation of the county in such a manner that it may be compared with the production during the succeeding epoch when the transcendent change in the county's main industry took place, and while grazing continued to be followed profitably, it became submerged by wheat culture. During this following period, lands that theretofore had been esteemed as useful only for grazing purposes developed remarkable fertility, hundreds of thousands of bushels of wheat being yearly garnered from them.


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A new era of prosperity dawned for Stanislaus, Paradise Valley – by which name the central portion of the county was known – became preponderant in population and production. Farms multiplied in this area. While the county acquired the reputation of being the “banner” wheat growing territory of the state, the inevitable consequence of this transition was to direct the attention of the farmers to the subject of irrigation will furnish a striking contrast to that of either of the preceding eras.


In the report of E.D. Giddings, County Assessor in 1867, to the Surveyor General the following language appears:

“As you will preceive (sic) from the comparison of the number of acres under cultivation in eighteen hundred and sixty-three with those under cultivation in the present year, the agricultural interest is being developed very rapidly. As an instance of this, Paradise Valley – the name given by the settlers to a portion of the San Joaquin valley between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, which only about five years since was regarded as a desert and unfit for agriculture – has produced this year at least four thousand tons of wheat, the average yield being about fifteen bushels per acre; and this would have been increased to a considerable extent, had it not been for the heavy winds which swept over the county about the time the early and best grain was ripening and in some instances threshed out nearly one-half of the crops.”


The area cultivated rose to 20,553 acres in 1865; to 30,150 acres in 1866; to 200,456 acres in 1867; to 250,000 acres in 1869; and to 300,400 acres in 1870. The acreage cultivated in 1861 was 11,824; in 1862 it was 13,580; in 1863 it was 10,653; and in 1864 it was reported as 16,430 acres. During this decade from 1860 to 1870, there was a marked increase in every line of production in the county. In 1870 the production of wheat was 1,240,000 bushels; barley, 540,000 bushels; hay, 7800 tons; butter, 5000 pounds; wool, 950,000 pounds; honey, 19,000 pounds. The assessed valuation of the county was $3,083,962 in 1870. In this year the number of neat cattle was estimated at 2700, the sheep at 170,000 and hogs at 3000.


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The grist mills of the county ground 28,000 barrels of flour and 1000 bushels of corn. There were 240,000 grape vines, and 24,200 gallons of wine and 200 gallons of brandy in the county this year.


The estimated population in 1866 was 2050. In 1870 it was estimated that there were 5600 people in the county, though the federal census of that year returned a population of 6499; Branch, 787; Buena Vista 357; Emory 843; Empire, 2993; North 223; San Joaquin 1015; and Washington, 281. The number of voters registered in 1866 was 796; in 1870, it was 1800.


The advancement in prosperity and opulence during this decade is indicated in the annual return of the assessed valuation of property of the county. In 1861 the assessed valuation of property was: real estate, $123,690; improvements, $147,790; personal property, $574,818; total, $846,298. In 1862, real estate, $265,278; personal property, $502,780; total, $768,058. In 1863, real estate, $275,395; improvements, $45,286; personal property, 442,531; total, $763,212. In 1864, real estate, $342,568; improvements, $5175; personal property, $476,409; total, $824,152. In 1865, real estate, $405,304; improvements, $5528; personal property, $477,587; total, $888,419. In 1866, real estate, $518,960; improvements, $3060; personal property, $682,254; total, $1,204,230. In 1867, real estate, $560,852; improvements, $360,468; personal property,$687.804; total, $1,609,124. In 1869, real estate, $1,619,000; improvements, $404,000; personal property, $1,181,761; total, $3,204,761. The figures for 1870 have already been given. No accurate report was filed for 1868 by the assessor.


During the period of the county's first industry – that of grazing – the general cultivation of the soil was on or close to the river bottom lands. The acreage devoted to wheat and barley was comparatively small. The population from an agricultural viewpoint, was resident along the rivers. The low hills of the eastern part of the county and the plains were used for the pasturage of stock that roamed at will over the unfenced and unpre-empted lands of the government. The waters of the rivers were easily accessible. It was the romantic day of the cowboy and the vaquero, of whom many interesting tales have been related by the old timers. The life of the settlers was in the open county. With pastoral pursuits and with primitive customs, it was perhaps the most delightful period of the county's history.


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There was always a ready market for the county's production. The people were prosperous. The question of irrigation, though ever present, was not paramount. Neither the population nor the dominant industry was sufficiently large or important to compel concentrated activity in that direction.


The discovery that the interior plains were capable of producing bounteous crops of cereals and the flocking thither of population to engage in wheat culture inevitably directed attention to the desirability of watering the plains. The soil was virgin. It produced abundantly. During the first years of wheat culture, the county enjoyed unexampled prosperity. Yet the first prolonged drought – the months of the severe aridity that rendered the farmer hopeless and helpless – that in a no uncertain manner demonstrated his dependence upon the life-giving rain – focused the agricultural mind on the subject of irrigation. The impoverishment of the soil from the constant cropping of the one staple, the long dry periods, the fierce northern winds that threshed the wheat before the farmer could harvest it – together with the uncertainties of the one produce and of the seasons – all combined in the later 60's to cause the agitation for irrigation to assume form. Then came the two and one-half years of drought, which rested like an oppressive cloud of ill-omen over Paradise Valley and which was broken by the copious downpour in December of 1871. The community was then ready to discuss openly the best means of assuring yearly crops and of insuring the continued prosperity of the entire county.


Yet with all and notwithstanding the mutations of the seasons, Stanislaus in these wheat growing days presented a most interesting picture of the old time rural community on the primitive plains of California. In the period of plenteous rain – in the fall of the year after the ploughing had been completed – the landscape displayed a scene of arcadian activity and simplicity that, in fancy's vision, might have portrayed a replica of some sylvan pageant in a sequestered niche in Old England. The venerable farm cottages – of the style that has departed – around which the cattle browsed and the bright-eyed and ruddy-faced pioneer children romped, the undulating surface of broken land whose graceful monotony was relieved here and there by clumps of rugged oaks, the winter sun feebly playing


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on the Earth's broad exterior and giving it an entrancing changeableness of color, the tracery of verdure along the river's line – described a reminiscent panorama.


In the summer the entire country was a wavy wheat field from one extremity to the other. To the wayfarer as he journeyed along its dusty roads and traveled among its well-kept farms wherein the ancient hospitality still found lodgement, the vibrating fields, animated by the gentle northern breezes, resplendent in the varied tints of the growing grain hues and illuminated by the rays of the shining sun, gave a rich carpetry to Mother Earth that was charming to the eye.


A beautiful place was Old Stanislaus in these bygone wheat growing days – beautiful in the simple vocation of its citizenry, in the contentment and prosperity of its inhabitants and in the social intercourse of its people.


Note – E. B. Beard, mentioned in the foregoing as the first assessor of Stanislaus county, was the father of T.K. Beard, of Modesto. Mr. Beard in his lifetime was one of the most prominent and progressive citizens of this county and served the county in various official capacities. He was a member of the assembly in the early eighties.


E. D. Giddings, county assessor in 1867, was the father of W.W. Giddings, vice president of the Modesto Bank. He was a pioneer of the county and was a merchant in early days of Empire and later of Turlock. He was universally esteemed as a man of high character.






Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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