STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
The city of Modesto came into existence as a full fledged municipal corporation in the year 1884, but not without much opposition. Theodore Turner was its first mayor. Two incorporation elections were held before the advocates of progress were successful.
In 1884, Modesto was in a deplorable state. The village was under the jurisdiction of the county authorities. There was little enforcement of the law and no semblance of police protection or supervision. Disorder was rampant. In cleaning up the town, the Vigilantes had taken the life of Joe Doane, a notorious character. The saloons controlled the city.
Old John Clark, who, when the county seat was located at La Grange, had been the sheriff for a day in 1853, upon the death of William Kirk and pending the appointment of John Myers to the position. Hobbling around, supported by his trusty old hickory cane, he was one of the oddest characters that the town had ever produced. Impotent as a public official, it was as far removed from his desire or inclination to arrest a malefactor, as it was to stop a fight or a disturbance. During the Vigilante reign, he clashed one night with that organization and retired from their presence, covered with contusions and bruises. He never sought to molest them after this episode. Controlled by the Front street saloons whose proprietors he feared politically, he was not adverse to following their bidding. Yet withal he was a tender hearted old soul, filled with the milk of human kindness for the lads of the village.
Such was the condition of its affairs that the town presented the appearance of the typical country village that happened into life without reason or excuse for existence.
It possessed no civic pride. The streets were ungraded. There were no sidewalks except in the business quarters, where several of the merchants had planked the area in front of the stores. The main streets were dirty and at times were cleaned by private enterprise. In summer they were covered with knee-deep sand and in winter with soft, slushy mud to the same depth. Illustrating the character of the country roundabout and the laxity of police supervision, pigs, cows, horses and other cattle roamed through the street at will. Fire protection was confined to the old hook and ladder company. Owing to the lack of street illumination the pedestrians piloted themselves homeward at night with the aid of the convenient lantern – in summer to show the way and as a protection from thieves and thugs who abounded in the town; and in winter for the same purpose and to avoid the ruts and the mud holes.
An effort was made by the public spirited citizens to incorporate early in 1884 and to secure the advantages of the state law in providing a municipal government with such powers as are conferred upon cities of the fifth class. Through a political miscarriage and through the fear of the rougher elements that their control of the city would be curtailed, incorporation failed to secure the necessary votes. The arguments of those who favored incorporation failed to make the impression on the voters. The effort later in the year was successful, the election being held on August 1, 1884.
A queer mixture of elements determined the result. The day of intense political partisanship, both parties sparred for the spoils of office. Making the straight fight on the theory that it was necessary to the growth and development and to the peace and order of the community that it possess a municipal government, that under city control there would be efficient police protection and supervision, a control of the streets and an opportunity to utilize the granted powers of the city for the good of the people, the advocates of incorporation went before the electors on this single issue. Those opposed objected on the score of expense and pointed to Stockton as a notable example of an incorporated city with a $3.00 tax rate and saloons, disorder and lawlessness.
True to the traditions of the party seeking all the emoluments of office for the faithful of the flock, the democrats nominated a complete ticket for all the offices to be filled in the event that incorporation was successful.
The plea in the event that incorporation was successful. The plea was made to the members of this party that Modesto was a democratic town and that they should vote for incorporation in order to provide office for the democrats. John J. Townes, a southern democrat with a burning thirst for public office, from the fact that at every election he was a candidate for some position, was the democratic nominee for marshal.
Shortly before the election a meeting was held in old Rogers' Hall for the purpose of nominating a citizen's ticket. It was the desire of the citizens to carry the election for incorporation, regardless of candidates. George Perley presided and I. S. Loventhal, a republican politician who subsequently received the nomination for postmaster from President McKinley, but whose confirmation was prevented by a telegram from S. L. Hanscom, then the editor of the Herald, and a prominent republican politician, acted as secretary.
The democrats predominated at the meeting, their desire being to prevent the nomination of an independent ticket. The air was surcharged with political electricity. The excitement was intense. Robert McHenry, banker, farmer, one of the leading men of the town and a staunch republican, moved that the democratic ticket be endorsed. The motion was seconded by Isaac Perkins, hardware merchant, also a republican. This motion brought the pent up feeling to a climax. When it became evident that it was about to be carried, A. E. Wagstaff, editor of the Modesto Herald and a fierce republican partisan, moved an adjournment. The meeting terminated in disorderly confusion. In the fracas epithets were hurled and not a few of the partisans assumed threatening poses. The old timers were accustomed to the use of the weapons of the political contest. The democrats had prevented the nomination of the independent ticket that they feared would result from this meeting.
To the anti-Vigilante electorate the plea was made that incorporation would save them from the Regulators. To those who favored the Regulators, the argument was made that incorporation would obviate the further necessity for the activities of this extra-legal body. To every class a suitable reason was given.
Election day brought to Modesto ferment and bustle. Business was practically suspended throughout the day. From early in the morning till the close of the polls, the opposing forces made the vigorous quest for votes. Every vehicle in the town was in use. Probably no more interesting or exciting contest ever took place in the history of the little city. When the votes were counted it was found that incorporation had won the day by a large majority. The following men were elected as the first officers of Modesto: Trustees, Theodore Turner of the hardware firm of Wood & Turner; James Johnson, shoe merchant; John B. Brichman, saloon keeper; C. L. Payne, lumber merchant; and John F. Tucker, abstract man and real estate agent. Charles E. Marriott, dry merchant, secured the position of treasurer; W. W. Granger, druggist, won the city clerkship, and A. A. Pritchard, carpenter, became the first marshal of Modesto.
On August 4th, the board of supervisors canvassed the votes and declared the result. On August 15th the trustees met in the supervisors' room in the courthouse and organized for the government of the new municipality. Theodore Turner was selected the president of the board of trustees. Casting lots for terms, Brichman and Johnson secured the four-year and the other three the two-year term. C. E. Eastin, the justice of the peace of Modesto township, was appointed city recorder.
At this initial meeting of the officers of Modesto the city's seal – a combined harvester and thresher with team attached, the background a field of grain, the foreground a team hauling the grain from the field – was adopted. Payne, Tucker and Brichman were appointed a committee to draft ordinances for the city. Later in the month the bonds of the other officers were approved and Modesto began its career as a municipal corporation.
The boundaries as adopted in 1884 continued to be the limits of the city for many years and were adopted and followed by the Board of Freeholders in the transformation of Modesto from a city of the fifth class into a charter governed municipality in 1910. Annexations since the adoption of the charter have enlarged the area of the city.
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.