BARE: Modesto celebrated irrigation's start with grand jubilee

columns@modbee.comAugust 3, 2013 

1904 jubilee

This community picnic was part of the MID and TID Irrigation Jubilee in 1904 to celebrate the onset of the irrigation age in Stanislaus County.

UNKNOWN — The McHenry Museum

— In the good old days, area residents were known for their many celebrations.

They held elaborate festivities complete with live music and lengthy speeches in honor of nearly everything, including city and county anniversaries, tree plantings in Graceada Park and the opening of a new highway bridge.

But nothing was as fervently feted as the arrival of the area's long-awaited irrigation project.

The Civil War and crop failures in Europe and South America had led to a worldwide shortage of wheat starting in the mid-1860s.

Area farmers responded by planting huge acreages, described by historian L.C. Branch as "one big unbroken field of wheat."

Some ranchers, such as Robert McHenry, Willis Bledsoe, William Turner, Albert Cressey and Henry Voight, used their financial windfalls to build large homes in the areas of 15th and upper I streets.

However, the good times didn't last. Falling prices marked the end of the region's prosperous 20-year wheat period, and desperate farmers experienced alternate years of wealth and poverty.

They needed to be able to plant other crops — requiring water.

Help came in 1887, with passage of the Wright Irrigation Act. The state legislation provided for the formation of local irrigation districts owned, financed and managed by the people. Almost immediately, Modesto formed an irrigation district, which led to the building of La Grange Dam in 1893. But the project ran out of money, with only the main canal finished and side canals still needing to be excavated.

A well-organized group of anti-irrigationists, fearing change and higher taxes, used lawsuits and court injunctions to halt the project. So by 1900, the city's economy and population were in decline.

It wasn't until 1901 that the Progressives prevailed, resulting in the arrival of the first irrigation water in December 1903. That water flowed onto the ranches of three prominent farmers: Oramil McHenry, Thomas Kewin and George Covell.

The project's completion led to the most exuberant celebration in, perhaps, Modesto's history. The Irrigation Jubilee lasted three days — April 20-23, 1904. The town of 2,500 was host to 5,000 visitors, including Gov. George Pardee. There were tours of the irrigated lands, a military parade, concerts, fireworks, an athletic field day, many speeches and two grand balls.

The residents served by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts co-sponsored the jubilee, originally scheduled April 21-22. But townspeople couldn't restrain their exuberance and began the festivities a day early. The arrival of the governor and his wife on a 7:30 p.m. train marked the beginning of the revelry. As they stepped off the train and started walking up I Street, they were accompanied by hundreds of dignitaries and well-wishers.

Strings of electric lights were suspended across streets, and the News described Courthouse Park as a "bower of beauty," with "myriads of incandescent lights" twinkling in trees. Elaborate decorations in orange, purple and green were "everywhere," even in flags and bunting on the residences.

Most of the visitors arrived in 30 railroad cars from all over California. Automobiles still were a rarity, so many from nearby towns came in horse-drawn carriages and wagons. Livery stables were common, and hitching posts were on 11th Street, by the courthouse, and on Ninth Street.

A large reception tent was placed opposite the train depot to welcome visitors, and the limited hotel space was supplemented by lodging in private homes.

Guests sat on benches under the trees in Courthouse Park. They listened to eloquent oratory delivered by dignitaries such as President Benjamin Ide Wheeler of the University of California, who predicted a future population of 10 million in the San Joaquin Valley. Fireworks, choral and band concerts, athletic competitions and military parades also were on the agenda, with lunch served in a vacant lot on 11th Street.

A working model of La Grange Dam was displayed, and grand balls were held both nights at the Armory and Platos' Hall on 10th Street and at Rogers' Hall on H between Ninth and 10th.

Two special trains took revelers through the irrigated fields near Turlock and Ceres and on a tour of La Grange Dam.

Newspaper articles spoke glowingly of the jubilee's success.

Bare is the author of several books about area history and is the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to

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