McDonald: Look what came from the San Joaquin Valley

September 13, 2013 

  • ValleyFirsts! At A Glance

    Dates: Today to Dec. 15 (Closed Nov. 11 and Nov. 28-30)

    Where: Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery (2nd floor, north wing).

    Hours: Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m; Sunday 2 to 10 p.m.

    Parking: Free on weekends. Campus regulations in effect on weekdays.

Great things grow in this valley – among them, many of the world’s firsts.

You might not know it, but almost every back road and small town in the San Joaquin Valley can boast a remarkable innovation or first. They are truly gems in the rough, and to date, no one has told this story.

My thinking on this began a year ago when on a return trip home from San Francisco, I decided to get off Interstate 5 and head south on back roads. With the throughway behind me, I headed east to old Route 33 and turned south. With no deadline to meet, I took my foot off the pedal, put an elbow out the window, and took my time through the Valley’s heartland.

In many ways, Route 33 is a trip back in history, a parallel story to the hectic bustle of Interstate 5, with its roaring semis and bland sameness north to south.

By contrast, this is a road that takes its time, a ribbon of hardtop through the vast agricultural bounty of the Valley, a route with a story.

Drive too fast and you’ll miss the flock of ibis feeding in a flooded field by the roadside, or a farm stand where strawberries can still go for as little as $2.50 a flat.

From Tracy in the north, south through Coalinga, down to the prehistoric-looking oil derricks of the Occidental Petroleum fields near Taft, the towns along the way conjure up a Valley past that is rich in cultural history with their quaint, older main streets and sprawling new housing developments.

All the towns of the San Joaquin Valley are defined by this bounty. From Stockton in the north down through Fresno to Bakersfield, all are productive, evolving, even reinventing themselves.

But as I drove down Route 33 that day, I got to wondering: Why did this little town or that grow up out of nothing? Who built the earliest businesses and key industries? Did any of their citizens go on to greatness?

Little did I realize that hidden in plain sight, in almost every arena of human endeavor, Valley natives, with pluck and ingenuity, have created a cornucopia of world firsts and world-changing inventions that dot our land like exclamation marks. We need to bring these achievements to light.

To that end, the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State has designed a world-class exhibition to honor these singular accomplishments. We are calling it ValleyFirsts!

The Inventions, Innovations and True Firsts of California’s San Joaquin Valley is opening to the public on today at 10 a.m. We promise it will be a real eye-opener.

Our challenge in selecting these firsts wasn’t that we had to dig, literally, for Olympic gold. It was that once our quest began, the sheer magnitude of the Valley’s firsts meant only the most remarkable achievements could find space in this blue ribbon show.

Most remarkable among them, we stand first in the world of agriculture. For variety and sheer production of foodstuff per hectare anywhere on Earth, we can boast some 380 commodities rooted in our verdant soil. We don’t grow crops just for ethanol, we put real food on the nation’s table.

Beyond that, who knew that a Valley cyclist won 50,000 British pounds by literally pedaling himself into the sky for the first time in human history?

Or where in the Valley could you once straddle a mountain log and ride it down out of the Sierra Nevada on the world’s longest flume for a whopping 62 miles?

Which Valley physician developed the world’s first medical alert system that now serves millions around the globe?

And which African American, born into slavery, secured an appointment to West Point in 1883, served with the famed “Buffalo Soldiers”; was a combat veteran of the Spanish-American War; then went on to become the first African American to serve as the superintendent of a national park at Sequoia?

This exhibition of objects, photographs and unique videos has 200 other firsts that will enchant every visitor. Obviously, sometime in the future, we’ll have to circle back and do another show of all the many inventions that we couldn’t fit in this, our inaugural ValleyFirsts!

For more exhibition information go to Hope to see you at the show.

Peter McDonald is dean of Library Services at Fresno State. This article appeared in The Fresno Bee.

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