Among the earliest books on Modestos history is Solomon P. Elias Stories of Stanislaus.
Written by a former mayor, it goes into great detail on the political and social events in Modesto during its formative years.
Born in San Francisco in 1868, young Solomon moved with his parents to Modesto in 1879. His family was forming the firm of D&G Plato.
Solomon graduated from Modesto High School in 1886 and went to work for his uncles at D&G Plato. After earning a bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University, and receiving a law degree, he moved to San Francisco to practice law. He returned to Modesto in 1905 upon the death of his uncle to become a partner in the family business. He became an advocate for the city receiving a new charter and the creation of an airport. He also traveled around the state promoting Modesto. Elias served as mayor during the 1920s.
Originally published in 1924, Stories of Stanislaus tackles its subject in an episodic manner , and lacks a central narrative. At its best, Stories gives vivid descriptions of life in early Modesto. For example, Elias tells of what it was like to be at opening night of Modestos first play: The cobwebbed loft, the odd stage, the antique curtain, the scant home-made scenery, and stage furniture, the dim light of the auditorium, the tallow footlights flickering in the faces of the spectators, the kerosene lamps gracing the musty walls, and the auditors seated on the old time wooden chairs listening now to the music of the orchestra or to the dramatic voices of the characters as they passed in review over the shaky boards. (Page 321)
Elias book is a very good primary source for information regarding things like the amount of land irrigated by the Turlock Irrigation District, along with the revenue received by the Modesto Irrigation District in the early years.
But Elias had a habit of overwriting, such as when someone is told to go to hell: They were pugnaciously informed to betake themselves to the imaginative domain in which the atmosphere is presumed to be torrid. (Page 297)
The work also suffers from biblically long sections of names of people involved in every kind of board or committee in early Modesto. From the MID to the TID and their bondholders, all of their names are mentioned in these long, arid sections. In regard to the vigilantes, Elias never mentions who the leaders were or their motives, other than cleaning up the community. He says they were sturdy men. (Page 317)
While Stories of Stanislaus lacks an overall narrative or much in-depth analysis of events in early Modesto, the book is a good read for Elias writing ability and his tales of early life in Stanislaus County.
Source: Stories of Stanislaus: A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County, by Sol Elias (1924)
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.