Soon after its adoption in 1910, Modesto's new city charter was considered a success. Charles Edward Russell, a noted magazine writer of the day and an acknowledged expert on city charters, called Modesto's document "the best he knew of" in the United States.
Some faculty members of Mills College proclaimed it "the most model of any of the recently written municipal charters" and made it the basis of a textbook on the subject. The Modesto Daily Evening News suggested that it was the "best home-made charter in the country."
Following the charter's adoption on Sept. 14, 1910, the mood in the community was almost euphoric. The first order of business under the new charter was a general election of city officers and school board trustees, which occurred on June 5, 1911. A large turnout of 929 registered voters chose real estate agent George Wren as mayor and elected four councilmen, each of whom also became a commissioner: George Schafer (public supplies), L.T. Moss (finance and revenue), Charles D. Swan (public health and safety) and George Perley (public works).
School board trustees selected were Frank Cressey, W.R. High, J.R. Broughton, J.W. Davidson and J.W. Corson.
In accordance with the charter, on July 1 the councilmen met to organize and appoint a number of subordinate officers. These included the city auditor and clerk (Walter Thompson); treasurer and tax collector (E.B. Morse); city attorney (E.L. Jones); city engineer (George Freitas); and street superintendent (S.P. Kinnear). Chiefs of the new police and fire departments were also appointed.
Robert Dallas, a native of Hickman who had graduated from the College of the Pacific in San Jose, was appointed police chief. Less than a week after his appointment, he notified all saloonkeepers and red-light operators that the laws would be strictly enforced. This led to a statement by Perley that "The old order of things is past, the new is on."Dallas served as police chief until 1918, when he was elected sheriff.
Former volunteer fireman George Wallace was appointed fire chief at a salary of $75 a month. Within a year, his crew of one paid fireman and 12 volunteers had grown to three paid men and 25 volunteers, plus four horses to pull the fire wagons. The first motorized truck was purchased in 1912, with two more added by 1919. Wallace remained chief for 39 years and, at his retirement, was the longest-serving fire chief in the United States.
Thomas Downey, principal of Modesto High School and spokesman for the education portion of the charter, described its positive effect. He explained that, for the first time, the district had full power to form a course of study for its schools and establish standards for the promotion and graduation of its pupils. It also had the authority to establish and maintain manual training and domestic science in the schools, and to establish and maintain technical and industrial schools. All of this was a very large order for the new school board trustees and administrators.
The City Charter of 1910 brought progress and a new morality, changing Modesto forever.
Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at email@example.com.