Town by the Tracks: Hughson gets ready for 100th

HUGHSON -- Spending the morning with three members of the Hughson Historical Society, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone in town knows them and they know everyone. That includes city officials, construction workers, children and grandmothers.

Everyone who sees them pauses for a greeting and most give hugs.

Hughson is a town you get to know on a first-name basis.

It's been that way for 100 years.

Tess Camagna is proud of her community, which celebrates its centennial Saturday. She graduated from high school here, like her mother before her and her children after.

"Hughson is the kind of town where if we hear someone needs something, everybody shows up to help," she said.

Camagna wears her pride along with fellow Historical Society member Marie Assali and President Jean Henley Hatfield.

The town centennial slogan on their shirts reads: "Hughson: A small community with a big heart."

The Historical Society spearheaded the centennial celebration and the drive for a downtown memorial that pays tribute to Hughson's past as "Peach Capital of the World."

On Saturday, the society will unveil its homage, a statue with the image of a young peach picker carrying a 1930s style harvest bag. A companion brick wall stands nearby, recognizing support and donors with their names engraved for posterity.

One name was flawed and the City Council's brick also was left out at first because the wall

estimate missed the mark by two rows of bricks. Hatfield said the oversights will be remedied quickly, when they find a way to stamp the bricks already in place. They also hope to sell the leftovers.

That's the way it is in Hughson: Neighbors work together to find solutions.

Hughson's story begins with a one-armed farmer who found his own workaround.

Hiram Hughson made his fortune on 7,000 acres of land south of the Tuolumne River. Hughson could use his 10-mule teams to plow or harvest seven miles in a day, which meant he traveled to one edge of his property and back. That way he only had to turn his team once.

Hughson lost his arm in a farming accident in Stockton but never let it deter his efforts to provide and build for his family of 10 children. At his death in 1911, the man who came to California with 75 cents in his pocket would be worth $1 million.

The town came about because Hughson, at age 61, didn't want to make the changes necessary to accommodate irrigation. Water started flowing through Turlock Irrigation District canals in 1901, thanks to the construction of the La Grange Dam in 1894. Hughson decided to move to Modesto.

If water was the mother of growth in the valley, the father was the railroad.

The Southern Pacific line first connected the length of California in 1870. At the same time water began flowing in the canals at the turn of the 20th century, the San Joaquin Valley Railroad was following a course just a few miles east and parallel to the Southern Pacific. The San Joaquin later would be known as the Santa Fe. For most of Hughson's 100 years, the railroad would be the western boundary of the city.

Entrepreneurs led by Charles Flack subdivided Hughson's farmland (and an adjacent parcel from John Tully) just east of Santa Fe's track and a little south of the Tuolumne River. It was a planned townsite. At the time, there were no other towns between Stockton and Fresno along the railway.

The town's official birth was 1907, when it was laid out. From an initial population of about 500, Hughson would grow to 4,000 in the last census. Its population today is an estimated 6,082.

The initial wave of residents came from those seeking economic opportunity. In the early days, promotional trains brought prospective buyers to town.

The Hughson stop became the Santa Fe station in 1909. Residents then could hop a train to Empire and transfer to Modesto. Many residents would do their weekly shopping in Modesto while some families would make monthly runs to Stockton.

Hughson High opened in 1910. The surviving photograph of that class shows 14 students, a teacher and a man who looks like the caretaker. The entire high school first met in a vacant room in the elementary school.

Hiram Johnson's campaign also came to town on the train in 1910 and the soon-to-be governor spoke from a hotel balcony. It was the Hughson Hotel, but it was previously known as The Gillette. That was before 26 mules and two ineffective steam engines lifted and carried the hotel in two sections down Whitmore Avenue to its new home. The journey took almost a month.

Hughson's earliest baseball team, the Highlanders, also provided moments of civic pride by regularly beating the big city team, the Modesto Reds.

In its first decade, Hughson would show outdoor movies, projected onto the wall of the hotel. James V. Date, long known as unofficial mayor of Hughson, sponsored the films to promote local shopping.

Date had been a salesman for Flack in 1907 and stayed on to run the hotel and livery stable. He also was the city's first fire commissioner.

Date died in 1963 at age 85.

St. Anthony's Catholic Church was built in 1921, partly in response to Portuguese settlers from the Azores and a post-World War I migration of Italians, most coming from the Alessandro province.

Don Pedro Dam was finished in 1922 and helped growers complete the change from dry farming wheat to orchards, alfalfa and cattle.

One of the most unusual pictorial views of Hughson also came in 1922. The depot and town were under about 3 inches of snow.

Barbara Wassum, 85, isn't old enough to remember that snow, but she was there for the second, lighter dusting 10 years later. "I have a picture of our dog Sugar in the snow."

Wassum stills lives on the land her grandfather bought on Whitmore Avenue in 1913. Her son John Michael also lives on the property.

She recalled when Hughson got its first paved streets, sort of.

"We got our first oiled streets when they had a train wreck in (1935) or so," said Wassum.

Several freight cars and tankers carrying oil had derailed. The tankers spilled their contents. Date made a deal with the railroad to provide community help with the cleanup in exchange for the spilled and leaking oil. That oil was used to seal the dirt streets.

Like Hiram Hughson before, Date and the young city turned a mishap to their advantage.

Wassum also recalls the day she "got into trouble for having lunch with the hobos." The hobos were a constant presence who lived among eucalyptus trees during the 1920s and '30s.

"I had a baked potato," said Wassum, recalling her lunch, "and it was the only hard spanking" she ever got from her father.

Teenage boys during that time earned their spending money by swamping peaches. They were stacking and loading 50-pound lug boxes of peaches at the depot's loading dock.

There were so many peaches that Hughson dubbed itself the "Peach Capital of the World" and began holding a Peaches and Cream festival. The precursor of the Fruit and Nut Festival died when World War II broke out. A later incarnation that came and went was the Tractor Rodeo.

Even before the war, the local Farm Bureau lamented the decline in business in the area because of the advent of the automobile. All of the folks had cars then and most were driving out of town on a weekly basis for shopping and recreation.

The years before World War II brought Hughson another wave of people. This time it was the Dust Bowl feeding the migration west. Dust storms and erosion ruined thousands of Midwest farmers and many made their way to Hughson as itinerant workers. Some stayed on after working in the orchards.

Margaret Sturtevant came to Hughson as a new bride 64 years ago. She moved from Modesto and raised a family of five. She credits the World War II veterans coming back to Hughson with changing the community's atmosphere.

"I don't know what you call it," said Sturtevant, "It was a can-do attitude from the veterans and their wives."

The first project those folks would tackle was a community pool. Volunteers worked two years to raise $8,000 to build a Hughson youth center and pool. It opened July 3, 1947.

Hollywood came to Hughson in 1948 when Universal Studios built the Del Rey Theater. The movie double bill changed almost daily.

The Del Rey stood across the street from where Date showed his movies. A 1952 movie mailer showed how much one theater could mean.

The mailer's two-week calendar listed 16 movies, eight double bills. The movies ranged from "Jumpin' Jacks" with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to "Monkey Business" with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe or "The Black Swan" starring Tyrone Power. Adult admission was 60 cents and students 40 cents. Children were 14 cents.

One of the most lamented losses of Hughson's recent past was Scratche's Drive-in. The restaurant was owned by Don and Betty Scranton from 1948 to 1957.

Old-timers recall with relish the homemade ice cream, a scoop for 5 cents and a milkshake for 25 cents. Prevailing wisdom is that supermarkets drove them out of business.

The '50s and '60s migration proved to be very similar to the 1930s. This time the agricultural workers were from Mexico and many found Hughson and surrounding communities to their liking, just like the Dust Bowl migrants.

Not everything was peachy keen the first time around. A failed attempt at incorporation in 1960 was followed by a successful drive 12 years later. Curtis Fink became the city's first mayor in 1972.

Historian Sturtevant and lifelong residents Camagna and Assali say they believe Hughson High School was the social center of the town's universe. Community spirit and town pride went hand in hand with the school and its football team. In the early years, the rivals were Ceres and Turlock. Today the big game is against Escalon.

Hughson's best football team may have given the town one of its proudest moments when the Huskies, under Coach Reyn Franca, won the state championship in 1997.

Franca was following in his father's footsteps, who also was a football coach and later principal at Hughson.

Following in your forefathers' footsteps is not that unusual in the town by the tracks.

According to the Hughson Historical Society, about 100 families lived in the area in 1910. There are more than 80 direct descendants of those families who still live in the area.

Cece Putnam, 43, is a descendant of pioneering settler James G. Hudelson, who came to stay in 1853. She lives in Turlock and teaches geography at Modesto Junior College. She still participates in the Hughson Historical Society and said she is grateful her fam-ily has given her a sense of place.

"We have a huge area in the (Lakewood) cemetery," Putnam said of her family's gravesites. "In fact, the oldest grave there is (James') first wife. They were Sonora Pass pioneers."

Love of the area was passed down to her through her grandparents.

"Grandfather was all about loving the area and preserving the history and being a participant," Putnam said. "I love Hughson. I have brothers still living in Hughson. Great-grandpa went to Stanford but he came back."

That's a pattern through the years. Even those who have come later, come back. Jose Carranza is one of the migrant workers who came to the valley and prospered. He came to Hughson at age 14, when his family moved from Mexico.

Carranza worked in the fields until he got a part-time job at a pharmacy. He eventually became a druggist himself. Today, life has taken him full circle. He runs a pharmacy in his old hometown of Hughson.

When people live in Hughson, whether their name is Hudelson, Camagna or Carranza, they come to stay.

Bee staff writer Roger Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.