Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Will bullet train eventually co-opt Delhi?

The old State Land Settlement Board office now houses the office of the Presbyterian Church on El Capitan Way in Delhi. It was part of the state’s attempt at a socialist-style farming settlement from 1919 until about 1923.
The old State Land Settlement Board office now houses the office of the Presbyterian Church on El Capitan Way in Delhi. It was part of the state’s attempt at a socialist-style farming settlement from 1919 until about 1923. jjardine@modbee.com

A couple of weeks ago, with great pomp, circumstance and fanfare, officials in Fresno broke ground on the first phase of the state’s high-speed rail project.

At some point within 15 or so years, bullet-train track construction will head north from Merced toward Sacramento. Visit the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s Web page, and you will find a map showing the possible routes shadowing either the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks to the east or the Union Pacific tracks to the west.

Should the state choose to mirror the UP tracks, though, it could send progress right through the little community of Delhi.

The caveat: Lisa Marie Alley of the High-Speed Rail Authority said the agency is still years away from picking a route and will conduct extensive community outreach before doing so.

But pardon residents if they are wary of the state. Roughly 40 percent of Delhi’s businesses disappeared when the state expanded Highway 99 from a highway to a freeway in the early 1970s. Now, folks hope they don’t see a repeat with the bullet train, which could conceivably wipe out many of the last remnants of the experimental farming community the state of California built and ran from about 1919 until roughly 1923 or so.

Delhi, in those years, represented the American counterpart to the Soviet state farm, except that California actually sold the property to farmers instead of the government continuing to own it. The concept here emerged from the 1917 Land Act, which was amended to include World War I veterans. It came into being during an era when author Upton Sinclair, a socialist, twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, but some of his philosophies and beliefs later were incorporated into the New Deal era of the 1930s.

Today, only a handful of people know that the western side of the Presbyterian Church on Delhi’s El Capitan Way used to be the State Land Settlement Board office. Or, said local history buff Deb Bennett, that the office was a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff built using the hollow tiles Wright was known to use to insulate his buildings. Or that some houses on Shell Street once were part of a compound of homes where the colony’s supervisor and other officials lived.

Or that a warehouse since expanded and modernized along 4th Street was once the colony’s warehouse. Or that the state built a plant where concrete pipe was made for use in irrigation. The town also had a school, the Wilson Hall community center, a blacksmith shop and lumber yard, and other necessary entities.

The idea behind the concept, though, was anything but altruistic.

“While one of the goals of the Delhi Land Settlement was to help settlers with limited means be successful in owning and farming their own lands, another of its goals should be acknowledged,” wrote Sarah Lim of the Merced County Historical Society. “Delhi was selected for this program to prevent Japanese farmers from purchasing the 8,000-acre tract.”

The man who persuaded Gov. William Stephens to create the settlement and who orchestrated the land purchase was Elwood Mead, for whom the lake behind Hoover Dam later was named. Lim detailed how Mead made his motives very clear in a letter to a state Board of Controlofficial that read in part:

“These Japanese already owned 4000 acres to the south of the tract. They had bought 1200 acres to the north of it. If they had secured this area, it would have been a little Japan with enough people and enough business to maintain schools, newspapers and an alien language. The realization of this menace aroused that section of the country and led to them to regard the purchase of this land by the State Land Settlement Board as a providential deliverance from a grave economic problem.”

In essence, Mead blocked the Japanese takeover by creating a socialist one instead, bringing World War I veterans just back from fighting tyranny in Europe – a strange blending. He put in charge a supervisor named Walter Packard, telling him “it was supremely important to know about the lives of every colonist,” said Bennett, a Ph.D., Delhi resident and de facto historian.

“Whoever didn’t show up for the ‘feel goods’ (colony picnics), the state knew,” she said. “Whoever didn’t milk their cows on time, the state knew.”

At some point, she said, Packard became so detested that someone put a pipe bomb, to be detonated by an old wind-up clock, near the window of his home on Shell Street. It didn’t go off, but Packard did. He packed up his family and left, never to return, she said.

“And a group of men wearing the hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan broke into Wilson Hall (the community center), took down a painting of Mead and burned him in effigy,” she said.

There were no government crop subsidies then, so a bad year or two often devastated the farmers financially. When the peach crop developed a blight, ag scientists from UC Davis suggested adding iron to the soil. It worked for a year or two. But then the blight returned. They brought in more iron, but it had no effect.

Farmer Dallas Bache Sr., one of the growers, had it assayed and discovered it lacked zinc.

“He figured it out,” Bennett said. “He could have made $1 million on it, but he didn’t. He shared his secret with everyone.”

By the mid-1920s, the state abandoned the state farm concept. Walter Fox bought one of the farms and moved his family there in 1925, said son Fred, who has lived his entire life in Delhi. They lived alongside many families who were part of the State Land Settlement, the Baches among them. Bache’s son, Dallas Jr., still lives in town.

Fox recalls residents talking about the state farm days, and the organized events.

“It came up quite a bit,” he said. “You were expected to attend them. They had ‘mom’ seminars on how to raise kids.”

When the Depression hit, the government forgave many of the outstanding loans on the properties, he said.

Over time, Delhi became just like any other little town along old Highway 99, where people lived and worked and farmed, but without Big Brother state officials watching their every move. Its socialist roots have been largely forgotten by nearly everyone except historians. It’s known for other things now.

“Some UC Davis soil analysts assessed the soil,” Fox said. “They call it Delhi Sandy Loam, and that same kind of soil, whether its found (in Southern California), is called Delhi Sandy Loam.”

Some of which could become the foundation for the high-speed rail, should the state opt to follow the Southern Pacific tracks.

Which would bring Delhi full circle. The future of a community started by the state as a farming experiment, and altered by a freeway, again will rest with decisions made in Sacramento.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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