The Merced River is not only the cradle of the county, but also serves as inspiration for a love song.
"On the banks of the old Merced, I remember the things we said. The moon up in the sky lit the love-light in your eye as we strolled beside the old Merced ... "
Written by state Sen. George Juan Hatfield of Stevinson, this beautiful song was composed in 1945 at Stevinson Ranch, where the Merced River and San Joaquin River meet.
Hatfield was married to Judith Barlow Hogan, the granddaughter of James J. Stevinson, who was the founder of Stevinson Ranch. Stevinson, a Mexican War veteran, came to California in 1849 and established a 25,000-acre ranch stretching for 15 miles along the Merced and San Joaquin rivers.
His home, which became Hatfield's residence, was an exquisite ranch house and the center of social gatherings.
It was in this home that the song was born on April 7, 1945. Hatfield had invited his friend and colleague Jack B. Tenney of Los Angeles to spend the weekend at the Stevinson Ranch to celebrate his daughter Georgette's 23rd birthday.
During the dinner, Tenney, composer of the well-known "Mexicali Rose," was caught in a lively discussion between Hatfield and Georgette about the merits of great music. To prove his point about the greatness of sentimental lyrics over technique of the classics, Hatfield asked Tenney to play a few pieces on the piano.
As the evening went on, the wonderful music and lovely setting inspired Hatfield to compose a song on this very spot, the banks of the Merced River.
Throughout his professional life, Hatfield was known as straight-shooter and tough fighter. His masculine and forceful voice gave little or no indication that he could or would possess a sentiment that is unique to a poet or a songwriter.
Born in Waterloo, Canada, on Oct. 29, 1887, Hatfield was raised in California and attended Stanford University from 1907 to 1913. He passed the California bar in 1912 and began his career as an attorney in Palo Alto.
As a fighter in the courtroom, he would earn an appointment by President Calvin Coolidge as U.S. attorney for the northern district of California in 1925. He served in the Navy in World War I and in the U.S. Naval Reserve after the war. As a fighter for veterans, he wrote legislation to provide benefits for them.
Writing a love song seemed unnatural for a fighter like Hatfield, and yet there was something about the historic Stevinson Ranch and the peaceful Merced River on that night that stirred a soft spot in this tough man.
Hatfield and Tenney worked deep into the night. By 1:30 in the morning they had composed the music and written the song's chorus. The two senators finished the song after returning to Sacramento and made 5,000 copies.
This may have been the first song about Merced County ever published.
Hatfield's fame as a songwriter was little known in comparison to his leadership in the Republic Party and his stint as lieutenant governor of California.
He continued to represent Merced and Madera counties in the state Senate until his death on Nov. 15, 1953. George J. Hatfield State Park along the Merced River in Stevinson was named in his honor.
Tenney was a very talented composer. In fact, Bing Crosby performed his song "Mexicali Rose."
Nonetheless, like Hatfield, Tenney was better known for his political career as the champion of the anti-communist movement in California from the 1940s to early 1950s.
As the chairman of the California Senate Factfinding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities (known as the Tenney Committee), he investigated alleged communists such as actor Edward G. Robinson and writer Carey McWilliams.
"On the Banks of the Old Merced" reflects a different side of these two political giants.
To get a close-up look at the sheet music for "On the Banks of the Old Merced," please visit the museum's current exhibit -- "Following the Water: A History of Merced County Irrigation" at the Courthouse Museum.
Sarah Lim writes the Museum Notes column. You can reach her at email@example.com.