Sarah Lim: The Duke of Del Monte

Pebble Beach developer had a connection to Merced

July 13, 2013 

Sarah Lim: Museum Notes Column about S.F.B. Morse

In this photo from the the Courthouse Museum collection, S.F.B. Morse, at left, is seen inspecting cattle on the range at Dry Creek with his Cattle Superintendent Ken Safford.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: FROM COURTHOUSE — Merced Sun-Star Buy Photo

Our Central Valley summer may send more than a few Merced residents to the Monterey Peninsula to escape the heat.

If you travel to Monterey and happen to come across the latest issue of Pebble Beach: The Magazine, please read it. You will find a Merced connection in the story about Pebble Beach founder Samuel Finley Brown Morse.

According to Pebble Beach historian Neal Hotelling, S.F.B. Morse was an entrepreneur who was responsible for developing Pebble Beach into a sportsman's paradise and became known as the Duke of Del Monte.

Morse was a manager of the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co. in Merced for more than 25 years while also managing and developing Pebble Beach.

Born in 1885 in Newton, Mass., Morse was a distant cousin of Morse code inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse. After graduating from Yale in 1907, Morse came to California and took a job with the Mount Whitney Power Co. in Visalia.

During a visit to Monterey, he became acquainted with William H. Crocker, the son of Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co. co-founder and railroad baron Charles Crocker.

In 1910, Morse was hired by Crocker to manage the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co., which had several ranches, a large landholding and an extensive irrigation system. When Morse arrived in Merced in 1911, his primary residence was the Huffman Mansion on the northeast corner of Bear Creek Drive and M Street.

Although the company was started by Charles Crocker of San Francisco and Charles Henry Huffman of Merced, Huffman had sold of all his interest in the company — including his Victorian mansion —to Crocker during the Depression of 1893.

Nevertheless, Huffman's name remained on the company brand until the very end. His mansion became the manager's house and Morse lived there from 1911 to 1914. The business headquarters was at Bellevue Ranch, which was a few miles north of the mansion.

Morse was a very clever manager who made the company profitable for the first time in many years. When he first took over the Merced operation, he initiated a series of reforms to develop irrigated land and centralize the company's dominant interest in grain farming, cattle ranching and meat packing.

Historian Hotelling found the following excerpt from Morse's diary:

"I immediately got rid of all the sidelines, sold the dairy for a substantial amount of money, closed down the chicken operations, (CONSOLIDATED) the canal system and the ranch operations in one place, and concentrated on what was the obvious thing to do — develop as much land as we could under irrigation to produce irrigated pasture and hay, to develop land that was suitable for small farms, to place it under irrigation and sell it and at the same time increase the charge for water to approximately 1,000 farmers that were under the system."

As soon as the land was irrigated, Morse subdivided the land and opened it for settlement, which led to what became known as the "Colony Movement." Many towns such Winton (formerly Merced Colony No. 2) and Cressey (formerly Cressey Colony) were created during this time.

According to the late Elmer Murchie (the last manager of the company), 45,000 acres of land were settled by 2,132 families and most of the settlement took place between 1910 and 1912.

Helped create MID

Morse was the champion and promoter of creating an irrigation district in Merced.

He participated in the discussion of forming an irrigation district with local large landowners and real estate agents as early as 1914.

After the Merced Irrigation District was organized in 1919, Morse oversaw the selling of the water system and rights in 1922 for $2.25 million. By this time, the Crocker-Huffman canal system was a 700-mile complex that irrigated 50,000 acres.

After 1914, Morse moved back to San Francisco and began to manage the Merced operation from a distance for the next 20 years.

He was able to do that with the support of his outstanding management staff. Ken Stafford was his cattle superintendent and Murchie was first his canal operation engineer and later his assistant manager after the sale of the water system to the MID.

Morse's success in Merced caught Crocker's attention; as a result, Crocker gave Morse a new assignment on the Monterey Peninsula and the rest is history.

Although Morse lived a few years in Merced, his impact on the development of the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co. was significant. Murchie referred to the years from 1915 on as the "the golden age" at Bellevue Ranch, a glowing description of Morse's reign.

There was also a road probably named after him, the portion of Olive Avenue from just west of Merced High School was known as Morse Road in the 1959 map of Merced.

On a somber note, we are saddened by the passing of Jack Hooper. Jack was the owner of the Bear Creek Inn which stands on the site of the original Huffman Mansion. The mansion burned to the ground in 1933. Jack did much to preserve and maintain this "corner" of Merced history.

To learn more history about Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the "On the Banks of the Old Merced: A Music History" exhibit.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at info@mercedmuseum.org.

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