Merced celebrates 125 years, gets its day in the spotlight

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comApril 1, 2014 

A few hundred had cause for celebration Tuesday at the Merced Theatre as they showed up to pay tribute to the city on its 125th birthday.

John Carlos stood near the oversized birthday card provided by organizers for the day’s celebration. He came to town in 1975 to serve at Castle Air Force Base.

Carlos, a father of one, said Merced’s Goldilocks-like status – it’s not too small and it’s not too big – made him want to stay and raise a family.

“It is a very nice town,” the 67-year-old said. “It’s a nice, safe town. It’s big enough where there are activities for the kids.”

Carlos pointed to the Applegate Zoo as an example, and said many people don’t appreciate what Merced has to offer. He said he knows people who have lived in Merced for years and never visited zoo, a more than 50-year-old landmark.

Merced, once a settlement and railroad town, got its name from the Merced River.

Festivities on Tuesday honored that 125-year-old legacy.

Local singing group Harmony Valley Chorus sang “On the Banks of the Old Merced,” written by state Sen. George Hatfield of Stevinson. The song says, “We’ll never say goodbye, and it’s there we’ll live and die, on the banks of the old Merced.”

Along with the huge birthday card, organizers also offered a cake shaped like Merced Theatre, hundreds of cupcakes and a time capsule for those who wanted to celebrate the city.

City staff said the supplies, rental fees and other costs for the celebration totaled about $1,000.

The hundreds in attendance also sang “Happy Birthday” to Merced.

Lind Moua, one partygoer, said she’s spent all of her 16 years in Merced. She said it’s a fun place to grow up surrounded by family. She ought to know, she said, because she has about 50 cousins.

“I think it’s fun if you find things to do,” the Golden Valley High junior said. “People like to complain because there’s nothing in Merced that interests them, but they can find something to do.”

Relatively new to Merced, Fernando Vera said he moved here about a decade ago from New Mexico to go to school and be near his mother.

He said Merced has its pros and cons. The 31-year-old remembers the fall colors that struck him the first day he was in town.

However, he’s also seen businesses come and go, and he’s been in neighborhoods that don’t feel safe.

But, when all is said and done, he said, Merced will be where he raises his two small children. “I feel that I can raise a family here,” he said.

Raising a family is what many have done in Merced, a city that’s grown from about 1,500 to more than 80,000 during its 125 years.

Mayor Stan Thurston gave a short history lesson to the crowd and said a few words inside the theater. He touched on the many different generations of migrants and immigrants of differing ethnicities.

“The real genesis of our growth and progress was, is and will always be the people who live and work here,” he said.

Thurston was followed by a 17-minute video featuring photos from the Merced Historical Society and the Merced Camera Club.

Sitting in the theater’s second row was Merced native Michael Autrand. The 1967 graduate of Merced High started at the school when it was still called El Capitan High, then finished two years at Merced College.

The 66-year-old said he left Merced only long enough to serve in the Navy, but he came back.

Autrand, who said he was the first baby born in Merced in 1948, visited cities all around the world as a Navy cook. But Merced is where his family was, so it was home – and he’s not going anywhere.

“They’ll probably bury me here,” he said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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