Herb Wood, a longtime Courthouse Museum volunteer and registrar, passed away peacefully at home on May 10 and left behind his loving wife Kathy of 49 years and sons Herbert and Michael.
Herb was a caring husband, father, brother, uncle, and a dear friend. In a note from his sister Judy DeVos of Sioux Falls, she wrote, “He was the best brother a sister could have ever had.” This brought me to tears as I thought of a kind and gentle friend who we all dearly miss.
Herb’s active involvement in our community went beyond the museum as he also volunteered with the Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and Boy Scouts of America. He made bird houses out of old fence boards for the Applegate Zoo and taught classes as part of the Hunter Safety Education Program for the City of Merced. One of the greatest joys of his life in retirement was the publication of his book: “Ghost Towns of Merced County” and the exhibition based on the book.
As an amateur historian, Herb often wondered whether there are any ghost towns in Merced County. In 2003, while researching this question, Herb discovered a website about California ghost towns. When he clicked on the Merced County location, there were no listings. Herb knew that there were at least a few ghost towns in the county. He immediately contacted the site host and volunteered to provide information about ghost towns in Merced County. Little did he know that the project would engross the next two years of his life.
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Meanwhile back at the office, we were talking about the museum’s 2004 and 2005 exhibition schedules. I brought up the possibility of an exhibit about post offices in Merced County. Herb then suggested expanding the exhibit by including ghost towns since many of the towns in the county came into existence because of the establishment of a post office. He further pointed out that a town automatically gained legitimacy when the U.S. Postal Service assigned a post office to an area. He then showed me what he was working on and the website. I was surprised how much Herb knew and thought that his information would make a good book. After a brief discussion, we agreed that the ghost towns exhibit and book would be scheduled for 2005.
The opening of the exhibit finally came. During the exhibit opening, Herb gave a PowerPoint presentation that summarized his two years of research and his findings. He explained when a town lost its post office and business establishments or when a town has a drastic reduction in the size of its population, it becomes a ghost town. In his opinion, there are about 43 ghost towns in Merced County. Here are some of them:
Alexandria was located on Santa Fe Drive at the same spot where Cressey now stands. The town was active from about 1869 through 1871. Alexandria is one of the least known of Merced County’s ghost towns. The only information remaining is a list of a few names of past residents: Alexander C. McSwain (postmaster and merchant), J. Griffith (physician), and Daniel M. McSwain (clergyman).
Although Dogtown was a derogatory term often used for dwellings only fit for dogs, Merced County’s Dogtown was different. Located along Volta Road north of Highway 152, Dogtown, started in 1876, was named for the working dogs belonging to the many local sheep men who visited the town. Dogtown and Kreyenhagen’s Corner (later known as Old Los Banos) were less than a mile apart. As of 2005, the only thing remaining of Dogtown was Rudolph Widman’s Hotel which served as a private residence.
Gwin was on the far east side of the county and had the third oldest post office in the county. It began in 1855 and continued through 1864. Located northeast of Le Grand on the Mariposa County border, Gwin was on land once owned by John C. Fremont. The name came from William M. Gwin. Gwin and John Fremont were the first two United States Senators elected from California. The area is part of the historic Las Mariposas Grant and was the site of much early history.
Rotterdam was north of Old Lake Road between Lake Yosemite and G Street. This former farming colony began in 1889 when Dutch farmers were convinced to settle there. Unfortunately, the farmers were not given an accurate description of the area conditions and the community soon failed due to poor soil and inexperienced farmers. Much of the area is now a part of the Merced Golf and Country Club.
Wyruck was near the Main Canal and Wild Duck Road southwest of South Dos Palos. Started by Charles Wiley (a dairyman) and Charles Bambauer (a hotelkeeper), the town was always small. There was little more than a stage stop with lodging and food. Charles Bambauer had prior experience as a saloonkeeper; there was most likely a bar in the hotel. Wyruck began in the mid-1870s and continued until 1878. At that time, the name was changed to Charleston and Wyruck became a ghost.
You will have a chance to revisit these ghost towns today as we have reinstalled a portion of the “Ghost Towns of Merced County” exhibit as part of the life celebration memorial. The reception for Herb’s memorial is this afternoon from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm at the Courthouse Museum. Please come and help us celebrate the life of our beloved friend.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.