A couple of columns ago, I wrote about a photo entitled “Calm Before the Storm” which depicts an aerial view of west Merced looking from the rooftop of Hotel El Capitan in the early 1910s. My original reason for examining this photo was to research the site where the UC Merced Downtown Campus Center is currently under construction.
With the Downtown Campus Center making good progress towards completion, the history of this site in the early 20th century is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, the site on N Street between 18th and 19th streets was never included in the photo and my story ended up having nothing to do with UC Merced’s new building!
But I did not give up.
Recently, while I was researching about the Charles and Mary Belle Neumann family, I came across this circa 1914 photo of N Street (taken from the rooftop of the courthouse) and was able to locate the future site of UC Merced Downtown Campus Center in a residential area. The building site on the northeast corner of 18th and N streets is on land formerly occupied by the homes of W. F. Rowell (labeled 1) and W. R. Barcroft (labeled 2). The adjacent lots once housed W. L. English’s house on N Street (labeled 3) and Charles Neumann’s home at 648 19th Street (labeled 4).
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When this photo was taken, the Neumanns had been living in this house for about seven years. Charles Neumann was a Le Grand native and one of Paul and Matilda Neumann’s six children. Paul came to Merced County in 1879 and became a pioneer grain grower in the Le Grand area. He built a beautiful ranch house in Le Grand in 1909 that is still standing today with Joe and Julie Marchini as the current owners.
Charles wedded his college sweetheart Mary Belle Nuckolls of San Luis Obispo County on July 28, 1907, in Santa Cruz. Moving to Merced on a hot summer day in 1907, Mary Belle remembered in an oral history in 1983: “Merced at that time had board sidewalks and graveled streets and August was hot and dusty.” Her home on 19th Street had a tank house and barn and she would later use the barn to park their Model T Ford. Mary Belle was considered one of the earliest women drivers in Merced.
Charles did not follow his father’s footsteps into farming; instead, he became a time keeper for the Yosemite Valley Railroad when it was being built. He later worked in the Merced Security and Savings Bank before he was appointed by President William Howard Taft as the postmaster of Merced in 1910. Charles’ appointment was not accidental. In fact, one could say that his daughter may have “gotten” him the job.
Charles and Mary Belle had only one child and her name was Arlone. It was said when President Taft stop by Merced on the way to Yosemite in 1909, he met little Arlone and carried her around while he greeted the locals in the Courthouse Park. Charles, Arlone’s father, would later serve as postmaster from 1910-1914. Charles returned to banking after his stint as postmaster and worked in the Farmers and Merchants National Bank.
Meanwhile, Mary Belle was very active socially serving as Noble Grand in the Rebecca Lodge, making bandages and knitting for soldiers during World War I, and playing an important role in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. While the vicarage was being built in 1909, the Neumanns housed Rev. Greenwood for several months.
For recreation, the Neumanns enjoyed picnicking and fishing on the river banks in the summer. Since the Courthouse Park was just a block from the Neumann’s house, the Neumanns often attended events in the Courthouse Park. Mary Belle remembered summer concerts by local musicians held at the band stand in the Courthouse Park. Then, there was Sunday dining at Harvey House Restaurant by the Santa Fe Depot after church. In their “Sunday Best,” they were pleasantly served by the famous “Harvey girls.”
The Neumanns left Merced in 1919 when Charles took an opportunity to run an automobile agency in Madera. A few years later, they would move to Modesto and conduct the same business. After Charles died in 1936, Mary Belle moved back to the coast.
Merced in the early 20th century appeared to be an idyllic place to Mary Belle Neumann who just lived her life and never really worried about anything. She credited her philosophy of life to her upbringing. It is likely that Mary Belle could never have imagined that her Merced home site would one day be a “next door neighbor” to an office of higher education.
As we are turning a page in history, you can keep a piece of history by obtaining a reprint of this photograph at our 27th Annual Bill Kirby Western BBQ at Lake Yosemite on Sept. 12. The print will be auctioned off along with many one-of-kind historical items, some fabulous weekend getaways, and delicious food baskets. Proceeds from the fundraiser will benefit Courthouse Museum programs and Merced County Historical Society scholarships. All tickets to this event are presold so please be sure and get your tickets today at the Courthouse Museum Gift Shop.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.