Sarah Lim: Greetings from Fountain City

02/21/2009 1:39 AM

02/21/2009 1:43 AM

"Greetings from Fountain City: Historic Postcards of Merced" was published by the Merced County Historical Society in 2002 to celebrate the 130 years of Merced's existence. Merced was also known as Fountain City in the late 19th century. The following is an excerpt of book that explains the origin of the name.

In 1872, the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad was a catalyst for Merced's expansion. Overnight, a rural settlement along Bear Creek became a prosperous railroad town. Charles Henry Huffman, a property holder and successful wheat farmer in the area, was responsible for the founding of Merced. He was an associate of Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad. Crocker had made him a railroad agent and town planner. His business partnership with Crocker led to the organization of Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company, the earliest irrigation system in the Merced area.

In addition to his other work, Huffman also built a public fountain next to the El Capitan railroad depot that became synonymous with Merced. This marble fountain with a granite base was built in 1888 to honor his third wife, Laura Kirkland Huffman. As this description from an 1892 history book describes, Laura Fountain made quite an impression on visitors:

"Merced is called the Fountain City, and there is evidence of the appropriateness of the title to every passenger on the railroad trains passing through the city, as the waters of the Crocker-Huffman canal, playing from the large fountain in the park maintained by the canal company, close by the El Capitan hotel and railroad station, working under pressure from Lake Yosemite, make a beautiful display which attracts all beholders."

Local businessmen soon took advantage of this new title and named their businesses after the fountain. There were such businesses as Fountain City Flour Mills and Fountain City Creamery. Remaining at the location near the El Capitan Hotel for over 40 years, the fountain was moved to Applegate Park in 1935. The fountain is a lasting symbol of Huffman's contributions to Merced.

This postcard book records the birth and growth of Merced by telling the stories of its transportation development, downtown business district, city landmarks, recreation facilities, schools, churches, homes, and streets from the late 19th century to the 1960s. Although much of the town has changed and many historic structures no longer exist, Merced's calmness and congeniality persist.

Since postcards were made to advertise and promote the area, the history that they recorded is not complete. Groups such as the poor, ethnic minorities, and women are often missing from these images. For example, the postcard of Merced County Jail shows how grand the castle-like structure was; however, one hardly knows how crowded and tiny the jail cells were. As a result, one sees only the beautiful not the ugly, and the privileged not the deprived. Therefore, while enjoying images of the romantic and nostalgic past, one should stop for a moment and ponder who really built Merced.

"Greetings from Fountain City" is available for sale at the Museum Store, N and 21st streets, for $16.95. The museum's regular hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.; however, it will be closed this Sunday and next Saturday due to the annual bike races.

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