Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Trees Mark the Portal to the Past

This house on the southwest corner of 22nd and Canal Streets was built by Dr. E. S. O’Brien around 1898. The two palms that he planted shortly after are still standing today. Judge Claud McCray lived in this 2-story house from the 1930s to his death in 1954. (Neil Morse Collection)
This house on the southwest corner of 22nd and Canal Streets was built by Dr. E. S. O’Brien around 1898. The two palms that he planted shortly after are still standing today. Judge Claud McCray lived in this 2-story house from the 1930s to his death in 1954. (Neil Morse Collection)

History is about the interconnection of people and places.

When Jim McCray paid a visit to the Museum in 2006, he was captivated by a 9-foot long photograph commemorating the dedication of the California Pottery Company, Merced plant. Jim was trying to find his father among the hundreds of people who attended this special occasion in 1922. He later shared with me the stories of his father, the late District Attorney Claud H. McCray and I wrote about him in my column.

Now, 11 years later, I feel compelled to retell this story because of what is happening at the Merced County Administration parking lot.

The county is installing solar panels on the parking lot and many trees have been removed including the two big Monkey Puzzle trees. Fortunately, the county has preserved a piece of history by keeping the two tall Washington Palm trees that once marked the entrance to District Attorney McCray’s house on Canal Street.

Claud Henry McCray was a prominent citizen and twice-elected district attorney of Merced County. Born and raised in the state of New York, McCray went to George Washington University in Washington D. C. Upon completion of his law degree in 1911, he returned to New York State and began his practice. In 1913, McCray came to Merced and opened a law office in the Shaffer Building in downtown Merced.

Although he was new to the area, McCray was politically ambitious. He ran against Andrew R. Schottky for district attorney in 1914. Like McCray, Schottky was a young and ambitious lawyer who had just started a law practice in Merced after graduating from Hastings College of Law.

Both candidates issued statements to the voters in the Merced Evening Sun. Both presented themselves as strong law enforcers who could effectively argue and win jury trials. Despite these similarities, McCray successfully attacked Schottky’s jury trial history and pointed out Schottky’s lack of qualifications for the office of district attorney. McCray defeated Schottky by about 300 votes. The race was largely divided by the county’s geography. McCray beat Schottky in nearly every precinct east of the San Joaquin River and the west side went to Schottky since Schottky grew up in Los Banos.

Although defeated, Schottky was not discouraged. He continued his practice in Merced from 1914 to 1939. He became city attorney for Los Banos from 1931 to 1933 and served two terms in the state senate in the 1930s. He was appointed to the court of appeal and served as associate justice from 1953 to 1964.

McCray’s victory marked the beginning of his life in public office. At the end of his first term, McCray did not run for re-election. Instead, he enlisted in the United States Army. However, he was never sent abroad. After he discharged from the U.S. Army, he returned to Merced, and ran for District Attorney in 1922 and again won.

McCray then settled down to start a family with Mayme Barney, daughter of Charles Barney who had a ranch between today’s Barney Street and Yosemite Parkway. Her brother, Floyd E. Barney, was the owner of The Wardrobe, a clothing store for men, in the Mondo Building. The McCrays had a total of four children.

After his second term in office, McCray returned to private practice briefly before becoming a Justice of the Peace. By 1935, he and his family had moved to a beautiful two-story home on southwest the corner of 22nd and Canal Streets. The house’s original owner was Dr. E. S. O’Brien who had it built around 1898. After McCray passed away, his widow Mayme moved to a smaller house on V Street and the former McCray house was turned into an apartment.

The McCray house was eventually condemned and torn down when the County of Merced purchased the entire block to build a parking lot. All houses on the block from 21st to 22nd and from Canal to M Streets were either torn down like the McCray house or relocated (like the Chamberlain house that I wrote about a couple of years ago). Another interesting and worth mentioning item is the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house which was next to the McCray house on the northwest corner of 21st and Canal Streets. The County purchased the house from Lee War in December 1975 for $38,500. The house was later sold and moved to Whealan Road off Mariposa Way in the Le Grand area.

So going back to the idea of connecting people and places, it is an important to have progress and development, but it is equally important to remember our past and save our memories in form of photos, oral histories, and even trees. Next time you drive by the County parking lot, take a moment and look at Judge McCray’s two palm trees and imagine life in his long-gone house. You may be able to “see” Judge McCray reading court cases and contemplating decisions by the window of his study.

For more history of Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the An Agricultural Centennial: Farm Bureau and Ag Extension exhibit. We are preparing for our annual Christmas tree exhibit for the Open House on December 3 and the tree registration forms are now available in the museum office. For specifics and a registration form, please stop by the office during the regular business hours or call us at 209-723-2401.

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

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