Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Merced: City on the Rise

Diagonal parking on 17th Street (Main Street), pictured here, became a thing of the past when Merced City Council instituted parallel street parking in downtown Merced on May 25, 1958. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
Diagonal parking on 17th Street (Main Street), pictured here, became a thing of the past when Merced City Council instituted parallel street parking in downtown Merced on May 25, 1958. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

Nowadays, the popular city slogan is “Merced is a city on the rise,” which is a catchy and clever way to coin the changes taking place in our historic town. Old-timers will remember that they witnessed another “renaissance” (borrowing the term used by Mayor Mike Murphy) back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Modern day street parking was actually one of the top 10 news stories of 1958. According to the Merced Sun-Star (December 31, 1958), Merced City Council instituted parallel street parking in downtown Merced on May 25 after years of debate. As parking ranked the second biggest story of 1958, the construction of the new jail as well as Mercy Hospital were fourth and fifth place respectively. Merced County Board of Supervisors allocated $315,000 for the construction of the first wing of a new county jail. This marked the end of the Bastille (the name for the old jail). The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Mercy Hospital on Bear Creek took place on July 14.

What did not make it to the Sun-Star’s Top 10 Lists was the Blue Notes going to Hollywood. The Blue Notes music group was formed in 1957 at Merced High School because the school needed a band for assemblies. The original lineup was Kenny Craig (guitar), Roddy Jackson (keyboard), Buddy Wiggins (drums), Gilbert Fraire (bass), and James Burkes (saxophone). Fire Chief George Coolures was the manager. Their first performance was at the American Legion Hall in Merced. The group went to Hollywood for an audition in 1958, but Specialty Records only wanted to sign with Roddy.

Merced was very culturally-minded in the 1950s. In addition to the Blue Notes, there was the Merced Concert Orchestra (the predecessor of the Merced Symphony). In 1958, Vern Taylor, who placed an ad in the Merced Sun-Star, invited local musicians to start a music group. Present at the meeting, in addition to Taylor, were Lorraine Stribling, Morton Moruv, and Marilyn Rummel. Since Taylor was a jazz musician, he soon lost interest in forming a concert orchestra. Lorraine Stribling (Murphy) took over and became the first president. The original 25 musicians included Warren Lewis, Caryl Wayne, and Gilbert Barboza, and Richard B. Lewis was the first conductor.

While the adults were busy improving the cultural life in Merced, youngsters wasted no time enjoying their teen years cruising up and down 17th and 16th Streets, the “Drag.” Vernon’s Drive-In on R and 16th Streets was located at one end of the “Drag” and Cecil’s Golden Chicken (formally Hap’s Drive-In) on G and 17th Streets was at the other end of the “Drag.” These two restaurants were the favorites of the young crowd on Friday and Saturday nights in the 1950s and 1960s. Vernon’s Drive-In was owned and operated by Vernon and Madeline Smith. Cecil’s Golden Chicken was owned and operated by Cecil and Emogene Stromming. Vernon’s has been demolished and is now the site of a Walgreen Drug Store, and the Bar-B-Q Pit Restaurant with its famous pig has replaced Cecil’s Golden Chicken.

It was not just the seemingly endless summer nights that excited the young people. When the fall semester started in September 1959, 660 students (without a senior class) could not contain their excitement about attending classes on the brand new campus, El Capitan High School. Just a week earlier, the cornerstone of this new campus was installed with fanfare on Sept. 3. Its twin campus was the Atwater High School that was completed a year earlier. El Capitan High School used the same architect, Henry DuPertuis.

While Merced was making progress with the construction of a new high school, it was also experiencing the destruction of Chinatown located on 14th Street between K and M Streets. Chinese immigrants started their community in Merced as early as the 1870s when they were recruited to build the Central Pacific Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. In 1959, Chinatown was razed to the ground to make way for Highway 99. By this time, the Tea Garden restaurant was one of the last three businesses remaining in Chinatown. While the restaurant was downstairs, a Taoist temple occupied the second floor. The temple’s altar was rescued and is now on permanent display at the Courthouse Museum.

Another development for this city “on the rise” was the completion of the new Mercy Hospital on Bear Creek in 1960. Mercy Hospital has deep roots in Merced. The original Mercy Hospital was built in 1923 on the northeast corner of M and 27th Streets; this private hospital with 20 beds received its first patient in December of that year. A new addition was built in 1936 with 30 more beds. In 1958, because the old Mercy Hospital was overcrowded, a new hospital building on Bear Creek between M and Canal Streets was planned. The community was able to raise $320,000 in cash and pledges in 1957 to match state and federal grants totaling $631,000.

So today, as we eagerly anticipate the completion of the El Capitan Hotel project, the Hotel Tioga renovation, and second phrase of Campus Parkway, we should keep in mind that responsible growth and sensible preservation are not in conflict. Change and tradition are both important elements for the success of “a city on the rise.” As a champion of historic preservation, the Merced County Historical Society will hold its annual Western BBQ/Auction fundraiser at Lake Yosemite on September 11. Tickets are now available for sale at the Museum Gift Shop.

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

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