Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

R. Barcroft and Sons Co. — Merced’s first car dealership

Looking east on Main Street near M Street, Merced, circa 1910s. During this time, it was a common and sometimes chaotic scene of horses and cars traveling and sharing the same road.
Looking east on Main Street near M Street, Merced, circa 1910s. During this time, it was a common and sometimes chaotic scene of horses and cars traveling and sharing the same road. Courthouse Museum Collection

The 34th Annual Christmas Open House at the Courthouse Museum on Dec. 2 will be the biggest Christmas tree exhibit ever, as 82 trees decorate all three floors of our historic building.

They are one-of-a-kind with themes from sharing traditions, education, vision, and beliefs to loving your neighbors, animals, family, and country.

This year’s open house will be extra special because Santa and his elf are coming. They will set up a photo “studio” in front of the Courthouse to take pictures with boys and girls who have been good all year long.

Boys and girls: do you know that our historic Courthouse is the most photographed spot in Merced? Do you know that while Santa always travels on his sleigh, the boys and girls who lived in Merced 110 years ago might have used a horse-drawn wagon or a horseless carriage (a.k.a. car) to come to the Courthouse?

In the first two decades of the 20th century, it was a common and sometimes chaotic scene of horses and cars traveling and sharing the same road.

The invention of the automobile was quite a revolution, and it did not take long for a rural community like Merced to have its first car dealership and garage. Rafael Barcroft was a pioneer car seller who opened the first automobile dealership in Merced County.

A native Californian, Barcroft was born in Hornitos in 1856 and educated in the public schools before learning the blacksmith trade. He came to Merced and worked for pioneer blacksmith, William McDonald, in 1878.

Also in Merced was his brother Fredrick Barcroft who was in the hardware business with T. H. Branson in the firm of Barcroft & Branson. Barcroft bought out brother Fredrick’s interest in the firm first and then Branson’s and, in 1887, became the sole owner of the business and continued to operate this business until his retirement in 1934.

After this major takeover, Barcroft, in the next two decades, would expand his hardware and implement business to occupy two locations on the 500 block of Main Street, including the northeast corner of Main and M Streets.

As a shrewd entrepreneur, Barcroft was constantly looking for opportunities to grow his business.

When Reo Motor Car Company’s one-cylinder car came on the market in the spring of 1905, Barcroft became the agent for it. It was said there was only one other Reo dealer in the San Joaquin Valley who handled the same make of car. Instantly, Barcroft also became one of the first automobile dealers in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 1906, Barcroft took in the partnership of his two sons, Frank and William, and became known as R. Barcroft and Sons. With new investment and greater business ambitions, the Barcrofts continued to develop their hardware and automobile businesses.

The hardware store at 525 W. Main St. was remodeled with an attractive window display that showcased every housewife’s dream kitchen. When it comes to car selections, the Barcrofts brought in the latest models of Reo, Studebaker, Buick, and Chevrolet to Merced. Barcroft’s own daughter-in-law, wife of William, was a car enthusiast herself.

She was featured in the San Francisco Call dated Jan. 26, 1910 with a photo of her driving under the headline, “Woman Motor Enthusiast Drives Her Own Overland Automobile.”

Mrs. William Barcroft made an impression because she was able to drive before California women were granted the right to vote. In order to maintain the vehicles they sold, Barcroft and his sons built a state-of-art garage made out of corrugated iron with a cement floor and equipped with a repair department and machine shop.

They hired some of the best automotive experts including Charles Lounsbury. Lounsbury worked in the automotive business in San Francisco for about 10 years before coming to Merced and taking charge of the Barcroft Garage in 1910.

He eventually purchased the garage business from R. Barcroft and Sons and went into partnership first with C. Jones and later with Richard Shaffer. This would eventually lead to the establishment of Lounsbury & Shaffer. Meanwhile, the Barcrofts continued to operate their hardware store after selling its garage business to Lounsbury.

They soon built a new garage and continued selling and repairing cars at their new location at 349-351 W. Main St..

Rafael Barcroft was not only a pioneer auto dealer and a successful merchant, but also a very civic-minded citizen. He was elected and served as a member of the City Trustees from 1892 to 1904 and again from 1914 to 1922.

He was elected as mayor by the members of the board in 1914 and led a delegation to the Merced-Mariposa Day celebration during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. It is a tragic irony that Barcroft’s death was indirectly the result of a car accident.

In 1934, Barcroft was in an automobile accident in which he sustained major injuries. These injuries were the suspected cause of his stroke that led to his bed confinement the next five years until his death on Feb. 23, 1939.

The history of cars in Merced is the theme of Merced County Historical Society’s 2019 calendar. A limited quantity will be available for sale at the Christmas Open House.

This is another reason that you should join us on Dec. 2. At the open house, we will serve treats and traditional Courthouse eggnog.

Live entertainment will be performed by the following groups starting at 1 p.m.: Central Presbyterian Church Handbell Choir, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School Christmas Choir, Harmony Valley Chorus, Caitlin’s Suzuki Violin Studio, Bear Creek Ukulele Society, and Cruikshank Middle School Jazz Band.

The event is free to the public and the Courthouse Museum is located at 21st and N Streets, Merced.