Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Remembering a Forgotten Memorial

The Harris Memorial on the grounds of John C. Fremont School, 2019. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
The Harris Memorial on the grounds of John C. Fremont School, 2019. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

Several months ago, a friend of mine, Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell, asked me about the story behind a memorial on the grounds of John C. Fremont School, just behind the fence on the northwest corner of 20th and R streets. Etched on the monument is the following: “ERECTED IN MEMORY OF OUR PARENTS RUBEN AND ANNIE HARRIS BY MORRIS AND EVA, 1926.” It caught me by surprise as I knew nothing about this private memorial on a public school playground.

Who were the Harrises? Why was the marker placed at this location? Could this have been the site of the Harris’ property or home? I knew it was impossible to place a private marker here in 1926 because the property belonged to the Yosemite Valley Railroad. Unless, maybe there was a tragic accident involving the Harrises at this intersection and the railroad company felt obliged to allow the family to erect a memorial at this site. Or the memorial was relocated to this site at a later date after the railroad was no longer there.

Ruben Harris was a tailor in Merced. Born in Rypin, Poland, he learned the trade at the age of twelve and apprenticed for seven years. By 1880, according to the federal census, he had already immigrated to the United States, was living in San Francisco, working as a tailor, and had married. Although not reported in the census, his wife’s name was Annie, and they had three children: Daniel, Leah, and Morris.

By 1885, Ruben had moved his family to Merced and started building his business. Soon he gained a good reputation for his merchandise as well as his business acumen. He carried a good selection of suits, overcoats, fabrics, attractive patterns, and the latest fashion styles. Between 1885 and 1914, he moved his business from Canal Street to 17th Street, then to 16th Street before finally settling down at 523 W. 17th Street.

As Ruben’s business grew, so did his family. In 1895 with the birth of a baby girl, Ruben and Annie had six children: Daniel, Leah, Morris, Rachel, Eva, and Naomi. There was an 18-year gap between Daniel and Naomi. All the children must have gone to Merced Grammar School on 22nd Street between M and Canal Streets since that was the only elementary school in Merced before 1908. This is a very important piece of information as Merced Grammar School was later renamed John C. Fremont School.

The Harrises lived at 408 W. 21st Street, according to the 1914 Polk’s Merced City Directory. The last known listing for the Harrises was the year of 1922 when the Polk’s Merced City Directory shows that Ruben lived at the same house with his daughter Naomi. It was unclear if Annie was still alive, but it appeared that most of the Harris children may have left Merced by this time.

After 1922, there was not a trace of the Harris family until the monument came to my attention. I talked to Tom Gaffery who went to John C. Fremont School at the R Street location. He told me, if he remembered correctly, that the monument may have been a drinking fountain, but he was as puzzled as I was how it ended up on the school grounds. He speculated that the monument may have been moved to the current site when the new John C. Fremont School was built in 1952.

As mentioned earlier, Merced Grammar School was renamed John C. Fremont School in the 1920s. In 1952, a new Fremont School was built at 22nd and R Streets and replaced the original Fremont School on 22nd and M Streets. The Merced County Administration Building now occupies the site of the original Fremont School. If Tom’s theory is correct, the monument/drinking fountain was moved here from the old M Street campus.

The search for verification began, and we had the perfect volunteer for the job – Jeff Chiesa. Jeff works at John C. Fremont School and often monitors the playground during recess. So several months ago, he began to come to the museum during his lunch hour to look at the old newspapers for clues about the Harris monument. He initially found a very small piece of information which confirmed our suspicion that Ruben Harris may have moved out of Merced before his death since his real estate in Merced was up for sale in the Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland in 1926.

Unfortunately, this information did not give us the answer we were looking for. Just a couple of weeks ago, Jeff’s hard work finally paid off when he found the following write-up in the April 19, 1927 Merced Sun-Star, “A memorial foundation has been erected at the John C. Fremont school by Morris Harris and Miss [sic] Eva Harris Phillips of the Ruben Harris estate. Morris Harris and Eva Harris Phillips are children of Ruben Harris.”

So, mystery solved. The monument was indeed at the old Fremont School and was moved to the current location when the new campus was built. As for the reason for choosing the Fremont School site over the others, it is likely that the school was the Harris children’s alma mater.

For more history about Merced County, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Our “The Originals of Yosemite” exhibit is on display until June 9.

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