Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Celebrating 100 Years of the Merced Irrigation District

Exchequer Dam Dedication Ceremony, June 23, 1926: (left) spectators on the bottom of the dam by the Merced River observing the lighting of the powerhouse; (right) spectators on the top of the dam looking down. About 1,000 people from Merced and around the State attended the event. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
Exchequer Dam Dedication Ceremony, June 23, 1926: (left) spectators on the bottom of the dam by the Merced River observing the lighting of the powerhouse; (right) spectators on the top of the dam looking down. About 1,000 people from Merced and around the State attended the event. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

Craning her neck from the bank of the rocky gorge of the Merced River, Rose McKerren McCorry of Planada was so excited about this special day that she did not even mind the blazing summer sun and the dense crowd of 1,000 spectators. They gathered for the dedication of Merced Irrigation District’s newly constructed Exchequer Dam and to observe the lighting of its powerhouse by President Calvin Coolidge through a telegraph key from the White House.

It was June 23, 1926, a day that Rose would never forget, according to her daughter Kathleen Crookham.

What a proud moment for the Merced Irrigation District. As a young organization — not even seven years old — MID accomplished so much in a short time, from expanding the irrigation system started by the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company to constructing one of the largest concrete gravity arch dams in the U.S. Such success was a testament to the vision, ingenuity, hard work, and determination of the District leaders, workers, and contractors.

As the District turns 100 this November, the Merced County Courthouse Museum in collaboration with MID will celebrate this milestone with a new exhibit. Opening at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, the exhibit features a history timeline of MID, Jim Cunningham’s photos of our farm landscape, and stories from the community. The following stories of a ditch tender, a chief engineer/manager, and a general manager, in their own words, provide a glimpse of their lives and work with MID and underscore a deep sense of duty and loyalty to the company.

Joseph East, a ditch tender for the District from the early 1920s to the 1940s, was a resident of Snelling. He was responsible for operating the Headgate of the Main Canal, maintaining the canal and the Crocker-Huffman Diversion Dam, and recording water flows and other data. Over the years, he kept a very detailed diary of his work and family life. The following is an excerpt from his diary dated March 2, 1938, about an incident on the Merced River:

“Went up to Headgate, back to town in P.M. Four kids put Paul Hagans’s boat over the dam (Crocker Huffman) and started down river. Their boat swamped opposite Snelling and they were marooned on a small island. One of them swam out. Leslie Halstead tried to take the rest of them off but his motorboat swamped as he hit the island. Another motorboat bro’t (sic) out by the Sheriff was swamped also. The river was cut at Exchequer and a rescue was effected after the boys had been out there quite a time..... Luckily the weather was mild and the rain held off until the last few minutes. The three boys were taken to the hospital in an ambulance.”

Kenneth R. McSwain worked for MID from 1932 to 1976 in various capacities, starting as a rodman, working his way up to chief engineer, and becoming the general manager in 1957. During his tenure, he oversaw the maintenance of physical systems, became the driving force behind the Merced River Development Project, and led the District through the ups and downs of financial and administrative growth. McSwain continued to work as a part-time consultant for the District after his retirement and was commissioned to write the History of the Merced Irrigation District, 1919-1977. He was proud of using Tudor Engineering Company as the project design engineer and construction manager for the building of new dams and reservoirs in the 1960s. He wrote:

“The Tudor Engineering Company received an award for its design of New Exchequer from the Consulting Engineers Council of America and a picture with pertinent data was displayed for exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was also shown at a meeting of the International Congress on Large Dams in Istanbul, Turkey; at that time New Exchequer was the highest rock-fill concrete face dam in the world.”

MID was Jay Anderson’s second career. Before joining the District, he was an accountant for Miles & Sons Trucking. When the Nolet Family, which owned Miles & Sons, wanted to leave the trucking business and get into real estate development, they bought 35 acres on the corner of G Street and Olive Avenue where the College Green Shopping Center is today. Anderson handled selling land for the family and often interacted with George Mack (MID Vice-President), owner of Merced County Title Company. It was during one of those land transactions that Mack offered him a job. In 2006, Anderson recounted the interaction.

“In 1971, I took a deal in there and he said, ‘Aren’t you just about through with College Green?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m just about finished now.’ And he said, ‘Well, our secretary-treasurer at MID is retiring and we’d like you to think about coming over and taking that job.’ He said, ‘McSwain will retire in five years and by that time you should be able to become manager.’ So that’s what happened and I was there 13 years in all; the last eight years as general manager.”

The late Jay Anderson took on a third career as a Courthouse Museum docent in 2003. To learn more stories like these and the history of the District, please join us for a special reception for the opening of the “MID Centennial Celebration” exhibit on Nov. 7. Information: 209-723-2401.

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