Celebrating its 125th year, Merced is a resilient town

The sun sets over Merced and the old County Courthouse on Tuesday. Merced incorporated in 1889 with some 1,500 people living near the 500 acres bounded by 12th, 23rd, H and R streets. The city has grown through surges of migration and despite setbacks such as the Great Recession.
The sun sets over Merced and the old County Courthouse on Tuesday. Merced incorporated in 1889 with some 1,500 people living near the 500 acres bounded by 12th, 23rd, H and R streets. The city has grown through surges of migration and despite setbacks such as the Great Recession. bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

Once a rural settlement and railroad stop, Merced has evolved into a medium-sized Central Valley town through many years of agricultural growth, immigrating laborers and the additions of key economic drivers.

In 1889, Merced was incorporated. About 1,500 people lived near the roughly 500 acres bounded by 12th, 23rd, H and R streets.

At that time, the four-story El Capitan Hotel was the tallest building in the city, but it wasn’t the first. The Merced County Courthouse and Merced Grammar School, which no longer stands, had been around for 14 years.

The hotel stood just off of the railroad and primarily served as a place to stay for tourists who had come to see Yosemite National Park. “Merced was already the ‘Gateway to Yosemite,’ ” said Sarah Lim, Merced County Courthouse Museum director.

Merced’s downtown had seen some development, but was made up largely of dirt roads. Saloons, hotels and brothels peppered 16th Street, and 17th Street was reserved mostly for horse stables.

Chinatown was in the area of 14th Street, modern-day south Merced. Many Chinese immigrants had come to build the railroad.

Merced added the Santa Fe Railroad in 1896. Trains, boats, wagons and horses played a big role in getting people to town, but also to move the biggest commodities – crops.

In the early days of agriculture, Yokuts farmed small plots of land between the native grasses and swamps in the area. Then came Spanish and Mexican cattle ranchers, who primarily sold the animal hides before meat became a booming industry in the region.

“A hide was called a ‘California dollar bill,’ ” said Maxwell Norton, University of California Cooperative Extension adviser.

As Northern Europeans came to the area, the cattle ranches started to move away from raising animals for hides and toward meat production. Wheat was also a popular crop, because the farmers relied completely on rain to water the fields.

Norton said the years after the Gold Rush were important for agriculture in the state, because those seeking their fortune got a glimpse of land ready for planting. Many of them would return to settle with their families.

After the turn of the century, the introduction of cars gave people more freedom to move around. Merced had also started to sell itself as the “Gateway to Yosemite” with a sign that hung over old Highway 99, what is now 16th Street.

In 1910, the first irrigation water was available on the east side of the city. Hundreds of dams would be built along the Sierra Nevada. “That’s what significantly changed the landscape of California,” Norton said.

The intersection of 17th and Canal streets would become the city’s busiest as the population hit 3,100 in 1910.

Many blacks already called Merced home, but the 1920s was a time of heavy migration of blacks to California from the Southern states.

The historic Tioga Hotel was erected in 1928. It would serve as a high-end stop for dignitaries who passed through the city and was the first home of radio station KYOS, Lim said.

Merced was not spared by the Great Depression. Construction stopped and businesses closed. But a number of landmarks were added to the city during that period. The post office, Applegate Park and Lake Yosemite, to name a few, were created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

That program put millions to work in public projects across the country.

The Dust Bowl generated new migration from the Great Plains to California. Merced would grow from 7,600 in 1930 to 10,100 in 1940. The Bracero work program also began to bring large numbers of Mexican farmworkers to the area.

Opening in Atwater in 1942, Castle Air Force Base was a powerful force for Merced’s economy and growth. At more than 1,900 acres just outside Merced, Castle was a sprawling Strategic Air Command base. It was a training facility for the B-52 bomber program, air crews and a launch site for airplanes.

Shirley Kirby, 92, moved to Merced with her husband, William, shortly after the base was built. He was a private in the Air Force and would later open Kirby Manufacturing in 1946 with his brother, Tom.

“It was a very small town at that time,” she said. “I didn’t have a car at that time and walked everywhere.”

She remembers the Ozark Market being the only grocery store in town.

In the 1960s, Merced began expanding further north, beyond Bear Creek, as the population crossed the 20,000 mark. There were then enough people to support the opening of Merced College and Merced Mall.

The redesignation and building of the four-lane version of Highway 99 in 1960 led to changes downtown. City leaders razed the old saloons and brothels on 16th Street in favor of parking lots. They did the same with Chinatown.

The downtown continued to see improvements through the Merced Redevelopment Agency. Much of Bob Hart Square as well as the brick-lain sidewalks upgraded the downtown in the 1970s.

Jim Price spent the last 10 of his 20-year Air Force career at Castle, where he was in charge of fueling the B-52s and other aircraft. “In 1980, it was very, very busy,” the 63-year-old said.

The region took a big blow in 1991, when the military announced Castle would close. It began to wind down, and finally shut its doors in December 1996, when the city’s population was 61,000.

At its height, the base employed 6,000 military personnel and civilians and hosted thousands of families. It was feeding an estimated $105 million in retail sales in Atwater and Merced.

“I think the big deal was the uncertainty,” Price said. “People were scared, really scared, for their futures.”

Price said he remembers many military families packing up and leaving. That had an effect on pockets of Merced such as the Loughborough area, where many of the homes owned by men and women in the service were vacated.

The uncertainty subsided, and Merced continued to grow, reaching 73,600 in 2005.

That same year, UC Merced had its first day of classes. With it came the promise of more growth in the city and greater access to education for young people in the Central Valley.

That excitement hit a snag when the Great Recession came knocking in 2006. The recession and housing market collapse hit Merced County particularly hard. In the city of Merced, the number of new single-family homes built plummeted from 1,427 in 2005 to 17 three years later.

In the summer of 2012, the county’s foreclosure rate was twice as high as the statewide average and three times higher than the nation’s.

The city has begun a slow but steady improvement with many leaders hopeful about what will happen with the expanding university, new interest in the Castle Commerce Center and predictions for more improvements in the regional economy.

Kirby, who has been in the city for about seven decades, notes the changes Merced has gone through and says the people are what keep her here. “It’s a larger city than I thought it would ever be, but a good city,” she said, “I love it here.”