‘So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us.” – Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Merced is turning 125 this year. Coincidentally, some things made in Merced in the early 20th century have returned home just in time for the celebration Thursday at the Merced County Courthouse Museum. These things left Merced for Fresno more than 60 years ago, then traveled down to Southern California, and eventually relocated to the Bay Area before coming back home.
Guess what they are? They are black and white, fragile, and provide a glimpse of old Merced. To paraphrase Thornton Wilder’s stage manager, from these things we’ll know a few simple facts about Mercedians from a hundred years ago.
The things that have returned home to Merced are glass plate negatives featuring Merced’s people, homes, businesses, and other early 20th century scenes. After bringing this collection back to Merced, I went right to work scanning and identifying them.
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With the modern technology of an Epson scanner, vivid images have been captured from these century-old glass plate negatives. Zooming in on a high-resolution scanned photo of the firehouse and City Hall, one can not only see clearly all the bells and whistles of a steam fire engine known as The Continental, but also count the spots of the dog lying on the ground.
One of the most important and challenging tasks of identifying a photo is its location. For example, a photo of switchboard operators does not give much to work with as to where it was taken. The clock on the counter tells us this photo was taken at 11 o’clock and the way the women are dressed indicates the early 1900s. But was this photo even taken in Merced since none of these women is identifiable?
Manasse Zirker owned and operated the first telephone business in Merced in 1875. Records show his business operated well into the 1900s in his building located on the northwest corner of Front Street (now 16th Street) and Canal Street. It was across the street from the Garibaldi Brothers’ Grocery on the northeast corner of the same intersection. This information was critical in identifying the location of this photo.
Looking closely through the cashier’s window, one will see “LDI,” which appear to be the last three letters of “Garibaldi.” I remember seeing a picture of Garibaldi Brothers’ advertisement painted on the brick wall of their building. Could this photo have been taken from the Zirker building across Canal Street from the Garibaldi Brothers’ Grocery?
My suspicion was further confirmed a few days later when I scanned another plate that shows the front entrance of the telephone company. In this photo, the reflections from its glass window and door show the reversed letters of “GAR” of “Garibaldi” and “BR” of “Brothers.” I also learned the name of the company – Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Co.
Just to be sure, I compared the photos of the Zirker Building from our collection with this telephone company photo. The front elevations matched. So the photo of switchboard operators was taken inside the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Co. in the Zirker Building at 11 a.m. on a clear day in the 1900s.
While the detail in a high-resolution photo helps to identify its location, knowing our local history, no doubt, makes the task much easier.
Here is another good example. Our Boys Saloon was housed in the Pedreira Building constructed in 1903 on the southwest corner of 17th (now Main) and K streets. The clues as to when this picture was taken are plentiful. It was taken after 1903 since the building showed some weathering. Then the windows on the second floor advertise the law offices of F. G. Ostrander and F. W. Henderson, who practiced in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The details of this photo are critical in narrowing down when the photo was taken. With a closer look at the window display of the saloon, a calendar comes into view. Although it is too blurry to read the year, it is a January calendar and the 5th fell on a Sunday that year. When I searched online for Sunday, Jan. 5, in the first two decades of the 20th century, two years popped up –1908 and 1913. Which one was the correct year?
Now, here is the importance of being familiar with local history. Merced’s prohibition movement won an unprecedented victory in the April 1912 election and Merced went dry that same year. Since Our Boys Saloon, as shown in the photo, is in business, this picture must have been taken in 1908. I looked for further evidence to prove that the year was 1908, I studied the photo some more and discovered a flyer among the liquor bottles displayed in the window. Zooming in on the flyer, the text “LEAP YEAR” appears. Guess which year was a leap year? 1908. So the photo was likely taken in January 1908.
Some of these photos are included in the “Celebrating Merced’s 125th Anniversary” exhibit, which will open Thursday at 5 p.m. At the opening reception, a historical narrative entitled “Farewell Castle and Welcome UC Merced,” along with music performed by Fatherly Bond Barbershop Quartet will be presented at 6 p.m. by the courthouse steps. Bring your lawn chairs and enjoy an ice cream social with entertainment and history.
For more information about the exhibit and the opening program, contact the Courthouse Museum at (209) 723-2401.