Let’s Talk Clovis: Cattle, water and Colonies

By Peg Bos, Clovis Museum

When mining for gold became too laborious and unprofitable in the early 1850’s, pioneers turned to the vast open range for their next venture. “Squatter’s Rights” and land that could be purchased from the government for less that $2.50 per acre provided new opportunities.

Scores of settlers were migrating through our valley and their need for meat increased the value of beef from four dollars to $35 per head.

Cattle barons soon controlled ranges and became politically influential. One of the first barons in this area, William “Yank” Hazelton, was born in 1825 in New York. He and John A. Patterson were gold miners in Mariposa. They hit “pay dirt” when playing the card game monte which is a form of Spanish poker. They agreed to end their gambling days after winning $20,000.

They arrived near Centerville (located just north of the Kings River) in 1853. An 1891 map identifies Hazelton’s vast holdings that extended from Centerville to the foot hills of the Academy area. Hazelton is buried at Academy Cemetery.

Settlers began to encroach on the vast grazing land of the cattle barons. In 1868, Moses J. Church (born in New York in 1818 and a blacksmith by trade) located on government land about a mile north of Hazelton’s Centerville ranch. Church brought 2,000 sheep to his spread. He was one of the first to raise sheep in Fresno County.

Church was warned to abandon his ranch. His house and corral were destroyed and his life was threatened on many occasions. Church would not be intimidated. His vision was to create open ditches to carry water to the parched land. In 1869, A.Y. Easterby, a wealthy pioneer was one of the first to farm on the dry plains. He hired Church to install an irrigation system. He and Church are considered the “fathers” of Fresno County Irrigation.

Church selected land on the sink of Fancher Creek that was owned by Easterby. Church secured rights to connect Fancher Creek (originates in Watts Valley and is not part of the Kings River) with the Kings River. Sixteen miles of canal would be required to connect with the Easterby Rancho that was bounded by Belmont, Butler, Chestnut and Clovis avenues.

Conflict between the cattlemen, settlers and land developers continued. The California legislature approved the No Fence Law on Feb. 4, 1874. Under the new law, cattlemen did not need to fence in their herds but were held responsible for damage their animals caused. Farmers could charge 25 cents per day per head until strays were claimed by their owners.

Large land owners introduced the Colony system. They divided large sections of land into 320 acre parcels. Their advertising targeted specific states, thus the Nevada Colony, and countries, Holland Colony and Scandinavian Colony. Successful farmers would eventually net $4,000 to $6,000 yearly.

The 1875 Central California Colony was the first colony formed in Fresno County. Bernhard Marks convinced William S. Chapman, a wealthy large land owner, to form the colony which was southwest of present day Fresno. Marks created a grid of streets, Cherry, Elm, Fruitland and Fig. They sold 20-acre lots for $1,000, $150 down and $12.50 per month with no interest.

In 1877 Church, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, founded Temperance Colony which was located south of the Mill Ditch on McKinley between Fowler and Temperance. Purchasers were asked “not to make or sell any intoxicating liquors.” He wanted his colonists to display a high moral character.

The colony was sold out by March, 1878. The Temperance Colony School district was established on June 12, 1878. Names given to the colonies often became the names of school districts and roads i.e. Garfield, Nees, Jefferson, Redbank, Kutner and Wolters.

During a span of 20 years Church defended himself against 200 lawsuits. The cost of those suits exceeded the expense of creating his water ways. He owned 1,000 miles of canals, lateral canals and ditches. He sold his holdings to Dr. E. B. Perrin and associates in 1887.

Cattle and sheep men adjusted to the loss of their large grazing land.

The ranchers, the arrival of canals and colonies provided us a rich heritage.