Last year around this time I was asked to write some blog posts for Fresno Historical Society that would be published on their website. I wrote the posts but nothing was ever done with them. Since it’s been a year, I think they deserve the light of day so I am publishing them on my own blog.
It takes water
Driving through the park, on my way to the mansion, I see the effects of this current drought. Large patches of lawn have died due to the cutbacks in watering. The hot summer days have scorched the park. Trees have lost limbs to the high temperatures and lack of water. Some losses are so severe that the trees must be cut down. That’s happened up by the servant’s quarters, a beautiful shade tree lost to the drought.
The land needs water to grow the bounty of food and fiber. It has always been this way, and I wonder, as I gaze out at those parched lawns, what M. Theo Kearney would think of this year’s water situation. The arid and barren wasteland he had first seen when he came to the Valley had taken enterprise, ambition, and water to turn it into such a vibrant garden. He had seen the canal system built and the water brought from the mountain streams and rivers to the valley floor, to the colony’s small farmers, to make the dry land productive. The water, needed to grow the crops, had been a big part of the promotion of the colony expansion.
The land requirement to secure irrigation water in 1871 was a 160-acre minimum at $5 per acre. Bernard Marks, founder of the Central California Colony, came up with an idea to secure the water rights for a large tract of land, break the land into smaller twenty-acre plots as family farms, with each farm sharing the common water delivery. Three colony attempts failed due to the lack of secured irrigation water before the Central California Colony made another attempt. M. Theo Kearney was brought onboard to use his promotional skills to aggressively campaign for land sales. Kearney’s advertising materials told perspective buyers that they would have all the water they needed to irrigate their farm for the cost of sixty-two and a half cents per acre per year. The large lithograph that hangs in the estate office shows a couple walking across a canal full of water.
The canals surveyed and constructed in 1875 are still here. Sixteen feet wide and two feet deep, these are the canals that provided water to the initial settings of grapevines. The water rights were secured from Moses J. Church’s Fresno Canal and Irrigation Company although arguments between Marks, Church, and the colonists lead to early withholding of water. Some of the vines died. Mr. Kearney knew about the importance of water, and yet, he was not pessimistic. He planted a 250-acre park of trees to surround his Estate. This was not uncommon in the colonies. There are many pictures showing homes ringed with trees and shrubs. There was a sense of confidence in the land and its future.
That sense of confidence was demonstrated in M. Theo Kearney’s promotions that he developed for the colonies, first Central California Colony and then Easterby Colony with N.K. Masten, and eventually his own Fruit Vale Estates. He kept a positive and upbeat flow of information on the production of the farms and on social events going to the local newspaper, the Expositor. As with the flow of publicity so was the delivery and flow of water, helping to establish the success of the colony venture.
Back to the present. The lack of rainfall on the Valley floor. The lack of snow in the mountains. Farmland left fallow. Politicians, farmers, environmentalists all fighting about water storage and usage. Scorched lawns and dying trees. I don’t know what Mr. Kearney would say to this current situation, but with his optimism and ability to dream big, he might say to carefully use the water supply we have and to replant the trees so that they will grow tall just like the ones he planted in 1882 when the land was dry and barren. The picture of the chateau still hangs in his office, over his desk, and I believe he would still have his dream of building his castle and living in a beautifully landscaped, well-manicured park.