A Colorful Past
Some of the information that follows comes from the compilation book titled, "Yesterdays of Chowchilla" last published in 1991 by the then Chowchilla Historical Society. The book has not been updated since then, and known copies exist at the public library, chamber of commerce office, city hall, and perhaps other locations. It is unknown if copies of the book can be obtained from any source. As possible, this page will be updated with additional reference information and web links.
Founding of Chowchilla
Chowchilla’s colorful past began in the spring of 1844 when John Fremont and his party were making their way across what is now Madera County.
In Fremont’s memoirs, we find the following recording: "Continuing along we came upon broad and deeply-worn trails which had been freshly traveled by large bands of horses, apparently coming from the San Joaquin Valley. But we heard enough to know that they came from the settlements on the coast. These and indications from horse bones dragged about by wild animals - wolves or bears - warned us that we were approaching the villages of Horse-thief Indians, a party of whom had just returned from a successful raid." This brief mention of the "Horse-thief Indians" gives us an introduction through the eyes of the white man, of the early inhabitants of the Chowchilla area.
The Chowchilla Indians lived along the several channels of the Chowchilla River in the plains region of Central California. According to one authority, the Chowchilla tribe may well have been a very populous tribe. At least we know they were a warlike one, and the name Chowchilla was a byword for bravery to the southernmost end of Yokuts territory in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.
The growth of the Chowchilla area and subsequent development of the town does not need such fiction to make a thrilling but true story. From the days of the "Killer Indians" and the struggles of the early pioneering families to the dreams of O. A. Robertson, we have all the color and romance a student of history needs.
Orlando Alison Robertson
Mr. Orlando Alison Robertson was born in Prosperity, Pennsylvania, on August 18, 1858. Having lost his mother when only a small child, he was raised by an aunt on a farm near the place of his birth. By thrift and hard work, he managed to secure an education, finally graduating from the California Normal School at California, Pennsylvania.
Not long after Mr. Robertson graduated from college, he married Miss Frances Mackey of Pittsburgh. They moved soon after to Campbell, Minnesota, where Robertson taught public school. He also engaged in farming and real estate. In time, he became the County Superintendent of Schools in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota.
Robertson saw the possibilities in land speculation and gathered the financial backing of several men in the community. He began to buy large tracts of Northern Pacific Railroad land at ninety-nine cents an acre. This group of men was called the First Minnesota Land and Colonization Company, and altogether they purchased over a million acres of land in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, California, and in two of the three provinces of Canada. They also purchased extensive coal mining properties in England and had lumbering interests in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Around 1910, Robertson became interested in land development in California. It was during that year he organized the United States Farm Land Company. He established a general office in Sacramento and maintained offices in Winnipeg, St. Paul and Denver.
At the time Robertson became interested in the Chowchilla area, he was estimated to be worth over four million dollars. Those who knew him described him as a man of compelling personality and boundless energy. Though he was a man of sound integrity, he was also something of a philosopher and dreamer. Robertson believed that Chowchilla was ready for immediate development and held ambitious hopes for transforming the land into prosperous farms owned by happy people. He put all his money into the Chowchilla venture against the advice of his financial counselors, and, as we shall see, it cost him heavily.
On May 22, 1912, Robertson purchased the Chowchilla Ranch from the California Pastoral and Agricultural Company Ltd. Over half of this ranch was divided into tracts for sale to farmers, and the northeast corner of the property was set aside for the site of the town, which became known as Chowchilla.
Robertson’s ambitious plans were soon carried out. Surveys were completed, and maps were made. Streets in the townsite and about 300 miles of country roads were opened. This included the 12-mile palm tree-lined Robertson Boulevard. A large hotel and office buildings were erected. Soon, a town water system was put into operation, and streetlights were put up. Later, some 12 miles of railroad (now abandoned) was laid in connection with the Southern Pacific Line. The purpose of the railroad was to aid settlers and expedite the new colonizing efforts.
October 15, 1912, was the date set for the grand opening of the colonization project. An extensive advertising program had been conducted, and on that date, some 4,000 people responded to the invitation to look over the new land, see the rodeo and partake of the free barbecue lunch at noon. The day was hot and dry, and according to those present, the beans were salty, causing many to drift to Tom’s Saloon at Minturn (six miles north) to slack their thirst. October 15, 1912, is still remembered as the day Minturn went dry.
In 1917, Louis Swift, a Chicago packer, and Robertson purchased the Western Meat Ranch, which was roughly 40,000 acres of adjoining property. It has since then been operated as a cattle and farming operation under different managements. Then in 1919, Robertson purchased 26,000 acres of the Old Bliss Ranch. The land was again subdivided and sold in small tracts.
Robertson had much of his money tied up in extensive land speculation ventures. When the country began to experience the recession and subsequent Great Depression of the late ’20s and early ’30s, he became more and more pressed for funds. When Robertson passed away on May 23, 1933, he had lost his vast fortune and died practically penniless.
Though Chowchilla lies in the center of California and beside the main lines of the Southern Pacific, it was not the outgrowth of a geographic or economic need. It was, in fact, the result of the thinking and planning of one man: O. A. Robertson. The Chowchilla colonization project was not unique in California’s history. Other small communities such as Kerman, Wasco, Shafter, Patterson, Oakdale, and Laguna de Tache were all the products of such private land company efforts. But taken collectively, they are a part of a unique story; the story of a group of farsighted real estate promoters who saw the future and agricultural productivity of this Valley.