The ground surface is so nearly level that you have no sense of contour. . . . It is not a former lake, although in large part it is a former swamp. Geology characteristically repeats itself around the world and down through time, but---with the possible exceptions of the Chilean Longitudinal Valley and the Dalbandin Trough in Pakistan---the Great Central Valley of California has no counterpart on this planet.

~ John McPhee, Assembling California

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Mary Bartlett Manuscript

This photo from Mary Bartlett’s diary shows her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Danks, surrounded by the bounty of the "HARVEST" on their Kearney Avenue Ranch, circa 1908. Fresno Historical Society Archives

EXCERPT — KEARNEY AVENUE

This unpublished reminiscense is presented unedited. Mary Bartlett's spelling and word usage is unchanged.

My grandfather, Charles H. Danks, came to Fresno in 1903 when his health dictated that he forsake the rigors of the middle western climate and the demands of his work as superintendent of a steel mill in Picqua, Ohio.

In 1906 he purchased 5 acres of land on the north side of Kearney Avenue, midway between Teilman and West Avenues, paying Mr. W. F. Chandler the sum of $250 for the property. How he happened to hit upon this particular area I am not sure. Although he was born and bred in the big city complexes of Cincinatti and Chicago, he probably yearned for land of his own on which he could have a share in this new and highly publicized Garden of Eden that was California. Since he was anything but a status seeker, I doubt the he was lured to Kearney Avenue by the promise that he would be living in an elegant and fashionable residence area; if this was his reason, he was certainly doomed to disappointment, for after a brief spurt of popularity the Avenue languished over the years as the city of Fresno grew east instead of west and resisted the social barrier of the railroad tracks of the Southern Pacific. Likewise, if grandfather counted on his “residential vineyard” supporting him in his declining years, he was also in for a surprise, for he and all the rest of us were destined to support it for as many years as it remained in the family…about 35 in all.

Providentially, my grandfather was always completely satisfied with his purchase and was stubbornly proud of his land and the house and buildings he put upon it and of the growing things with which his acres abounded. It did not concern him that the land actually decreased in value as the years went by, for he had no intention of selling it. Between 1914 and 1937 the assessed valuation of the land shrank from $1,000 to $500 on the same five acre plot, even though its vines and tree continued to produce fruit in such magnificent quality and quantity to make us all thoroughly sick of the sight of it. And certainly no one was disposed to buy any of it in those Depression days. Grandfather, back in 1906, was so entranced with the remarkable fertility of his land that he planted everything he had ever heard of and a few things he had not. Everything grew apace, nurtured by the rich black loam and irrigated with water that lay so close below the surface that turning a few spadefuls of earth uncovered its presence.

Judging by the proud photographs of his “Harvest”, my grandfather Danks was intent on rivalling in his own homely way the horticultural efforts of M. Theodore Kearney, his distinguished neighbor. Peacocks and swans he had not, but everything that would take root was there on that little five acre plot. He started with pumpkins, watermelon, squash, corn, and tomatoes and by the time the young vineyard was at the bearing stage he also had several varieties of peaches, apricots, plums, oranges, lemons, tangerines, kumquats, loquats, quince, crabapples, almonds, pmegrantes, walnuts, cherries, artichokes and his great pride and joy….a whole row of olive trees which in no time at all were more fruitful than the ancient branches of Tuscany. My grandfather was a serious man, not given to practical jokes, but he never got over the joy of offering some newcomer from the Eastern states a ripe uncured olive straight from the tree.

My grandfather maintained a much more successful relationship with machinery than he did with animals or even people. Although I was a very small girl when the change occurred, I was conscious of grandpa’s relief when a decrepit spike wheeled tractor supplanted the two ill tempered mares that my father and grandfather used to pull the plough, disc, and light cultivator they used in their weekend farming bouts in the vineyard. Grandpa always disliked Belle and Topsy intensely, and they apparently returned the feeling, for they invariably refused to do his bidding and kicked or even bit him whenever he got within reach.

If the tractor was a joy to Grandpa, it was not entirely one to my father, whose frail physique was unsuited to guiding the plough or cultivator behind Grandpa’s brisk progress between the rows. Once he had coaxed its balky engine into action, the old gentleman was prone to take off down the furrow without a backward glance at my father clinging desperately to the plough handle, bouncing along with his feet barely touching the ground and unable to make grandfather hear his shouted pleas of “Slow Down!” over the din of the Fordson. Small wonder that years of this part-time agriculture left a legacy of dislike for “county living” for a couple of generations to come!

I suppose some minor income occasionally derived from the “ranch” as it was grandiosely known. But if a 1922 check from the California Peach and Fig Growers in the amount of $11.15 is any indication, it was a good thing my grandfather was skilled machinist and prepared to supplement his “ranching” by working for a good many years at the Valley Foundry and Machine Works, then located on H Street.

Of course the thing that redeemed the little “ranch” from the common place was the Avenue. Kearney was not known as a Boulevard in its early days, or even as late as the thirties when I last lived there, for “Boulevard” was considered rather an upstage word, reserved for the “Swells.” All of Fresno was rather slow in overcoming a sturdy pioneer aversion to the term. Huntington Boulevard and later Van Ness were finally accepted, but Kearney never quite made it. Kearney was a beautiful Avenue, then as now, and perhaps even more beautiful when neglect and public disregard for safety allowed its great Eucalyptus branches to bend and meet over the center of the avenue proper and permitted the shabby fronds of the stout palm trees to accumulate in dusty undisturbed layers year after year. The pink and white oleanders that separated the avenue from the quiet side roads that paralleled it on either side were interspersed with untidy clumps of Pampas Grass whose feathery plumes always fascinated me as a small girl, possibly because I was sternly warned never to go near the Pampas bushes because tramps slept in them.

In 1906 the trees must have been already sizable as they were in 1911 when a commemorative postcard was published in what seems to have been a joint effort of the Southern Pacific and Sunset Magazine to lure new residents to California….with Kearney Avenue a prime point of interest. My mother could remember it when its only traffic included the riding horses, surreys and buggies of the few residents or occasional visitors. For a brief period of time life was made more exciting by the spectacle of M. Theodore Kearney himself riding by on his way to town esconsed in a handsome open brougham drawn by a spirited pair of matched bays.

My own first recollections of the Avenue in about 1920 hold no such romantic episodes as the passage of open broughams or clattering horsemen and women. Newcomers to Fresno, even those lured by the Southern Pacific’s postcard depiction the glories of the tree lined avenue, took one look at the geography of the town which by now had placed Kearney Avenue squarely on the “wrong side of the tracks”…..and promptly bought land north or east of town instead. Few houses were built, and among them I remember only a couple of square two story buildings, buff colored and white, belonging to the Sheidts and Teilmans respectively, and the cluster of farm buildings that made up the Bidegary ranch. All of these seemed enormous, but of course it was only my small girl’s memory that made them so and they have long since vanished, forever safe from being diminished by a later look. In 1920 almost no one wanted to build a house on a five acre bit of fertile land less than two miles from the center of town….in the wrong direction.

The side road was also used as a detour during infrequent sessions of pruning the Eucalyptus trees. This operation was accomplished by Fresno County authorities in a grand manner with all the pruing done at once and no great attempt made to clear away the sea of branches until all the cutting was done. I always begged to be allowed to play in the forest of cut branches but was invariably forbidden, either because of the ever present threat of those mythical “tramps” or the great likelihood of my breaking an arm or leg falling through the brittle branches. I hung around close to the heels of my father and grandfather when they went out to retrieve a few choice logs for the fireplace, however, and I can still smell the pungent scent of the leaves that were bruised in falling, and remember the smooth touch of tree limbs after they had shed their brown dry curls of bark.

Last Updated Wednesday, October 01, 2014 - 09:17 PM.