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Paradise Valley weathered the transition from
cattle raising to "sodbusting" without
the range war popularized in song and film of
the "Old West," but the change from
dry farming to irrigation was not so easy. Interrelated
fiscal and legal problems, each feeding on the
other, were to plague the Modesto Irrigation District
for the next decade and a half.
Except for a single incident reported by the
Modesto Evening News of June 7, 1889, in which
a Modesto Irrigation District attorney "implanted
a blow on Judge Schell’s nasal organ which
caused the claret to flow," there was no
record of violence such as was experienced in
other areas during California’s early days
of irrigation development.
Lines were drawn between the pro-irrigationists,
generally small farmers and city folk whose economic
health depended upon an expanding agricultural
base, and their opponents, primarily the larger
farmers producing vast quantities of grain in
traditional ways. Intense battles between the
two factions were waged in the courts and by the
The large wheat farmers liked things as they
were. They needed no other reason to oppose change.
Professor Elwood Mead, in a comprehensive report
on irrigation in California – U. S. Department
of Agricultural Bulletin 100, published in 1901
– commented on this aversion to change:
Men pride themselves on great undertakings
and on doing what they undertake on a large scale.
Wheat can be grown that way…It is an industry
freed from detail…It has none of the petty
incidents that go with the management of chickens
and pigs, where cows are to be milked, and butter
and eggs marketed, where each month has its duties,
and where there is no time when something does
not need attention.
This sort of farming comes with
high-priced land and a dense population, but it
does not appeal to the imagination like the plowing
of fields so large that turning a single furrow
requires a day’s journey, or the cultivation
of the ground with steam plows and harrows which
require five mule teams to operate them. The cutting,
thrashing and sacking of grain in a single operation
is spectacular as well as effective. In this respect,
it resembles the range cattle business in its
The cowboy on horseback was an
aristocrat; the irrigator on foot was groveling
wretch. In cowboy land, the irrigation ditch has
always been regarded with disfavor because it
is the badge and symbol of a despised occupation.
The same feeling, but in a less degree, has prevailed
in the wheat-growing districts of California for
much the same reason.
That Mead’s evaluation of the aversion
to change was especially true in Paradise Valley
was confirmed personally by George Stoddard, who
was deeply involved in the development of irrigation
in the Modesto area from his arrival here in 1885.
Stoddard, who served first as collector and then
as treasurer of the MID from 1894 until 1943,
made the observation in a 1942 interview with
Benjamin Franklin Rhodes, Jr., who was then preparing
a University of California doctoral thesis.
After the March
7, 1887, signing of Assemblyman Wright’s
California Irrigation Districts Act, the organizers
of the Modesto Irrigation District moved quickly,
but opponents moved even greater speed.
On April 25th,
organizers circulated a petition calling for
formation of the district. Seventy-three property
owners endorsed the proposal. However, 11 days
earlier before any formal move was made to create
a district, opponents were in the field petitioning
against the idea. One hundred six people, representing
farms from eight to 3,720 acres in size that
averaged between 400 and 500 acres per farm,
signed the opposing petition dated April 14,
1887. The largest farm was that of Christopher
Columbus Baker, who was to lead the opposition
for nearly 15 years, even while serving 11 years
on the district’s
board of directors.
Baker and another
person whose name was to become synonymous with
litigation in opposition to the district, William
Tregea, were prominent in the formal hearings
held before the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
Tregea, a Modesto harness maker whose trade allied
him closely with owners of large farms, apparently
foresaw the strong support which city voters
would give to formation of the district. He thus
made a strong appeal for its exclusion on the
ground that city property would not benefit from
irrigation as required for inclusion by the Wright
Act. Countering Tregea’s contention was a formal request
from the Modesto Town Council that the city be
included. This issue was to become the basis for
litigation which ultimately reached the U. S.
Baker and other opponents contended further that
increased taxes would create unfair burdens without
matching benefits and offered a rather novel contention
that people with mortgaged property were not true
"freeholders" as specified by the Wright
Act. Thus, their names should be stricken from
the organizing petition. To have done so would
have invalidated the petition because many irrigation
supporters were living on and farming mortgaged
These arguments and a challenge to the basic
constitutionality of the Wright Act were to be
the foundation for lawsuits which would not be
resolved until after the turn of the century.
After four days of hearings and a field trip
to view the area proposed for inclusion in the
Modesto Irrigation District, the county supervisors,
in spite of the vigorous opposition, called for
an election on July 9, 1887.
Tregea’s fears proved all too valid. Overwhelming
support by the people of Modesto carried the election
with a favorable vote of 700 to 156, far exceeding
the required two-thirds majority. In creating
divisions for the election of directors to serve
the proposed district, much of the town of Modesto
had been assigned to Division 3. There, the vote
was 526 to 25 in favor of formation. However,
in the Empire division the vote was 42 to 33 against
the proposal and in the farming area north of
Dry Creek the vote was an almost unanimous 37
to 5 opposition. Outside the Modesto area, the
vote in favor of establishing the district was
174 to 131, far short of the required two-thirds.
Not missing any opportunities to upset organization
of the district in case it were to receive voter
approval, opponents put their own slate of candidates
on the ballot. Two were elected, J. W. Davison
from Empire and E. H. Gatlin from the Dry Creek
area. Baker, who sought the directorship in the
Paradise area south and west of Modesto, lost
to irrigation advocate W. H. Finley, 45 to 24.
Eight years later Baker’s son-in-law, W.
W. Carter, unseated Finley, and Baker was elected
to the board in 1897 when the foes of irrigation
Modesto banker and rancher Robert McHenry was
the only candidate the opposition did not contest
and he became the district’s first president.
A. G. Carver, the sailor turned farmer who was
an early advocate of irrigation, was the fifth
member of the district’s first board.
In the contest for district treasurer, Tregea
accumulated 156 votes against 697 for the successful
Isaac Perkins; 522 of Perkins’ votes came
from Modesto. Tregea carried the Dry Creek and
Empire divisions, as did G. T. Hughes and C. M.
Beckwith in unsuccessful bids for the posts of
assessor and collector, respectively.
On July 23rd, the newly-elected Modesto Irrigation
District Board of Directors, without a home of
its own, met for the first time in the offices
of the First National Bank, of which McHenry was
president. The directors set about the novel and
difficult task of organizing an irrigation district,
an effort never before attempted. It was complicated
by a lack of experience and a total lack of funds.
At the same time, opponents convened to plan
their strategy for destroying the district.
A loose organization was formed under the leadership
of Baker, a native of Kentucky who at the age
of 19 had driven an ox team west during the rush
of 1849 and settled on the Tuolumne River west
of the present sight of Modesto, not to seek gold
but to raise sheep.
In the wheat boom that followed, Baker grew grain
on upland property, but continued to raise cattle
and sheep on riverbottom land, some of which flooded
frequently. Baker at one point charged: "Here
they are charging me a high tax for land that
is under water. Do you think I want irrigation
for the frogs down in those swamp lands and ponds?"
The first challenge came in September 1888 when
the Modesto district levied its first property
tax of 33 1/3 cents per $100 assessed valuation
to raise $13,000 for operation of the district,
including the planning of the canal system.
Trega paid his taxes under protest and promptly
sued MID Collector T. O. Owens for recovery of
his $63.16 on the contention that the assessment
had been made illegally without benefit of an
election as required.
The Stanislaus County Superior Court upheld the
validity of the irrigation district’s tax.
Four years later, the California State Supreme
Court reversed that decision, holding that the
Wright Act was so written that elections were
required before tax assessments could be collected.
As a practical matter, putting the assessments
to a vote would appear to have been a foregone
conclusion in view of the overwhelming support
City of Modesto voters gave to creation of the
district and subsequent passage of bond issues.
It was the first opportunity, though, for the
opponents to take the matter to the courts.
The California Supreme Court in 1892 ordered
a new trial in the case, but by that time Tregea
and associates were so involved in a much more
serious legal challenge to the basic constitutionality
of the Wright Act that they failed to follow through
and a new trial was never held. The case and its
subsequent decision proved to be a major hindrance
to the district, however.
While awaiting the decision, the district continued
to levy tax assessments without the benefit of
elections. More and more property owners paid
their taxes under protest, or flatly refused to
pay at all. After the Supreme Court ruling, the
practice took a substantial jump.
By that time, Baker and his colleagues in opposition
had organized formally as the Defense Association,
claiming to represent owners of 70,000 of the
108,000 acres originally included within the district
boundaries. In effect, these were the 156 people
who originally had voted against the district’s
The opponents took to the courts at every opportunity.
Suits were so numerous in those early years of
the Modesto district that George T. MCabe, in
preparing a 1920 Modesto Board of Trade history
of Stanislaus County, wrote, "When one spoke
of irrigation, he usually meant litigation."
Defense Association attorneys won injunction
against the sale of property for delinquent taxes.
Finally in 1895 Stanislaus County Superior Judge
W. O. Minor, himself a delinquent taxpayer, issued
a blanket restraining order forbidding the district
from selling any tax-delinquent lands until the
Tregea vs. Modesto Irrigation District suit and
another basic challenge to the Wright Act, Bradley
vs. Fallbrook Irrigation District, were decided
by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a result of the state Supreme Court’s
1892 ruling, Judge Minor’s injunction and
the depression which hit the nation in 1893 and
1894, the delinquent tax roll for 1895 accounted
for $41,300 of the total $50,648 MID assessment.
Delinquent taxpayers that year and the next included
three members of the MID Board of Directors, the
irrigation district’s attorney, the newly-elected
MID assessor, the prime contractor on building
La Grange Dam and canals, R.W. Gorrill, and, most
notably, the MID treasurer, G.R. Stoddard.
In the interim, Collector Owens refused to turn
over to the board of directors any of the funds
which had been paid under protest. He feared that
if the money were spent, he might personally be
liable for repayment should the courts sustain
This refusal to release funds was behind the
earlier-mentioned altercation between MID attorney
C. A. Stonesifer and Judge O. W. Schell. Stonesifer
alleged that Owens was committing a felony by
withholding funds. Judge Schell disagreed, whereupon,
according to the Modesto Daily Evening News, the
attorney called the judge a liar and attacked
The most significant case of all, which went
all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, was one
started by the district itself.
Throughout the state in the early days of irrigation
district operations, it proved impossible to sell
bonds because of the uncertainty of the constitutional
validity of the fledgling districts and their
yet-to-be established fiscal stability. In March
1889 the first in a series of legislative amendments
to the Wright Act provided for judicial confirmation
of proceedings through which individual districts
were established and their bonds issued.
The Modesto Irrigation District initiated proceedings
on July 31, 1889, to validate its organization
and subsequent bond issues. On the same day the
district reissued and sold $400,000 of the $800,000
in bonds voted a year-and-a half earlier but never
sold for a lack of buyers. Opponents, represented
by Tregea, intervened to fight the validation.
Tregea, challenged the constitutionality of the
Wright Act, the procedures followed in the bond
election and the inclusion of Modesto land as
part of the district.
In November, after hearing the case over a period
of two months, Superior Judge Minor’s decision
promptly appealed by Tregea.
It wasn’t until March 19, 1891, that the
California Supreme Court upheld Judge Minor’s
decision which, as far was that court as concerned,
put to rest all the issues raised by the opponents.
While much of the state court decision was devoted
to technical issues such as whether proper notice
had been given for the Superior Court hearings,
the Supreme Court specifically addressed each
of Tregea’s arguments. In a decision written
by Chief Justice W. H. Beatty, the high court
pointed out that three years earlier it had ruled
that the Wright Act was constitutional and that
irrigation districts were public entities with
the right of assessment and condemnation. This
decision had been handed down when the Turlock
Irrigation District brought a friendly validation
suit against its own secretary, R. M. Williams.
As to the question of whether the city should
have been included in the district, the California
Supreme Court declared in its 1891 Modesto Irrigation
District vs. Tregea decision:
Such as has been the intention of the Legislature,
as is clearly apparent, and it being equally clear
and notorious as a matter of fact that there are
cities not only benefited by irrigation, but actually
have in profitable use extensive systems for irrigating
land within their corporate limits, it cannot
be denied that the Supervisors of Stanislaus County
had the power to determine that the lands comprising
the City of Modesto would be benefited by irrigation
and might be included in an irrigation district.
The court went on to point out that the law provides
that each property owner and taxpayer is entitled
to his fair share of the water and if the land
were not fit for cultivation because the taxpayer
had built a shop on it, that was his problem.
He still had to pay the taxes.
This was a total victory for the district, but
it did not deter Tregea and his colleagues as
they appealed to the federal courts, where initially
they received a favorable decision at the appellate
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in both the Fallbrook
and Tregea cases November 16, 1896: The decisions
once again upheld the validity of the Wright Act
and of the irrigation districts created under
Of special note in the federal Supreme Court
hearings on the Tregea case was the involvement
of San Francisco Judge James A. Waymire, who has
been called the "Savior of the Turlock Irrigation
District." Judge Waymire held a substantial
number of TID bonds and when the Turlock canal
contractor defaulted, Judge Waymire took over
the contract and saw that the work was completed
with the backing of his personal funds.
In the City of Turlock’s lively book about
the development of the Turlock’s lively
book about the development of the Turlock region,
Streams In a Thirsty Land, Helen Hohenthal quotes
Judge Waymire about his involvement in the development
of irrigation in Stanislaus County:
By 1894, strong opposition to the Wright Law
developed and many lawsuits attacking the constitutionality
of the law, the validity of the districts and
their bonds were brought. To make matters worse,
a great wave of financial depression swept over
the world, so affecting values that even wheat
could not be sold for a time in California…Throughout
the state, all irrigation construction ceased
and the Wright Law seemed doomed. Firmly believing
in the soundness of the policy and its ultimate
triumph, I determined to make an effort to vindicate
the principles embodied in the law by making a
success of at least one district. As I held some
of the Turlock bonds and had induced others to
buy, I naturally turned to that district. ©
Judge Waymire had invested heavily in time and
money in insuring the success of the Turlock Irrigation
District when the United States Circuit Court
in ruling on the Tregea case declared the Wright
Act unconstitutional and the bonds issued under
the law invalid.
Miss Hohenthal recounts what happened next:
Judge Waymire studied the federal court’s
decision carefully and decided to carry the case
to the United States Supreme Court where he hoped
to receive a favorable decision. The bondholders
of the different districts raised the money to
pay the expenses of the case, leaving to Judge
Waymire the choice of legal counsel. And well
did he choose them.
To handle the case at Washington, he chose Hon.
John M. Dillon of New York, ex-judge of the United
States Circuit Court, and Hon. A. H. Rhodes, ex-chief
justice of California. Before the case went to
trial, Judge Waymire had, in the course of a friendly
visit with Associate Supreme Court Justice Field,
at the justice’s own suggestion, discussed
the case with him. He suggested that Judge Waymire
also secure the counsel of Joseph H. Choate, prominent
New York lawyer. Justice Field, in recommending
Choate, said the latter "had a pleasing way
of presenting his cases and the judges like to
(It should be noted here that when the decision
was issued, Justice Field’s was one of two
dissenting votes. Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller’s
was the other.)
Waymire wired Choate, but found he had already
been retained by George H. Maxwell, leader of
the opposition, for the sum of $10,000. The next
step of the story is best related by Judge Waymire
"It seemed highly important to find a match
for the eminent New Yorker. Finally, I thought
of Hon. Benjamin Harrison, ex-President of the
United States. He was the equal of any man as
a lawyer, his personality would certainly be as
interesting and impressive as that of Mr. Choate,
and the fact he had appointed three of the judges
would do no harm. Fortunately, I had a personal
acquaintance with the general. A letter explaining
the nature of the case and offering a retainer
met with a favorable response." ©
Also deeply involved in the case before the Supreme
Court was the author of the basic law, C. C. Wright,
often referred to as the "Father of Irrigation
The basic issue decided by the highest court
of the land was that the use of water for irrigation
was a public use and as such the districts had
the right to levy assessments.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision should have ended
the district’s troubles, but that was not
No sooner had the Supreme Court ruled in favor
of the Modesto district and the Wright Act than
the anti-irrigationists attacked from another
direction: a scheme to sell to private sources
not only the Modesto district but also the Turlock
The idea was to give the bondholders all the
completed works, including La Grange Dam and canals,
and acquired right-of-way in exchange for the
release of the bonds. A decade of hassle had taken
its toll and even supporters of irrigation considered
the idea worthy of investigation.
Barely a month after the Supreme Court decision,
a taxpayers’ meeting was held to advance
the sale proposal. A committee of Frank A. Cressey,
James Johnson, J. W. Davidson, Hiram Hughson and
Baker was named to explore with the bondholders
their reaction to the proposal. Cressey, Johnson
and Davison were pro-irrigation, the others well
Contractor Gorrill, who had received a substantial
number of bonds in exchange for construction work
on La Grange Dam and MID canals, replied that
the bondholders were receptive to the suggestion.
He stipulated, however, that all debts other than
the bonds must be paid before any transaction
was consummated and each district must guarantee
that a minimum of 15,000 acres would accept water
at a price of $2.50 per acre per year.
The 15,000-acre guarantee proved to be the stumble
block. This constituted more than 20 percent of
all of the Modesto Irrigation District where farmers,
once burned by a decade of waiting for water that
never came, were not willing to guarantee anything
As Cressey, acting as secretary of the committee,
wrote Gorrill on January 5, 1897: "The land
is not in a condition to receive the water and
at present our farmers are in such a condition
financially that they have not the necessary funds
to put it in shape to receive the waters."
Although Cressey indicated a willingness to continue
discussions, there apparently was no great enthusiasm
on the part of the farmers to follow through on
the terms set forth by the bondholders nor interest
of the bondholders to compromise on these terms.
Shortly thereafter, the opponents of irrigation
took even more direct action. Apathy caused by
years of waiting for water with none in sight
caused low-voter turnouts at district elections;
anti-irrigationists capitalized on it to capture
control of the board of directors.
The district’s leading foe, Baker, won
a seat on the board in the February 1897 election,
joining his son-in-law, W. W. Carter, who had
been elected two years earlier. With anti-irrigationists
B. P. Hogin elected to represent the Empire district
in 1897, the opposition now had a majority. The
two surviving irrigationists were F. C. Davis,
who was elected to represent the Modesto division,
The board refused to take any action toward completing
the canal network, to levy taxes or to do anything
positive. Carter, who believed in irrigation when
not under his father-in-law’s influence,
and Cressey resigned. This permitted the Stanislaus
County Board of Supervisors to fill the vacancies.
Appointed were two ardent anti-irrigationists
from the Defense Association, L. A. Finney and
The Defense Association was in complete control
then and, starting in 1897, all operations came
to a halt. Such was the disdain the board had
for the district that in October of that year
it rented out the front part of its offices for
For the years 1897, 1898, 1899 and 1900, no tax
assessments were levied. Under the terms of the
irrigation law, the Stanislaus County Board of
Supervisors was required to levy taxes if the
district board failed to do so. By a 4-1 vote,
the supervisors, who had appointed two ardent
anti-irrigationists to the MID board, refused
to make the assessment, using the same argument
as did the foes of irrigation serving on the irrigation
board; that the Wright Act was unconstitutional
and the Modesto district was not formed legally.
Irrigation supporters hoped the supervisors refusal
would force the bondholders to act to collect
their interest. That proved to be the case in
1899. George Herring of England was chosen to
represent the bondholders so that the matter could
be tried in the federal courts. In June the following
year, the U. S. Circuit Court in San Francisco
ordered the district to pay Herring $17,921.25
in interest due.
Still the MID board refused to levy taxes.
Too impatient to let the district die a slow
death by fiscal strangulation, the anti-irrigation
board on May 3, 1898 urged the start of new legal
proceedings to dissolve the district. R. J. McKimmon,
an ardent opponent of irrigation who had served
on the MID board from 1890 to 1895, brought suit
to accomplish this.
With Davis, the only irrigationist remaining
on the board, voting against the resolution, the
board of directors voted not to defend itself
in the case.
Judge James E. Prewitt, assigned to the Stanislaus
court from Placer County to hear the matter, ruled
in favor of dissolution of the district, stating
that he was doing so only to bring the matter
to a final California Supreme Court resolution
as soon as possible. The higher court ruling favoring
the continuation of the district did not come,
however, until 1902. By that time, the opponents
had gone too far in their efforts to kill the
district and had lost control of its board.
The end of the opposition’s control came
In 1900, the Stanislaus County Board of Trade,
composed primarily of Modesto businessmen, was
formed to fight for irrigation.
There were no provisions for the recall of elected
officials in those days, but an attempt was made
to have the courts remove Baker as an MID director.
A civil "accusation" suit was filed
in the Stanislaus County Superior Court by J.
F. Kerr, supported by a long list of pro-irrigationists.
Baker, as a member of the MID Board of Directors,
was accused of "corruptly" refusing
to act on any of the pressing matters facing the
district. The action was dismissed, not on the
issues but on the technicality that the suit was
not properly taken.
The beginning of the end came January 2, 1901,
when the lone irrigation supporter remaining on
the board, Modesto’s Director Davis, moved
to call the regular election for that year. His
motion died for lack of a second.
Ten days later, irrigation supporter R. C. Bailey
asked the Stanislaus County Superior Court to
mandate the calling of an election. Judge William
G. Lorigan of Santa Clara County was brought in
to hear the case.
The Defense Association attorneys, Judge Van
R. Patterson of San Francisco and C. W. Eastin
of Modesto, were prepared to wage a long delaying
action, but Judge Lorigan set the trial for the
following Saturday morning, January 19th, with
the declaration that it would be completed that
very day. By 4 o’clock that afternoon, the
trial was over. Judge Lorigan ordered the MID
board to meet the following Monday and schedule
the regular February election. After a heated
debate, the MID board complied with the order
and called the election.
On February 6, 1901, the back of the opposition
was broken. Three new directors, all strong supporters
of completing the system and moving forward with
the operation of the district, were elected. T.
K. Beard defeated anti-irrigationist A. F. Underwood,
24 to 11, in Division 1. Underwood was so angered
by the development that he sold his land for $20
an acre and moved to Santa Cruz, according to
historian Sol Elias. W. R. High defeated Adams,
271 to 32, in Division 2. Davis was not opposed
in his bid for re-election and Baker was re-elected
by a narrow margin of 25 to 23. Finney’s
term had another two years to run.
Finney remained on the board until 1907 and Baker
until 1908, but their days of opposition were
over and the district moved ahead to completion
and the delivery of water that had been promised
so many years earlier.