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For the decade and a half after the delivery
of water to the lands of the Modesto Irrigation
District, growth was phenomenal in every way.
In 1903, even before irrigation water finally
arrived, land prices started to climb. When cattle
dominated Paradise Valley?s agriculture 30 years
earlier, land went begging at $1.25 an acre. Now
it began to sell for $35 or more per acre, and
this was only the beginning. Within a couple of
years when large wheat ranches were divided into
40-acre tracts, they were sold for $100 an acre.
Between 1900 and 1920 land values increased by
549 per cent in Stanislaus County, a pace faster
than in any other county in California.
The long, troubled wait for water after the 1887
creation of the Modesto Irrigation District took
its toll on property values. By the end of the
century, MID assessed valuations were less than
half of what they were 13 years earlier. The recovery
once the water arrived was spectacular. In just
the first year after irrigation began, property
values doubled. By 1915 MID assessed valuations
had increased more than 300 percent, even though
they now were computed only on the value of the
land. Assessed valuations on buildings and other
improvements were ended in 1911.
For tax assessment purposes, the MID fixed the
land values at $80 per acre, a figure which the
Irrigation District Bond Commission a few years
later estimated to be about half the true market
value. For nearly a half century, until irrigation
taxes were canceled outright in 1959, the assessed
value of land was not increased even though property
Although some farmers had helped themselves during
1903 when water first was turned into the main
canal and latrals, the official start of irrigation
came in 1904. Oramil McHenry, who had done so
much to get the district back on its feet; George
Covell, who in 1909 became an MID director, and
T. H. Kewin received the first water.
From the outset it was recognized that earthen
ditches were, at best, subject to erosion and
provided a fine playground for gophers. If disastrous
breaks were to be avoided, constant patrolling
was essential. Thus originated the job of ditchtender.
At first ditchtenders were concerned primarily
with preventing breaks. Dick Funk of Roberts Ferry
was the first MID ditchtender, hired as soon as
water began to flow in the main canal.
At 5 o?clock every morning Funk would mount his
horse and ride down the canal bank for about 10-miles,
cross over and return on the other bank, arriving
home by noon. After lunch and a change of horses,
Funk would ride two miles up the canal to La Grange
Funk?s son, Iver, who succeeded him as ditchtender
in 1949, recalls in the early days of unlined
canals that the hazards were squirrels, gophers
and the 11 troublesome wooden flumes. By the time
Iver Funk retired 1975 ? father and son had served
as MID ditchtenders a total of 71 years ? automobiles,
radios and modern equipment allowed him to patrol
the entire distance from La Grange Dam to Modesto
Reservoir with ease, in much less time and much
It soon became apparent that the ditchtenders
serving irrigated areas had to be more than patrolmen.
They also had to control and allocate the use
The enthusiasm for irrigating was such that some
farmers used as much as 10 acre feet of water,
four times that needed. Many applied water just
to just drown gophers or to settle their newly-leveled
lands. Farmers often helped themselves by raising
gates to let the water flow. Only a few days after
the start of the first irrigation season, things
were so bad that ditchtenders put locks on the
In June, 1904 the board of directors found itself
forced to adopt a stringent set of rules.
Each irrigator would be notified 24 hours in
advance when to start and stop taking water. He
took it or lost it, whether it came night or day.
Irrigating was limited to a maximum of one-and-a-half-hours
per acre of land. The water was to be furnished
in rotation, commencing at the lower end of each
lateral or ditch. Only district personnel were
allowed to open or shut the gates. Violations
resulted in the denial of water. The whole system
and its operation were under the control of a
water superintendent appointed by and responsible
directly to the board of directors.
That wasn?t the only operational problem the
George Hughes of Waterford was hailed into court
in January 1904 for damming the district?s lateral
No. 1. Hughes contended that the district failed
to deliver. When his team got stuck in the mud,
he took matters into his own hands and put a dam
across the canal over which his team could cross
As the large grain farms were broken up into
smaller parcels ? the 2,400 acre Wood ranch, for
instance, in 1904 was divided into family farms
of 30 to 45 acres ? the population of the county
increased by 10 per cent each of the years 1904
The subsequent population growth in the district
is reflected in the rapidly increasing number
of assessment payers during the first 15 years
after the arrival of water. By 1920 there were
4,146 on the assessment rolls, five and a half
times the number when the district organized.
Almost immediately, alfalfa became the dominant
crop. Although specific crop acreage statistics
were not kept by the Modesto district until 1908,it
is generally accepted that dairying was to become
a major factor in the region?s agricultural economy
in that first year of irrigation. Modesto already
had a creamery in operation and alfalfa was a
quick, profitable cash crop to produce.
And Modesto district farmers had the example
of their counterparts in Turlock to follow.
In 1904 the San Francisco Bulletin reported from
Modesto the economic advantages of growing alfalfa,
claiming that as a result of irrigation, 20 acres,
yielding one-and-a-half tons per acre per cutting,
could support 30 cows. Milked by one man earning
a salary of $35 a month, the herd would return
from $4.50 to $7 per cow per month, with all the
skim milk being returned to the dairyman. He fed
this to his hogs and calves, the raising of which
covered his daily operating expenses. The acquisition
of livestock and land and readying it for irrigation
amounted to an estimated $350 per cow, an investment
which could be amortized easily within a few years.
The acreage served by the Modesto district jumped
52 percent in its second year of irrigation with
a total of 10,500 acres receiving water. Another
21 percent gain in irrigated acreage was recorded
for 1906, a year in which many farmers began thinking
about crops other than alfalfa. Stanislaus County
statistics show that 1.5 million grape vines were
set out and another 2 million were planted in
nurseries that year. Also set out were nearly
200,000 fruit and nut trees ? 80,000 peaches,
40,000 apricots, 30,000 figs, 20,000 almonds,
15,000 oranges and 10,000 other types of fruit.
In its first edition of 1907, the Stanislaus
Weekly News looked back on the just-ended year
with great enthusiasm, commenting:
The great wheat fields have been gradually
diminishing for several years but last year
was marked by a wonderful change. Like magic
the wheat fields of a year ago have been transformed
into great vineyards and orchards of fruit of
all kinds, both deciduous and citrus?
The past year has been one of the great activity
in land division; many large tracts have been
subdivided and populated by new people?
One of the most significant results of the
year is the great increase in diversified farming?Orchards
and vineyards now dot every portion of the county,
and are yielding such handsome profits that
some farmers have decided to plant their entire
acreage to fruit.
By 1907 the irrigated acreage had increased to
15,527 acres, two thirds of which were planted
Many vineyards and orchards now were producing,
however, having been planted earlier in anticipation
of the delivery of water and irrigated by various
means, including windmills. A crop pattern which
ultimately would prevail throughout the district
As early as 1902, for instance, McHenry?s Bald
Eagle Ranch was described as including 10,800
French prune trees, 2,500 Adriatic fig trees,
2,000 apricot trees, 72,000 muscatel grape vines
and 4,000 pear, apple, olive, peach, almond and
As these and other orchard and vineyards came
into production, a canning and packing plant was
opened in Modesto in 1908. For the first time,
Paradise Valley?s fruit need not be exported to
other areas for processing.
The Salida Colony, an extensive small farm subdivision
of 30 to 60 acre parcels, was established in 1907
in the northern portion of the Modesto district.
In the winter of 1907- 08, two special rail coaches
traveled throughout the nation displaying fruits
grown in the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts.
They also carried a full complement of real estate
agents promoting small farm and residential developments.
Irrigated acreage increased by 19 percent in
1908 and again 1909. Land sales boomed as local
developers sponsored railroad excursions from
Los Angeles to promote the sale of family farms
in the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts.
The 1,500-acre Paradise ranch five miles west
of Modesto was divided into 40-acre parcels and
sold for $100 per acre. The same thing took place
in 1910 at the 5,000-acre Root Ranch a short distance
east of Modesto.
In 1909, 22,137 acres were irrigated, 16,307
of which were in alfalfa. The following year Stanislaus
County became one of the leading dairy counties
in California. The dairying industry had doubled
in just five years, shading the dominance of wheat,
once the king of crops. The census that year recorded
2,687 farms in Stanislaus County, an increase
of 183 percent over the total 10 years earlier.
The gain in the number of farms throughout the
state in the first decade of the 20th
Century was only 22 percent.
The population of Modesto ? and the county ?
had doubled during the decade and the county seat
was in the midst of a great building boom, installing
sewer systems and even paving some of its streets.
Residents were demanding that the city install
Modesto, which two decades earlier had a Barbary
Coast reputation with such a murder record that
San Francisco papers had reported the town "served
up a man for breakfast every day," developed culture.
A choral society and an orchestra, which a couple
of years later would offer selections from grand
opera, were organized. And there was talk of starting
a free library for the county.
In 1910 the Modesto and Turlock districts were
joined by Modesto?s neighboring Oakdale and South
San Joaquin Irrigation Districts and Fresno County?s
Alta Irrigation Districts Association of California.
Today that organization, now known as the Association
of California Water Agencies, represents more
than 300 districts which are responsible for approximately
85 percent of all water delivered in California
to municipal and industrial consumers as well
as agricultural users.
"Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" became the
theme of Modesto in 1911 when businessmen of the
city installed the steel arch over I Street.
That also was the year in which the Modesto and
Empire Traction Company started operations, connecting
the Santa Fe Railroad line in Empire with the
Southern Pacific tracks in Modesto to provide
better rail access for shipping Modesto?s agricultural
products to all areas of the nation.
A Southern Pacific rail depot was built in Modesto
and the city council was negotiating with Tidewater
Railroad a franchise that would permit Tidewater
to lay tracks along 9th Street.
A 20,000-acre increase in irrigated land was
recorded between 1910 and 1913, again with alfalfa
responsible for virtually all of that gain. By
that time, 41,716 of the 48,269 acres irrigated
were planted to alfalfa.
The late Paul Christian, who for years taught
history at Modesto Junior College and specialized
in the history of the local irrigation district,
described 1913 as the year "when irrigation gained
the upper hand?it was no longer a period of trial
and error." More than half of the tillable land
in the district was under irrigation. The land
served by the MID had increased by 160 percent
during the previous five-year period.
In comparison with today?s high-technology high-investment
farming, a University of California economist
advised in that period that with a capital investment
of $16,000, a farm should gross $4,000 a year,
$2,000 of which would cover operating expenses,
$800 would pay interest on the investment and
the remaining $1,200 would be net income.
Before the end of the decade, Borden?s was to
establish a major plant in Modesto and the Milk
Producers Association, which grew to be one of
the largest dairy cooperatives in the nation,
was organized here.
As the second decade of the 20th Century
ended, Stanislaus County had become the 27th
largest producer of crops and livestock in the
nation. Boasting some 4,000 automobiles, according
to the county assessor?s report, Modesto was the
fastest growing community in the San Joaquin Valley.
Stanislaus County was second only to Los Angeles
County in the pace of growth.
The county seat took great pride in having a
most active Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club,
Progressive Businessmen?s Club, Women?s Improvement
League, five grammar schools and a new high school.
Soon one of California?s first junior colleges
was to open and the city had just voted funds
to develop a "modern aviation landing field."
As Modesto entered the new decade of the 1920s,
the building boom continued with 350 homes under
construction. The Modesto and Empire Traction
Company had developed a 100-acre industrial tract
in the southeast section of town with 35 major
industrial plants and packinghouses. Agriculture-related
industries employed more than 2,000 people in
the city and a new cannery was about to be built
by the Tri/Valley Growers Association.
In 16 years nearly 60,000 Modesto district acres
had been brought into irrigation; barely 6,000
acres were left in grain, which had covered 80,000
acres 20 years earlier. The agricultural economy
had changed from dry farming of wheat on huge
acreages to family farms producing a variety of
products. The district had achieved worldwide
recognition and a procession of foreign agricultural
experts and other visitors began arriving to learn
how it was done.
The opening of the decade of the 1920s was another
turning point for the MID . The transition from
primarily alfalfa to fruit, nut and vine crops,
which already had approximately 20,000 acres in
production, was gaining momentum.
The Modesto Evening News then described
Modesto as having "grown out of the countrytown
class and rapidly approaching the development
of a large California city with a distribution
center paralleled by a few San Joaquin Valley
The Modesto Irrigation District and the Paradise
Valley which it served had reached the age of