Marking centennial celebrations in El Nido and Gustine | The Merced Sun-Star

When William Bedesen drew up the plan for El Nido’s schoolhouse and when Henry Miller agreed to open Cottonwood Switch (Gustine) for a new settlement, little did they envision that their creations would not only remain in existence but continue to thrive a century later.

To Bedesen, El Nido School was just one of the many one-room schoolhouses he had designed over the years that would serve its usefulness until the student population outgrew it. To Miller, the settlement of Gustine was a good way to sell off portions of the Miller and Lux landholdings to appease the German heirs of his business partner Charles Lux.

But to the residents, a town is more than just the brainchild of an architect or a land baron; it is a place they call home, a community where they live and work, and an identity that they proudly carry. These sentiments are expressed in our newest exhibit, “Centennial Celebrations: El Nido Schoolhouse and Gustine City,” which will open at the Courthouse Museum on Thursday.

El Nido, an unincorporated area, was originally part of the Chowchilla Ranch. It was subdivided in 1909 and opened for settlement in 1912. El Nido School District was organized between 1913 and 1914; and the school, designed by Bedesen, was built in 1915. Like many one-room schoolhouses in rural America, El Nido School in addition to being a place for learning was also the center of community activities from plays to meetings. When the new El Nido School was built in 1952, the old schoolhouse continued to be used for grades kindergarten to third. The end of the 1960-61 school year marked the new beginning of the old El Nido Schoolhouse as a community hall when all grades moved to the new school.

Today, with an estimated population of 400, El Nido has a grocery store, firehouse, community hall (old schoolhouse), school and two churches. As we celebrate El Nido School’s centennial, it is important to remember those who made El Nido a better place. El Nido’s unofficial mayor, for example, was Clarence Borba, whose memorial scholarship has helped many students pursue their dreams of higher education. August Rolfes was responsible for bringing telephone service to the local farmers. John Bettencourt and later his daughter Jackie Anderson kept Neighborhood Grocery Store running for 60 years. Other early settlers whose stories will be on display include the Flanagans, Chamberlains, Potters, Claytons, Cottas, Mellos, Doughertys, Pedrellis, Pedrettis, Silvas, Coopers and Williamses.

Unlike El Nido, Gustine is a much bigger community with an estimated population of 5,687 in 2014. Started as a railroad siding and loading dock for Henry Miller’s cattle, Gustine was surveyed in 1906 and opened for settlement. In 1907, there were only 23 people in Gustine; by 1915, there were about 500 residents. Gustine was incorporated in 1915 – by a vote of 114-27 – as its residents demanded paved streets, streetlights and public utilities.

While the El Nido exhibit is thematically arranged by family stories, Gustine’s display is organized chronologically with a timeline of major events. “The Early Years” exhibit begins with the Southern Pacific Railroad laying its tracks through Gustine in 1889. It maps out the town with its early business establishments and discusses the building of a dairy center in Merced County with the presence of New Era Creamery, Gustine Creamery and California Milk Products.

“Prohibition and Depression” covers the next decade with one of the biggest seizures of bootleg whiskey in the history of Merced County on the old Daly Ranch in 1928. The year of 1926 marks the end of Miller and Lux’s business influence in Gustine as they closed or transferred all of their interests from the butcher shop to the bank.

“World War II” examines Gustine’s war effort, not only in the sacrifice of its servicemen, such as Cpl. Joseph G. Rose – the first Gustine native killed in 1943 – but also in its residents, from saving tin cans to following dim-out restrictions.

“Postwar Prosperity” begins with the Merced County Armistice Day parade as Gustine’s “Iwo Jima” float took first prize for best-entered float in 1946 and ends with Foremost Dairies acquiring Western Condensing in 1955.

The second half of the 1950s laid the foundation of Gustine’s “Golden Years” as its population and economy grew at a significantly faster pace in the 1960s.The impetus for Gustine’s growth was the construction of the San Luis Dam and California Aqueduct as many of the families of the construction workers made their new homes in Gustine.

The segment titled “San Luis Dam and Growth” follows “The Golden Years.” The year 1968 was important because the San Luis Dam was completed and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated. In 1970, Gustine became the first city in California to have the 911 emergency service number and Elizabeth Bettencourt became the first woman elected to the Gustine City Council.

The last two displays, titled “Marking Milestones” and “A Century of Progress,” focus on the celebration of Gustine’s achievements. To name a few, there are the opening of the Gustine Museum in 1990; the Diamond Jubilee of the city’s incorporation, also in 1990; the Gustine City Band turning 100 in 2011; and Gustine High School celebrating its centennial in 2014.

To learn more about Gustine and El Nido history, please join us for the opening of the “Centennial Celebrations” exhibit on Thursday. During the reception from 5 to 7 p.m., Gustine historian Pat Snoke will autograph “Gustine: Gem of the Valley.” This interesting local history book was first published in 1990 to commemorate Gustine’s 75th anniversary. The event is free.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at mercedmuseum.

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