A COLORFUL PAST
DISCLAIMER: 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.
Chowchilla’s colorful past began in the spring of 1844 when John
Fremont and his party were making their way across what is now
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
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 Co., 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
On May 22, 1912, Robertson purchased the Chowchilla Ranch from
the California Pastoral & 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 town
site 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
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
Robertson had much of his money tied up in extensive land
speculation ventures, and when the country began to experience
the recession and subsequent Great Depression of the late 20’s
and early 30’s, 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.