A city with a wild past
Once a Wild West town, Porterville proudly strove for its independence.
(Visalia Times Delta Website)www.visaliatimesdelta.com
PORTERVILLE -- For most of the past 100 years, Porterville was the last frontier in Tulare County.
Nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills along the banks of the Tule River, Porterville had a reputation of a town apart, one that took care of its own and had its own problems.
As late as the mid-1980s, Porterville still had more than a dozen bars along its Main Street, and ladies of the night could be found around the Porterville Hotel, even in broad daylight.
Today, there is one bar downtown, and the prostitutes are gone.
Unlike many Valley cities that sprouted up along the railroad, Porterville began as a true Wild West town along the Immigrant Trail and the Butterfield Stage line.
"Porterville was the last major town you'd hit [by stage]," said Jeff Edwards, a local historian who speaks proudly of the city's desire for independence.
"Porterville tried to secede from the county in 1895," said Edwards. That was just after Kings County was split from Tulare County. "They wanted to call it Putnam County," he said.
Porterville leaned more to the Confederate side than to the Union during the Civil War. "That's why they built a Union fort in Visalia," Edwards said.
Edwards said because it was so far from the county seat, Porterville was on its own when it came to controlling bad guys. "It was a bar town. It was a big cattle town. It had a lot of cowboys who came into town and got drunk," he said. The town also had miners, timbermen and bad men, people who did not always follow the law.
"People were telling me when I first got here that Porterville was the last frontier," said Guy Huffaker, who served as the city manager from 1977 until January.
Indians were early inhabitants
Until the mid-1850s, the only inhabitants of the area now called Porterville were Indians, mainly Yokuts.
But with much of the Valley comprising swamp land that flooded regularly, Porterville was an attractive site because it was higher in elevation and was along the base of the foothills that early stagecoaches traveled.
One of the town's early settlers was Royal Porter Putnam, an agent for the stage line who is generally considered the founder of the town.
In a 1934 history of Porterville's early days compiled by Porterville High School librarian Ina Stiner and high school students, it was noted that Putnam came to the Porterville area about 1860 to operate Peter Goodhu's Station on the banks of the Tule River. A statue of a man sitting on a plow today marks the site of the station.
Besides the station, Putnam also opened up a small store, the first in what would become Porterville.
The first map of Porterville, recorded in 1870, showed the town covering two blocks on Putnam's land. The map also showed six more blocks laid out west of Division Street on land that J.B. Hockett had bought in 1864.
Stiner noted in her history that it was John Hockett who preserved the town's future when he sold land to the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1888 for right of way.
"The railroad had been looking to place the railroad about 4 miles west of the settlement, a move that Putnam feared would doom the town. It was Hockett who consented in giving the right-of-way for the railroad which finally came to town in 1888."
"They came, they saw, they did not conquer" ran the headline in The Farm Tribune on Sept. 5, 1963. It told the story of the Hells Angels, who came to Porterville for the Labor Day weekend that year.
By Saturday of the holiday weekend scores of the motorcycle gang members had invaded the city. They set up camp downtown where there were many bars and in nearby parks. At that time, Main Street, which runs through downtown, was also Highway 65.
By Saturday night, several hundred bikers were in town and residents began to become concerned, wrote Mayor Bill Rodgers, who was also editor of The Farm Tribune.
Later, the bikers and their passengers began to become unruly, drinking in the street.
Just when authorities thought the bikers might be leaving town, one of the gang members was injured in a fight and taken to Sierra View Hospital. A few minutes later, Rodgers wrote, "a half dozen of the motorcycle boys had swept through the Sierra View hospital apparently looking for a man with whom they had had the fight earlier.
"This crystallized the decision to move the clan out of town."
Assisted by other law enforcement agencies and the city fire department, the plan to run the bikers out of town was put into action. As they moved down Main Street, a large crowd of local citizens had gathered. Rodgers reported that about 300 bikers were in the street. They were ordered to leave.
"Defiance faded, motorcycles started. There was some resistance, a half dozen were arrested. City firemen wet down the street and moved the hose in on the clan. One rider tried to go north; he was knocked off his motorcycle with the firehose water."
One by one, the bikers left. Eventually, they were let back into town one at a time to get gas, then sent on their way.
"By daylight a few scattered riders were still in the area. But the threat of violence and damage had been met and broken," reported Rodgers, who, as mayor, had also organized the effort to drive the riders out of town.
One shining example of Porterville's can-do spirit has been the Porterville Fair and Livestock Exposition.
Begun in May 1948, the 54th version of the fair was held in May this year with more than 400 young 4-H and FFA exhibitors taking part.
It was Rodgers, editor of The Farm Tribune, who suggested the need for a local fair and it was Rodgers, Arthur Hodgson and Rolla Bishop who were the catalyst in forming the fair.
The first two fairs took place at Porterville High School. The fair was then moved to the Rocky Hill arena, a move that nearly put an end to the May event.
Two years later, a loan bailed out the fair board, and gave it the money needed to move to its permanent site on the east end of the city, just off Plano Avenue and Olive Street, next to the Municipal Ballpark.
Wal-Mart brings changes
While the rich history, the fair and many other traditions continue today in Porterville, the town has changed, and some point to the construction of Wal-Mart's distribution center in 1991 as the catalyst for that change.
One of the worst-kept secrets in the community for months, Wal-Mart was courted by the city for nearly a year before the retail giant announced plans that its first West Coast distribution center would be built in Porterville.
Landing one of the biggest industrial projects in the county instantly brought change. Within weeks announcements were made for two new shopping centers in town and Kmart moved out of town.
"Wal-Mart changed the community forever," said Huffaker, who was city manager when the company picked the city for its California expansion.
The company constructed a 1.2 million-square-foot warehouse on the southern end of town, hired more than 1,000 workers and several hundred truck drivers who would haul goods throughout the western United States.
Huffaker said that when Wal-Mart's 300 retail employees are added, the chain is easily the city's biggest employer.
Because of Wal-Mart, Huffaker said the city became more attractive to other retailers. He said a new motel and several new restaurants were constructed because of Wal-Mart.
Another major change in the mid-1980s was when the city took over the historic Porterville Hotel. Grant money allowed the city to turn what was once a drug infested, prostitution plagued, run-down hotel in the center of town into a remodeled low-rent housing complex.
At the same time, a law was passed to require that anyone seeking a new on-site liquor license downtown would also have to serve food.
Within just a few years, many of the run-down bars along Main Street were gone, including some that dated back to Porterville's wilder days.i