The crowd gathered at the Athletic Hall on Yosemite Avenue for Madera High School’s commencement exercise in June 1903. Folks had to climb the stairs to the second floor that night, as they had for the past six years, but this would be the last time. Madera was going to have a new high school at last.
Those commencement exercises held in Athletic Hall that Friday night were well attended. The audience was so large that some of the late comers could not find seats and had to stand until the ushers brought chairs from the outside for their accommodation. The gallery at the end of the hall was crowded with people.
In contrast to modern graduation exercises, this one was rather calm and sober. County Superintendent of Schools, Estelle Bagnelle, presented the diplomas to the following graduates: Mary Alice Cunningham, Ella Reid, Myrtle Saxe, Ethelyn Westfall, Emelia Loinaz, Grace Loinaz, Annie E. Hussey, Mabel Metz, and Ruby Nell Metz. She then acknowledged that this was the last graduation to be held in Athletic Hall. The 1904 graduation would take place in a brand new building.
Madera had always taken the education of its youth seriously. The town was not even a year old when the first school house was built in 1877. Shortly thereafter, a second school was built on the westside of the Southern Pacific tracks, and for years, Madera’s young scholars attended either the Eastside or Westside Schools.
Then the inevitable happened; the politicians carved Madera County out of Fresno County, and a whole series of important events followed, not the least of which was the formation of a high school district.
In the summer of 1893, two very pubic spirited women, Mrs. R.P. Mace and a Mrs. Wear circulated a petition in the new county seat calling for an election to determine the public will in the matter of creating a high school in Madera. This effort brought immediate results when the new county government, as well as the voters, approved the plan overwhelmingly. It was decided that Madera High School would become a reality.
Ann Nicholson was chosen as the school’s first principal, and she had her hands full. In the first place, she had to supervise the remodeling of the second story of the Westside School where the high school would hold classes.
Hallways and cloakrooms were turned into laboratories, and the structure was generally made ready to house the class of 1897.
In addition to these duties, Nicholson had to prepare to teach all of the course work, since she was the high school’s only employee.
State law at the time dictated that the enrollment of any high school could not fall below 10; therefore, it was with a great deal of relief when Madera High School’s first class of 10 was welcomed to school on the opening day.
For 10 years, Madera High School conducted classes in the old Westside School, and then, on Aug. 22, 1903, the Madera Union High School District was formed. One of the first actions of the new Madera High School board was to award a contract for construction of a new high school at 6th and L Streets. The facility in the old Westside School was simply inadequate.
The board decided to build a two story, granite and brick building with a basement. The first floor would have four entrances and would contain four classrooms. At the right of the main entrance would be a trustees’ meeting room and at the right of that, the lady teachers’ private room. The principal’s room would be on the left.
A private room for the gentlemen teachers would be to the left of the principal’s room. A corridor would run clear through the building, and all of the rooms would be provided with cloakrooms.
On the second floor would be a large assembly room 56 x 40 feet, with a stage 40 feet in the clear, and anterooms on either side. A big skylight would admit light from overhead and eight windows would add more light.
On this floor would also be located the library, a classroom, and a physical and chemical laboratory. There would be landings half way up the stairs so that it would be possible for the teachers to see onto the yards and classrooms from above.
The building would of course be finished on the interior with yellow pine, since Madera furnished the best yellow pine in the world. Plans specified that the portico steps and buttresses would be of granite, and the building, when completed, was sure to be one of the most attractive looking school buildings in the state.
In the years that followed, Madera High School was added to — taken away from — doubled, and then split. Now the town has 3 high schools with a combined population of over 4,000 students.
But that’s not how it was in the beginning in that little frame building on Sixth Street and the commencement programs up on the second story of Athletic Hall.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune