As the little town of Madera was growing up in the 19th century, several important politicians visited here. Presidents, former Presidents, and would-be Presidents met at Captain Mace’s hotel on the corner of E and Yosemite Avenue to begin a journey that would take them to the Big Trees and beyond. One of these was General Ulysses S. Grant, and before he left Madera, he met an old adversary that would one day become one of the founding fathers of Madera County.
On Oct. 1, 1879, just three years after the first building was built in Madera and six months after the first tourists traveled the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike line to the mountains, former President Ulysses S. Grant came to Mace’s establishment to catch the stage to Yosemite.
Traveling with a large party that included Flora Sharon, daughter of Senator William Sharon, Grant rolled into Madera at midnight on his special railroad car. He had sped down the Southern Pacific tracks from Stockton at the fantastic rate of 25 mph.
Mace was well prepared for his illustrious guest. Two large flags flew from the top of his hotel. His spacious dining room was garlanded with evergreens; firearms, anvils, and gunpowder were gathered. The steam whistle at the planing mill was treated with pitch, tar, and turpentine until it could “outtoot Gabriel’s E-flat cornet without half trying.” The welcome was ready.
At 11:30 p.m. the light from the train could be seen from the depot. The huge crowd that had gathered there cheered “till every rooster within three miles crowed himself hoarse in sympathy,” according to an article in the Fresno Daily Expositor.
The steam whistle screamed and tooted; the guns and pistols fusilladed the sky and a huge bonfire was built with wood from the Madera Flume and Trading Company’s lumberyard.
Grant’s car was put on a sidetrack and the visiting party continued their slumbers in those quarters. At 4:30 A.M., a train came from Fresno bringing 50 would-be greeters from that city.
At sunrise, Mace boarded the cars and spent a few private minutes with the General. They had been together at Fort Smith in 1843; Grant at that time had been a young lieutenant. Shortly, Mace escorted the distinguished party to his hotel lobby through a large crowd of “Maderans and Fresnoites” who had gathered on the west side of the building. One of these local residents was George Washington Mordecai, who lived on his ranch just south of Madera. Mordecai had a special interest in seeing the General.
When Grant walked out onto the steps after breakfast, he was greeted by thunderous applause. Then just as he was about to step up into the stage, out stepped Mordecai from the crowd.
“General,” said Mordecai with a deep Southern accent. “You and I have met before, about 15 years ago.” Grant inquired as to where that might have been, and Mordecai replied, “At Appomattox, Sir.” General Grant stopped; eyed the younger man for a moment, and then it hit him.
This stranger had been part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and they had faced each other at that showdown at Appomattox Courthouse. Now a decade and a half later, here they were, facing each other again, but this time on the main street of Madera.
Grant mumbled something about being glad to see Mordecai again and climbed onto the Yosemite-bound stage. With a fresh cigar in his mouth, he signaled the driver to go, and in a moment he was on his way.
As Grant pulled out of sight, Mordecai got back on his horse and returned to his ranch. He had work to do — after all, he had Refuge to run. One day he would take his place as Madera County’s first Assemblyman and one of its founding fathers. In the meantime, however, he just wanted to contemplate the many ironies of life.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune