When the folks in charge of the High-Speed Rail began first to talk of starting the project at Borden, folks all over the state began to ask, “Where is Borden?” The answer came swiftly; it was a tiny, 19th-century town about four miles south of Madera.
Not long after that, some people wanted to know how it got its name, and that answer came just as quickly. It was named by Leland Stanford in 1872, after Dr. Joseph Borden. When the Governor made an inspection of the area that year, the good doctor showed him such fine Southern hospitality that Stanford decreed the place would henceforth be known as Borden.
Well, not long after that, the question arose, “Who was Dr. Borden,” and that answer came from a Madera cemetery.
Out in the middle of Arbor Vitae stands a dignified, old tombstone. Visitors to this beautifully kept cemetery are reminded that at this spot lie the remains of Doctor Joseph Borden, who was born in Carteret County, North Carolina, on June 5, 1806, and departed this life on April 9, 1875.
At first, one is a bit surprised to find Doctor Borden in Madera. One would expect to find him at the town site that carried his name, near present-day Avenue 12, for Dr. Borden, as a member of the Alabama Colony, settled the area in 1868.
The pitiful story of these refugees from Reconstruction is well known and often told. About 70 of them made their way to what is now southern Madera County to find refuge from the aftermath of the Civil War. They tried cooperative, dry land farming for a while, but within four or five years, just a handful remained on the land.
As we said, although the history of the Alabama Settlement is well documented, Doctor Borden is something of an enigma. To be sure, the community knows of his descendants, but the man whose name gave the area definition has always been a bit mysterious.
His tale really begins in North Carolina. Dr. Borden was born in Beaufort to Joseph and Esther Borden. Named for his father, young Joseph grew up in that coastal port of entry, which was alive with the import and export trade. The elder Borden was a planter of considerable means whose money crop was tobacco.
This branch of the Borden family was devoutly Quaker, and as such, was opposed to slavery. As the anti-slavery movement in the North gained momentum, feelings in the South quite naturally turned against members of the Society of Friends. Sensing that his family was in danger, Joseph Borden the elder was selling off his land when he died in 1825. Young Joseph, his mother, and four brothers stayed in the family home place until 1834 when they followed another family member to Alabama.
The Bordens cleared the area around their new home, cut a wide road through the center of their place, and called it New Bern. They gave land to a local church and established the town’s first post office. The town’s first grave was that of a Borden child who died in 1842.
Young Joseph did not long remain in New Bern. On April 17, 1835, he married Sarah Margaret Bryan and then moved to the Jefferson, Alabama area where he began to build a sizable cotton plantation. In 1842, Joseph Borden lost his 23-year-old wife, and six years later he married Juliett Elizabeth Rhodes. They had five children: Rhodes, Nathan Lane, Sheldon, Ivey Lewis, and Anna Helen. Sometime shortly thereafter, the Bordens moved near Mobile, Alabama.
By the time of the Mobile move, Joseph Borden had obtained his medical education and training and was living the good life near the Gulf Coast. He was a physician, a planter, and a businessman. All seemed to be going well, but it was the calm before the storm.
The Civil War hit with unexpected ferocity. While Southern valor was never in question, the ability of the Confederacy to win a protracted conflict with the industrialized North was never more than a fantasy. In 1865, the rebellion ended, and in 1868, Doctor Joseph Borden and his family joined the other Southern expatriates who were migrating to a place called Cottonwood Creek in California.
The transplanted Southerners, not being used to manual labor and facing the unforgiving natural obstacles to their cooperative farming venture, were never able to realize their dream. It is true that with the coming of the railroad in 1872, conditions ameliorated somewhat. It is also true that Governor Leland Stanford, while making an inspection of the area, decided to call his railroad switch “Borden” after the doctor who had been so generous with his hospitality while the railroad president was in the area.
Shortly thereafter, a town was born and prospered. It even received a couple of votes in the election for the county seat in 1874. When, however, the California Lumber Company established the western terminus of its flume four miles to the north of Borden, a new town came into being there, and they called it Madera. From that point on, Borden’s days were numbered.
Doctor Joseph Borden never had to witness any of this. After his passing in 1875, he was buried on his farm. Later, he was moved to Madera and then pretty much forgotten, until folks began to talk about starting the high-speed rail in Borden, and that brings us to the point of this tale.
We think if they ever do start laying the tracks for that new railroad, and if it ever comes near the town site of Borden, somebody ought to put up a plaque telling how the place was named. If the High-Speed Rail is going to resurrect the memory of a town, surely we can remember the man who gave it its name.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune