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Mitchell Senior

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John William Mitchell was born in Woodbury, Connecticut on June 6, 1828. He was the youngest of four children. John was bright and did well in school and by all accounts his desire was to become a farmer like his father.

When gold was discovered, John’s brother made the trip west to give mining a try and failed to find his fortune. He also spent time in the Stockton area, and after seeing that agriculture was becoming as important as gold, he journeyed back to Connecticut where he recruited his brother, John, and their step-brother to return to California with him. John sailed around Cape Horn and landed in San Francisco on February 22, 1850.

John followed a job anywhere it would take him. He began as a carpenter in San Francisco at $12 a day, then moved on to Stockton where he worked as a teamster hauling freight to the mining camps in Tuolumne and Calaveras Counties. He went into business for himself and transported goods to the Mother Lode. He peddled his inventory to the flush-with-gold miners. His store was a makeshift affair, and as supply and demand availed itself, he netted a whopping $50 per day renting out half of it.

John began farming oats and wheat north of Stockton in the Live Oak bottomlands of the Calaveras River north of today’s Cherokee Lane with three teams and three hired men. He also derived income by selling hay to the teamsters in Stockton and cordwood cut from the native oak trees.

In the 1850’s and ‘60’s, John apparently purchased a considerable amount of government land before official surveys were completed. Therefore many of his transactions weren’t recorded. John paid for most of his land in gold coin for 75 cents per acre. John’s first recorded deed shows his 1861 purchase of 160 acres in San Joaquin County. For the next three decades he made dozens more acquisitions in Stanislaus, Merced and Fresno Counties as well.

When John had his land cleared, he induced men to dry farm the ground. He usually rented 2000 acres to each tenant. He furnished plows, seed, wagons and machinery. He even built homes for his renters. John raised some 50,000 head of sheep on his non-cultivated land.

Early Turlock was John’s home. He built a hotel, Mitchell Hall (there was also one in Atwater), and several warehouses. He also donated land for the Turlock Cemetery, Fairview School and the Mitchell School District near Ceres

John encouraged his three nieces in Woodbury, Connecticut to move to California in the early 1880’s. All of their families became prominent in the area--Emma Crane, Mary Geer and Ella Bloss. Marshall Atwater also came from Woodbury. He rented several thousand acres of land from John around Atwater and Winton.

Droughts were a frequent hindrance to successful farming. John was part of a group in Merced County who organized the Farmer’s Canal Company in 1873. That group sold out to the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Company. He also started the Livingston-based East Side Canal and Irrigation Company.

John helped form the Turlock Irrigation District in 1887. His first public service began when he was elected to the TID’s board of directors in 1890. With his leadership the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts jointly built the La Grange Dam in 1890.

John came down with pneumonia and died on November 26, 1893 at the age of 65. Several quotes about his death are worth mentioning. “His acres were not exceeded in extent by any domain in this part of the state, save that of Miller & Lux.” A second quote is “His life was an illustration of how a man can acquire riches without causing a pang. He was a millionaire to whom everybody was a friend.”

Henry Geer and George Bloss were the executors of his estate. Some of the provisions in his will of interest to Merced County included:

Invest $5,000 in good securities or bonds, the interest to be used in maintaining Mitchell Hall in Atwater and to maintain a public library there.
Bequeath $5,000 each to the trustees of Modesto and Merced to establish and maintain libraries there.
Set up a family mausoleum at Turlock Cemetery (the Geers, Cranes and Blosses are resting with him today).
The remainder of the estate after some other bequests went to the three nieces-Mary Geer, Emma Crane and the late Ella Bloss’s heirs.

Written by Roger Wood, October 16, 2007

This material was derived from “John W. Mitchell, Founder of Turlock” published by the Turlock Historical Society, Winter 2005 and from “Brief History of Atwater and Communities” published by the Atwater History Club in 1958.

A bit about Atwater

Atwater, California, incorporated in 1922, has population of about 30,000 people. The community was named for Marshall D. Atwater, one of the largest land owners at the time. The city is located in the San Joaquin Valley in Merced County on Highway 99. Atwater is centrally located between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. San Francisco is a two-hour drive, the Monterey/Carmel area is 90 minutes away, Sacramento is about 100 minutes, and Yosemite and several nice ski resorts are only an hour and a half to two hours away.

There are two high schools which are part of the Merced Union High School District. The one middle school, Mitchell Senior Elementary, is part of the Atwater Elementary School District along with one K-8 school, and six K-6 elementary schools. There is also a private K-8 school in town.

There are three institutions of higher learning within a 25 mile radius of Atwater: Merced College, CSU Stanislaus, and UC Merced.

Castle Airport, the former Castle Air Force Base (1941–1994), is a growing industrial park and airport which houses several major businesses. It is adjacent to the Castle Air Museum which is home to a fine display of military aircraft.

Cultural opportunities include the Bloss Home Museum located inside the 4000 square foot house built in 1914, and the Air Museum. Many other venues are located in nearby Merced, Turlock, and Modesto.

Recreation prospects include Rancho Del Rey, an 18 hole golf course, a skate park, a bowling alley, a number of youth sports organizations, a BMX track, nearby hiking trails, water-skiing in summer, and snow skiing in winter.

The average temperature ranges between 36° F in December and January and 103° F during the summer months.

For more information visit:

The City of Atwater

Atwater Chamber of Commerce

Atwater Historical Society

Castle Air Museum