In Madera County, Fairmead Community and Friends hold on to the community’s past while advocating for its future
This story was originally published in The Other California podcast which you can find here.
Inside the home of Barbara Nelson, roughly 10 people gathered on Valentine’s Day for the monthly board meeting of Fairmead Community and Friends, a non-profit advocacy group Nelson leads with Vickie Ortiz and Elaine Moore.
It’s not a big crowd, but more than enough to fill Nelson’s small home. It feels more like a potluck than a board meeting of people trying to improve their community. The eclectic group — young, old, black, white, Latino — has the easy rapport of old friends.
Because Fairmead is classified as a census-designated place, there’s no mayor or city council. Instead, there’s Barbara, Vickie and Elaine. These women are the voice of the roughly 1,100 people who call Fairmead home. Elaine Moore, who is married to a long-time almond farmer, describes it as community service rooted in friendship.
“You know who to go to to get your help. And you don’t even really have to beg. All you have to do is let them know you need help. And we’re here,” Moore says. “Whether it’s a disaster or it’s a happy time and we’re gonna have a party. It’s just a camaraderie. It’s true friendship. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what language you have.”
Michael Eissinger, a historian and cultural anthropologist who wrote the book, “Fairmead: A Century of Change,” says these three women have become the soul and the face of Fairmead. “The primary focus and especially of these three ladies was to try to build community. They weren't worried about politics or worried about anything else.”
But in order to understand Fairmead today, it’s helpful to start at the beginning. Because as Eissinger writes in his book, “the history of Fairmead is both unique and emblematic.”
In the early 1900s, large companies based in LA and San Francisco owned much of the agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley. And in an effort to turn a profit, a movement emerged among these companies to develop small towns, known as colonies, and sell off the plots to family farmers. In Fairmead’s case, the parcels were marketed to Mennonite families in Germany and Russia on the promise of ample sunshine, fertile soil and abundant water.
At its start Fairmead’s future was as bright as any community in California, according to Eissinger. But ultimately, water kept it from reaching its potential.
Fairmead doesn’t have a lake and there are no rivers running through town. So all that abundant water promised to those European settlers had to be pumped from the ground. Which worked fine at first, but by the 1920s farmers were having to dig their wells hundreds of feet into the Earth to suck up the rapidly shrinking aquifer.
“And they reached a point where most of the whites that live there, said ‘to hell with this’ and they bailed. We had a massive white flight. Chowchilla was being built just north of it, it started just a few years after Fairmead, but it had water. So all the whites moved from Fairmead into Chowchilla,” Eissinger says.
This is where Fairmead’s fate took a turn. With the white population gone, along with much of the groundwater, property values plummeted. But a speculator named Jacob Yakel saw an opportunity. He bought up most of Fairmead and sold the plots directly to Black farmers.
At that time most communities used restrictive housing covenants to prevent Black people, along with many other ethnic groups, from buying property. But, according to Eissinger, Fairmead meant Black people could own their own farms and establish their own community.
So that’s how it came to be that on this dry, dusty land a few miles south of Chowchilla, a thriving black enclave was built. From the 1920s through the 1960s, Fairmead remained predominantly Black, home to families like Barbara Nelson’s.
“A lot of Black folks started moving here, buying property,” Nelson said. ”And the cotton was here. People were picking cotton, I grew up picking cotton, cutting grapes. Because I tell my kids now that we were the farmworkers, the African Americans, we worked out here.”
But things started to shift in Fairmead following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. when Fairmead’s population started to transform from predominantly Black to predominantly Hispanic, according to Eissinger.
“In 1965 Chowchilla had to allow its first black people to move in. And so people had options, whereas now these poor communities are absorbing a new population and they are having the same issues of water, and isolation, and food deserts, that these earlier communities struggled with,” he says.
Barbara Nelson wasn’t around for the shift in population that Eissinger just described. She and her husband Clyde left the Valley in the mid-1960s and called the Bay Area home for roughly 40 years. But after Clyde retired, they decided to move back to Fairmead to care for their aging parents. And when they arrived, she was shocked by what she found.
“When I came back to Fairmead in 2005 and it didn’t have a store, Fairmead just was pitiful. I didn’t see no change,” Nelson says. “And I said, I need to make a difference. I’m down here, so I got with another resident and we started talking about it and we came up with this group.
Over the years, Fairmead Community and Friends has achieved much through their advocacy. When the only community well went dry they helped secure federal grants to rebuild the water system. Then when high-speed rail announced the tracks would be running right through Fairmead, they fought successfully to keep the community whole.
"We didn’t want to threaten or make a stink or anything. But when they originally started they were going to cut out the church, they were going to cut out the school. And then, with us saying something, trying to be the voice, they pushed it farther,” Fairmead Community and Friends' Vickie Ortiz says.
The group also does what it can to hold on to Fairmead’s past. As one of the only residents of Fairmead who could remember when it was an almost all-black settlement, Barbara Nelson says she feels an obligation to preserve that history.
“I think it’s important to show that we was here, was the ones that planted the cotton and did our part here to make Fairmead what it was too. We don’t ever want to forget that,” Nelson says.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.