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Modesto celebrates 150th anniversary

The lights that arc over downtown Modesto and proclaim Water Wealth Contentment Health could have instead trumpeted Nobody’s Got Modesto’s Goat had some early town leaders not intervened. The downtown arch was constructed in 1912 to welcome visitors coming into town in the relatively new invention of automobiles and that was the winning motto. Town leaders opted for the second place submission. 

The city was just 42 years old at that point and was already a hub of agricultural activity and production. Now, Modesto in its 150th year, is the 12th largest city in California and continues to be a leader in agriculture. It’s also safe to say nobody has their goat.

The decision by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1870 to set down tracks in the San Joaquin Valley was a formative one for Modesto. 

“Stanislaus County was an agriculture powerhouse of sorts before Modesto was even in anyone’s imagination,” said Bob Barzan, co-founder of the Modesto Art Museum. “Well before 1870, the county was an internationally important area for wheat and barley. This is one of the reasons why, though probably not the most important reason, the railroad built into the San Joaquin Valley: to bring that wheat and barley to market.

“By 1900, agriculture was in serious decline and so was the population of Modesto. It was irrigation that rejuvenated agriculture in the county and the county became a source of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and dairy. About the same time, Modesto was able to attract the food processing or manufacturing industry. Agriculture alone does not support many people, but food manufacturing can and that is a significant reason Modesto’s population started to grow again.”

The food manufacturing sector helped spur Modesto’s growth over the decades, particularly during WWII, when canned goods and other food products were churned out for the war effort.

Modesto became a travel destination for classic car enthusiasts with the success of “American Graffiti” from hometown favorite son George Lucas. The movie shined a light on cruising, and for decades teenagers kept the tradition going by driving up and down McHenry Avenue. Now, the tradition is relived and celebrated yearly in June.

Plans to celebrate Modesto’s 150th year as a city were all scuttled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But that shouldn’t stop people from checking out some of the points of interest in the city’s history on their own.

“I think the 1915 Southern Pacific Depot at 9th and J Street is significant because it is the only remaining historic railroad building,” Barzan said. “The Maze family home on Maze Road is probably the oldest building in town on its original site, about 1877, and the Church House might be the last remaining building that was moved here in the boom of 1870. Modesto had several library sites before the McHenry Library at 14th and I, but that building moved the town into a new sense of accomplishment. Of course, the arch is a great memento of the booster period.

“The Heckendorf House by architect John Funk from 1939 on Patricia Street is a house of national significance for its architecture,” Barzan said. “It was featured in at least four New York Museum of Modern Art publications and is one of the most influential pieces of Modernist architecture in this part of the country. Another building of importance is the Stanislaus County Hall of Records, also from 1939, designed by Russell Guerne deLappe.  Both buildings represent a time in Modesto's history when the city was progressive and even cutting edge.”

A few other historical stops include the McHenry Mansion, Graceada Park, The State Theater, and the Modesto Historic Cruise Route Walk of Fame.

People can also learn more about the history and development of Modesto at the website