Ask Us: Who was John McCarthy?

March 8, 2010 

Despite his Irish name, "John McCarthy" was not from the Emerald Isle. He was Chinese, he lived in Los Baños in the early part of the 20th century, and he is an interesting story indeed.

June Erreca, a treasured local historian whose family knew Mr. McCarthy, gave me the details. The story began when Jean Baptiste Erreca (June Erreca's father-in-law) bought the livery stable at the corner of I Street and Seventh Street from the "real" John McCarthy who said there was an older Chinese gentleman who came with the purchase. The Chinese gentleman took the name of the property's past owner. No one knew the Chinese "John McCarthy's" real name, and most people in Los Baños had little contact with him.

According to an article in the Los Baños Enterprise (May 8, 1942), "John McCarthy" had lived in the Los Baños area since 1874, when a group of laborers were imported into this area to widen the new Miller & Lux irrigation canal. He chose to stay in the community when the job was ended and worked as a farm laborer at several local ranches.

The newspaper account of his death said he was then employed at the real John McCarthy's livery stable and took up residence there in a small corner of the building. This is how he was "inherited" by the Erreca family. He remained at the livery stable with the Errecas. Since "John McCarthy" had no family, the Erreca family cared for him. That is why in Los Baños he was known as, "Erreca's Chinaman."

Later after Aug. 27, 1919, Mrs. Erreca said the old gentleman had to move because the big Los Baños fire the ruined most of downtown, including the livery stable. The livery stables were then moved to Sixth and K Streets, and he lived there in a trailer.

"John McCarthy" was very shy, according to Mrs. Erreca. He only spoke to Jean Erreca and other Erreca family members. The Erreca family supplied him with meals, coffee, and clothes, but "John McCarthy" always refused to wear the clothes they gave him, preferring instead to wear his trusty gunny sacks and shoes made out of cardboard.

He was described by Mrs. Erreca as being a very picturesque man. She can recall catching a glimpse of him while she would be walking to grammar school.

She said, "John McCarthy" walked to Volta and this is when she saw him. He was not a care-free man; he had to take care of his rabbits and goats. As a result, every morning at 6 o'clock, he would walk all the way to Volta and back, to bring food for his animals.

In his older years he had no job but always managed to take care of himself. He steadfastly refused to be photographed. The only known photograph of him is the one shown. He reportedly refused to disclose his real name. According to the Enterprise, his peculiarities of dress and mannerisms caused him much undesired publicity. He was the subject of newspaper stories. He was even a subject in "Ripley's Believe it or Not" column. Even though he was shy and stayed to himself, children still teased him and threw rocks at him, according to Mrs. Erreca.

When "John McCarthy" died, the Enterprise described him as "Los Baños' most ancient citizen." The article said he fell seriously ill in April 1937. He was admitted to the Merced County Hospital and remained there until he died in May 8, 1942. He was buried in the Los Baños Cemetery.

Local old timers say "John McCarthy" was an old man when they first came to town and placed his age at 120 years when he died, according to the Enterprise obituary. Others, however, discounted that theory, stating their belief that he was between 95 and 100 years old when he died.

Many thanks to June Erreca and the Los Baños Enterprise for help in researching this article.

"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American Government class. Do you have a question about the history of Los Baños? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by e-mail to tmcnally@losbanosusd.k12.ca.us.

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