Friday, Feb. 01, 2013
How did Badger Flat Road receive its name?
Anyone who has traveled down to Wal-Mart for some shopping knows of the road "Badger Flat." It is just off Highway 152 and stretches south into a newer subdivision area and north to Henry Miller Road, the originally developed area.
On the surface it appears to be just another road; however, thanks to Milliken Museum volunteer Dan Nelson, I discovered some really cool information about the road.
The origin of the name is simple enough. In the 1860s, the patch of farmland stretching out to just north of Volta was heavily populated by badgers. Early residents there tell of looking out over the flats and seeing thirty or forty badgers at once, sitting up in their burrows.
The badgers' burrows often caused trouble for hunters. Antelopes, which have since disappeared as almost completely as the badgers themselves, were the prime game of the early settlers of Badger Flat. Unfortunately, the horses on which the settlers pursued the antelope had trouble navigating the badger holes while running the game down, according to museum archives.
Sometimes the badgers of the flat scared the heck out of the homesteaders there. Dr. James McClelland, one of the first physicians to set up practice in the region, tells of how one moonlit night, he woke to the sound of two badgers fighting in his back yard. Dr. McClelland reportedly shot one of the badgers, after which he was hotly pursued into his own house by the remaining badger.
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," Dr. McClelland told longtime local historian Ralph Milliken, for whom the museum is named.
With all the ruckus caused by the badgers, one may wonder why anyone bothered to settle on Badger Flat at all. The answer was water. In a place where water was sometimes scarce and no irrigation to speak of existed, Badger Flat was ideally juxtaposed between San Luis Creek, the San Joaquin River and Los Banos Creek, all of which provided water for the hardworking farmers who had come to California in the 1860s.
Among these were settlers key to the development of Los Banos. C.W. Smith, who built the very first barn in the area, called Badger Flat "the very best of land." Billy Stockton, a blacksmith, settled in a cabin alongside one of the creeks.
Lloyd Garrison, who built the first framed (and reportedly two-story) house on the Westside, and his family planted the first orchard in the region, composed of peach and apricot trees. Settlers were drawn to this precious resource of water that Badger Flat offered.
In the 1870s, a new influx of settlers came to Badger Flat, the Italians. Among them were the Cirimele brothers, the Toscanos, the Sarbos and others. These immigrant farmers began planting fruits in the fertile ground of Badger Flat and selling their wares to other settlers via wagon.
Now, I don't know about you, but there really doesn't seem to be all that many badgers out on Badger Flat Road nowadays. This begs the question: Where did they all go? Also, why do so few really live along the northern stretches of Badger Flat Road anymore if it was such a vital piece of land?
Perhaps we can even go so far as to ask: Why was this town named Los Banos and not Badger?
To answer these questions, we have to introduce the marvel of irrigation that came into the region in the 1880s. It brought water to places that were parched and stimulated growth of towns, including what is now Los Banos. The original "Old Los Banos" was about two miles south of Volta. It consisted of a post office, a two-story hotel with a stable, a general store and a wash house.
When the canal system was created, "Old Los Banos" was in danger of becoming flooded. Henry Miller collaborated with the people of Los Banos to have the buildings moved to drier land to the east. This became "New Los Banos" -- the Los Banos that we know today.
Badger Flat was not so fortunate. The once ideal farming land was transformed from a fertile vegetable garden to an uninhabitable swamp. The badgers, their burrows flooded by the effect of irrigation in a naturally irrigated land, went topside. There, they became a nuisance and therefore fair game to farmers, driving their numbers down so that nary a badger can be spotted in the region today.
The waterlogged Badger Flat became a dangerous place. Rattlesnakes, accustomed to living on dry land, were driven up and it became dangerous to even walk across the land with the thickest of boots, according to museum notes.
The land became abandoned for the most part. The settlers migrated to the "New Los Banos," the move hastened by the construction of the railroad through the town and depot at the heart of it. Much of Badger Flat was left undeveloped, even after the irrigation problem was remedied. The history is left, for the most part, untouched in the archives of the Milliken Museum, available only to those who ask.
Thanks to Dan Nelson for his patience in helping with this report and the research left by Mr. Milliken. "Ask Us" is dedicated to local historian Charles Sawyer, who died last year after serving as a tireless volunteer at the museum.
"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by e-mail to
email@example.com, by phone to 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 S. 11th St., Los Banos, Calif. 93635.