Main Street – Visalia’s Mother Road
There was a time when Visalia’s Main Street was the undisputed, pre-eminent street in the city. It was the most traveled and most recognized and, by far, the most important road in town. Some say it still is, however, with the tremendous growth of the city in recent decades, it now has competition for the title. But historically, the popular thoroughfare was more than just the most direct route to get from one place to another. It was a pathway for many seeking a better life and greater opportunities, and symbolized for them, at least, a lifeline to a better future. It wasn’t paved with gold, but the beautiful valley oak-lined roadway offered those coming to town from the west, at least, an inviting entrance and grand welcome into town.
When the first white settlers arrived in this area in 1852, they set up camp, cut down oak trees and used them to build a fort for protection. The enclosure was located somewhere in what is now the block bounded by School, Oak, Garden and Bridge streets. Obviously, there were no streets at the time of their arrival in this heavily wooded area.
When the newcomers realized that the local Native American people posed no danger, the fort was abandoned and the settlers began to spread out, and the new town took root. Two businesses were soon established south of the fort. One was Nathan Baker’s general store, and the other was Matthews’ grist or flour mill. The large mill was built near what is now called Mill Creek, so when Visalia’s first street system was laid out, Mill Street became the first major east-west road, obviously named after the new flour mill that anchored the east end.
In about 1859, Mill Street was renamed Main Street. But many of the old-timers continued to call it Mill. In fact, Thomas Thompson, in his classic book “Historical Atlas Map of Tulare County,” continued to refer to the street as Mill even though the book was published in 1892, more than 30 years after the name change. Old habits oftentimes are hard to shed.
Over the years, Main Street became a popular and prestigious business address. Some businesses even incorporated the street name into their business name. Main Drug Store opened at Main and Locust streets in 1933, Main Garage opened at West Street in 1913, and Main Saloon set up at Church Street in 1910. Still other businesses opened their doors there because of the status that it provided. The Bank of Visalia opened its doors at Main and Church beginning in about 1885. Sweets Department Store opened across the street and had a proud presence on Main even before the bank arrived. Then in 1917, the stately five-story Hotel Johnson was built at Main and Church; the building owner, John Sublitt Johnson, was obviously impressed with the location.
Not all businesses were looking for status or glitz; they just wanted a Main Street address and the foot traffic that it brought in the heart of the business district. And some businesses were not all that flattering to the town. The notorious Fashion Saloon and Josiah “Si” Lovern’s Saloon, as well as the popular Wunder Bar, occupied spaces on Main Street and each had their presence etched, or gouged, some might say, into Visalia history. Each provided customers with the adult beverages they craved.
And still other businesses and organizations were drawn to Main Street, anxious to bring culture and entertainment to this pioneer town. In 1904, when Andrew Carnegie gave money to build the Visalia Free Library, the city picked a Main Street location at what is now Encina Street. Later, in 1929, when William Fox, the famous movie mogul and pioneer, decided to build a talkie theater in town, a lot was picked on Main across the street from the Carnegie library. And when a new high school was needed for the growing town, city officials looked to Main Street for the new campus. In 1912, they built it and we now call it Redwood High.
As Main Street established itself as an obvious focal point, it was included on every parade route, and auto race car drivers in the 1900s began their races on the famous street and got the checkered flag there as well.
The 1940s and 1950s found Main Street to be a regular hangout for local teenagers as “cruising Main” became a popular pastime. Even 19th-century gunfighters were attracted to the street, and we had plenty of bloodstains to prove it.
Lights and illuminations of various types also found the famous roadway. When the townsfolk decided that they needed a town lamp, the forerunner to a streetlight, Main Street was the obvious location. The first town lamp, 12 feet high and 4 feet wide, was powered by highly flammable camphene fluid, and was placed on the south side of Main Street between Court and Church in 1859.
In 1937, three traffic signals, the first in town, were installed on Main at the intersections with Court, Locust and Church streets. And then, of course, during the Christmas season, the street was adorned with festive decorations and colorful lights to help set the mood for the season. The tradition has held, and the Christmas lights continue to decorate Main on what is also known as Candy Cane Lane.
Visalia’s Main Street has played such an important part in the town’s 166-year history. It has been the focal point for so much that has happened.
Just like Route 66, “America’s Highway,” was the symbolic road to a better life for dust bowl migrants, Visalia’s Main Street offered similar hope to those who were looking for a better future.
Main Street has certainly been Visalia’s Mother Road.