Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
Visalia can rightfully look back with pride on the many of its pioneers who went on to achieve important and noteworthy things. Some accumulated extraordinary wealth in business, others became well-known names in the entertainment world, and still others became legendary members of the clergy.
But there is one man who did amazing things and yet is often forgotten. He was skillful, talented and likable, and made a serious run to becoming the governor of California. His name is Fred Henry Hall.
He was born in Visalia in 1868 and when Fred was just 10 years old, his father developed a health condition that prevented him from working. Young Fred quit school and became the breadwinner for the family. He worked in brickyards, on farms and did any kind of manual labor that he could to earn an honest wage.
When he turned 20, he was appointed deputy under Visalia City Marshal Ewell Gilliam — a position that would launch his career as a peace officer and prepare him for bigger things.
For the next dozen or more years, he learned the duties and responsibilities of being a lawman. He worked for a number of agencies, serving as Visalia city marshal, Tulare County deputy sheriff, Tulare County undersheriff under Eugene Kay, and he even served as a special agent for the Santa Fe Railroad.
In the early 1890s, Tulare County was inundated with tough characters, and Hall was on the front line. When Grat Dalton, part of the infamous Dalton Gang, escaped from the Tulare County jail, Hall was part of the posse that pursued the convicted train robber and had a shootout with him in the foothills north of Visalia. Unfortunately, Dalton eluded capture. Shortly thereafter, Hall was one of the many lawmen pursuing illusive killers and suspected train robbers Christopher Evans and John Sontag. One of the outlaw band later would admit that Hall was personally targeted by the gang for assassination.
Many times, Hall faced off with criminals, but with his pleasing personality and wits, he was usually able to gain the upper hand. Such was the case one evening in March 1892. John Rhinehart, described as a tough guy from Arizona, was drunk and firing his pistol indiscriminately into the air in the toughest part of town. Hall heard the gunfire and confronted the shooter. While Hall shook hands with the rowdy man, he deftly reached inside the ruffian’s pocket and removed the pistol. The “bad man from Arizona” was arrested and spent the next 20 days in jail.
It was in this Tulare County Jail and Sheriff’s Office that Hall worked. Circa 1891.
By 1894, Fred Hall was ready for a new challenge. He decided to run for Visalia city marshal as the Democratic Party candidate. In May, voters went to the polls and Hall was the top vote-getter. It was his first taste of political office and he liked it.
But after just four months on the job, Visalia’s top cop got into a tough spot — one that almost cost him his life. In September, he was alerted to a burglary at the home of Thomas A. Elliott on North Locust Street. He received information that the burglars were leaving town, heading in the direction of Goshen. Hall, accompanied by attorney D.E. Perkins, borrowed Ben Maddox’s buggy and the two pursued the suspects. About half a mile west of town, the pair confronted six tough and suspicious-looking men walking. As Hall searched the men, one aimed a pistol at him. Hall drew his pistol, but it was too late; he was hit in jaw. He ineffectively returned fire as another round hit him in the fleshy part of his shoulder. The shooter fled in the buggy. Eventually, all six men were arrested and Marshal Hall recovered from his close call.
This home, as it appears today on North Locust Street in Visalia, was targeted in a 1894 burglary. One of the suspects in the burglary shot Hall, nearly killing him.
After his years as a lawman in Tulare County, he needed a change. He had made about 3,400 arrests and had dealt with many “desperate criminal characters.” He moved to Bakersfield and became a special agent for the Santa Fe Railroad. His duties involved investigating cases
of stolen goods and pilfering property from boxcars. It didn’t take long for the railroad company to recognize his ability and soon he was promoted, eventually becoming assistant chief. Now he was in charge of hiring men and managing railroad operations. In 1906, he left the railroad, receiving glowing accolades. One comment summed up his record: “In every responsibility he exhibited not only wise judgment and practical common sense, but also the utmost tact and greatest consideration of others.”
While working as a lawman, he had also invested in oil land and became manager of the Visalia Midway Oil Co. Hall became a very successful and respected oilman. But he hadn’t forgotten politics and in 1912, he successfully ran for the California State Assembly representing Kern County.
This photograph of Fred H. Hall was used for his campaign for governor in 1914.
By 1913, Assemblymember Hall’s name was being openly mentioned as a possible candidate for California governor. A February 1913 issue of the Visalia Morning Delta newspaper had a complimentary story promoting Hall, reporting, “Fred H. Hall of Bakersfield California … is now a prominent oil operator and is being groomed for the governorship of his state by the Democrats…” Hall did nothing to dispel the speculation. In fact, he traveled extensively trying to keep it alive and garner support.
Receiving favorable party feedback, Hall decided to run for governor on the Democratic Party ticket. He picked his hometown as the place to officially announce. At 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1914, at the Visalia Opera House, Hall made his candidacy official to a packed crowd. The Delta called the event “one of the biggest political rallies ever held in Visalia.”
But later in the year, Hall’s excitement ended when the Democrats made their choice and it was not him. Instead, they chose to stay with Hiram W. Johnson, the incumbent. Johnson went on to be re-elected governor.
Fred Hall continued to manage his vast holdings and stayed active in the business affairs of Bakersfield, serving as a director on the Board of Trade. In 1935, the Visalia native died at the age of 66.