During a trip to Sequoia National Park a few months ago, I spent some time in Exeter, a small Californian town located in the San Joaquin Valley at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Tulare County. The changing landscapes surrounding the town already inspired thoughts about the area in pre and post European settlement times, the history of the railroad in the west, commercial agricultural practices, and water use. But Exeter’s 28 murals downtown – each illustrating the changing relationships with the landscape from the town’s settlement to the present – really underlined this relationship between land and community. These murals are worth checking out: curated historical California fun for the whole family. The past follows visitors everywhere, literally around every corner in the town of Exeter.
All photos by Jessica Roberts.
The mural above depicts the Visalia Electric Railroad in Exeter in 1915 and 1945; it was painted in 2001 by artists Michael Stanford, Yuri Somov, and Matt Hemsworth. The Visalia Railroad Company was incorporated in 1874, and by 1898 the rails had been extended south from Visalia to Southern Pacific’s East Side Line at Exeter.
In the early 1880’s hydroelectric power from the Kaweah River – about 15 miles north of Exeter – was being promoted, and an electric inter-urban railroad was proposed for Tulare County. In 1904 the Visalia Electric Railroad Company was incorporated. The rail transported mostly oranges but also plums, peaches, lemons, grapes, and dairy. With the convenience of shipping and the accessibility to water resources, more land was converted from natural planes to cattle, dairy, and fruit tree production.
A mural around the corner painted by Colleen Mitchell-Veyna and Morgan McCall in 1996, depicting a scene of orange pickers in the 1930s. As I drove out of the town center I thought about this image, about the character of the landscape that had taken on for over a century. An overlay of past and present was easy to imagine.
With the increase of automobiles the railway lines popularity declined, and passenger use was discontinued by 1924. By the 1940’s freight service was in decline, even with the increase of produce production in the area, and continued to do so with the increasing use of trucks for moving goods. The last shipment was in 1990 and the rail was abandoned 1992, 9 years before the mural to commemorate the history of the rail was painted.
A 20 minute drive northeast brought us to Kaweah Lake, the source of the hydroelectric power that once transported and connected passengers and goods in Tulare Country. The water levels were noticeably low, and there was a light mist in the air. I wish I had an image of the lake now, after a few months with heavy and historic winter rain, for comparison.
I returned from this trip wondering how high-speed rail and long-term drought conditions might transform the use of the land and the interurban connections of goods and people today. When will future developments of Exeter be archived and interpreted on the streets of the downtown (hopefully in mural form too), and what version of the past will be deemed worthy of capturing for posterity?