Hilmar is honoring its 100th year with a centennial celebration praising the town’s past and heritage.
A dinner and dance, scheduled for 7 p.m. July 7 at the Holy Rosary Hall at 8471 Cypress St., seeks to highlight the last 100 years with the help of families and organizations native to the area.
That history reaches back even further, to 1901, when the first settlers rolled onto Hilmar Colony’s lumpy and primitive roads straddling horse drawn carriages and harboring dreams of a new life.
Most of these early movers were Scandinavian, with the Swedish being especially prominent in the formation of the town. Their newspapers back home advertised cheap, plentiful land (40 acres were an acceptable starting point) and they arrived to find the irrigated water they needed to supply their new crops: melons, almonds, walnuts, hay and corn, to name a few.
Coming by way of New York and migrating from states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota, they sought a warmer climate and a different way of making a living. Out here in the west, someone looking to start over certainly couldn’t have found better opportunities.
Nels O. Hultberg, an industrious Swede with an eye for expansion, promoted the selling of land first owned by John W. Mitchell at $25 an acre. In partnership with Walter Soderberg, their land company, which held 17,000 acres, provided many families with the space they needed to get started in the farming business.
Hultberg had a son named Hilmar, who he decided to name the blossoming town after.
It was in 1902 that the influx of settlers began in earnest, and soon all the elements we associate with a developed town sprouted into existence.
In 1917, when the Tidewater Southern Railroad laid its tracks through the sandy soil along Front Street, Hilmar Colony became Hilmar as we know it today. The train station cemented its place as a shipping and receiving hub for goods and services.
What the newcomers didn’t know was that the land they purchased had already been the home of two long time tenants that proved to be a danger to their freshly planted crops and trees.
Grasshoppers and rabbits populated the area with unchecked aggression, becoming a serious nuisance and threat to the farmer’s livelihood.
The grasshoppers buzzed and chirped like a plague, but the farmers drove them off with smoke from burning manure.
The wily rabbits were more troublesome. Because they munched on profit, they had to be actively eliminated. Rabbit hunts were common in these early years, with one such event taking place in Irwin on March 14, 1917. A photograph from that day depicts a crowd of young boys, leaning on long thin sticks that look like skinny baseball bats, standing around disinterestedly over a pile of 2,000 corpses. To catch the rabbits, they had to be lured into enclosed pens, whereupon the men would flood in and club them to death.
With the pest problem effectively subdued, the town could continue its growth unabated. New generations were born, lived, and died in Hilmar.
One of these descendants, Carolyn Brown, has lineage that could be traced back to the very beginning. Her great-grandmother, a Wickstrom, was one of the first to arrive.
Standing under a tent at the Hilmar Dairy Festival and shielded from the oppressive late afternoon heat, Brown lays out some family history. She thumbs at a historical calendar mentioning her paternal line.
“That’s my dad being washed in a tub on the porch,” she says, smiling, pointing at the baby. Underneath the child is a picture of the house she grew up in, a modest two-story home with a spacious front yard.
“My grandfather, Charlie Mord, had a blacksmith shop there on First Street,” she adds. There’s a snapshot of Charlie in front of the wooden edifice (which amazingly still stands today), and she beams at his stern image.
Now the shop is owned by Joe Gomes, a respected Hilmar citizen who is a permanent fixture in the community.
When Hilmar holds its centennial, people like Gomes and Brown will be the ones who can provide the pieces of Hilmar’s history.
The Chamber of Commerce is currently looking for table hosts. Whether they be from families, youth or civic organizations, churches, businesses, or community members themselves, there is a need to highlight the heritage through photographs, artifacts, or other items associated with Hilmar’s past. Participants are also being asked to come up with digitized images to be used in a special tribute.
The round tables, seating eight and equipped with white linen tablecloths, china, and silverware are in limited supply, so you may want to sign up as soon as possible. For a $250 table sponsor fee, hosts will get to provide a centerpiece decoration along with their historical memorabilia.
Individual tickets cost $30 and includes a cookbook filled with recipes, pics spanning Hilmar’s history, plus a meal cooked up by Mark Silveria consisting of chicken, tri-tip, rice, green beans, salad and a roll.
Hilmar Chamber of Commerce President Crystal Casey encourages people from all over to attend the centennial.
“It’s a once in a lifetime event,” she says. “We want people to make memories that they can pass on to their children.”
Tickets can be purchased by visiting hilmarchamber.com and filling out the ticket form.