A Merced Merchant in History Helped Create an Irrigation District

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CE Kocher's Glass, Tin & Hardware Store on Front Street, or 16th Street, circa 1900.

CE Kocher’s Glass, Tin & Hardware Store on Front Street, or 16th Street, circa 1900.

Courthouse Museum Collection

While this year’s March miracle proved disappointing, farmers in Merced County nervously started their planting season.

A farmer announced he would plant less this year after attending a meeting at the Merced Irrigation District and learning that the surface water allowance was set at $100 per acre-foot.

Water is the blood of agriculture. The founders of MID, who started the district over a century ago, believed that collective water use and management would greatly benefit growers and support long-term growth.

Carl Edward Kocher, a Merced hardware dealer, was such a believer that he made many personal sacrifices to promote the district and support its work, serving as founding director of District 3 for many years and chairman of the board of directors. from 1923 to 1927. He chose MID over his own hardware company.

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Carl E. Kocher was a hardware merchant, business leader, and MID official in the early 20th century. Courthouse Museum Collection

Kocher was born in Hornitos to Abraham and Katharina Kocher on December 9, 1867. Abraham, a Swiss immigrant, settled in Hornitos and engaged in the saddle and harness trade following his gold fever . He died when Kocher was not even 3 years old. Katharina was a resilient woman who ran a successful haberdashery and millinery business while raising two young children.

Kocher completed elementary school in Hornitos and attended high school in San Jose to further his education. He graduated from Garden City Business College in 1887 and worked as an accountant for his uncle Jacob Kocher, a pioneering hardware dealer who opened a store in Merced in 1872.

After Jacob’s retirement, Kocher started his own hardware business in 1897 on Front Street (now 16th Street). In addition to tinware, stoves and cookers, it also carried agricultural equipment and tools as well as paints and oils.

This ambitious man quickly created a large company and needed space to expand. So he moved to the more spacious quarters of the Central Hotel Building in 1906. Kocher’s burgeoning business and sound investment enabled him to build a modern home in the brand new Bradley Addition and acquire an orchard and a vineyard in Yosemite Colony.

Kocher’s business acumen reached a new height when he purchased the land at the southwest corner of 18th and Canal streets and erected a two-story brick building in 1911. The Kocher building became the new headquarters for his hardware business. With a full line of Oliver Chilled plows, Deering farm implements, and Fuller and Johnson gasoline engines, Kocher Hardware has become one of the largest and most comprehensive hardware dealers in this part of the San Joaquin Valley. .

Kocher was a prominent business leader. As newly elected president of the Merchant’s Association, he formally opposed the 8-hour workday bill in 1913; as a longtime public servant in a variety of positions, he was an integral part of the Merced Chamber of Commerce. In 1919, Kocher became involved in organizing the Merced Irrigation District and was elected to the MID board as a founding member.

The following year, Kocher, CM Cross, and WD Wagner withdrew their House nominations. They explained, “We must devote all our time and energy to this work so that the Merced Irrigation District, when completed, will be the best it can be, and we must let nothing stand in the way of its completion.

The formation of the MID aroused much opposition which often resulted in bitterness among communities and friends. The victorious election of 1919 led to the formation of the MID, but deepened the urban-rural divide, with townspeople voting overwhelmingly in favor, while farmers voted against.

Farmers were angry with Kocher for his support of MID, so they boycotted his store. Experiencing a decline in business, Kocher sold his store to Fred Bedesen and Jack McNamara in 1923. Even when it cost him his business, Kocher let nothing get in his way.

Bedesen and McNamara continued to face difficulties in the early management of the store due to the boycott. Jack McNamara later recalled, “Farmers really didn’t understand what they [the MID directors] had in mind for them. If they knew then what they are doing now, they would have thrown their arms around Mr. Kocher and Mr. Cross instead of criticizing them.

Farmers thought the district would tax them on farming activities, McNamara continued. “So they got mad at all the managers and when they couldn’t do anything about them, the farmers got together. They believed Mr. Kocher still had a stake in the business. We couldn’t convince them that we were the sole owners.

Carl E. Kocher may have lost his business, but he did his life’s work supervising the construction of one of the largest concrete arch dams at the time. The completion of the Exchequer Dam and power plant in 1926 brought water, power, and prosperity to Merced County.

To learn more about Kocher’s legacy, please visit the Tractor Dealers in Merced County exhibit and the Merced Irrigation District Centennial exhibit at the Courthouse Museum. The Museum is closed at Easter.

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Aerial view of the Exchequer Dam &; Powerhouse, January 21, 1926. CE Kocher, president of MID from 1923 to 1927, oversaw the construction of the Exchequer dam and powerhouse. Courthouse Museum Collection

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