World War I to World War II – 1917 to 1945

World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918. In response Germany’s sinking of seven merchant ships in the Atlantic, as well as Germany’s profession of support for Mexico to recover Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Modesto’s citizens responded by organizing a Red Cross auxiliary, and holding benefits and patriotic parades. When the United States asked men to join the military, 872 young Modestans joined, from a total population of about 8,000.
When the war ended, Modesto was equally exuberant in its support, honoring 1,000 returning Army and Navy veterans and the 85 who did not return at a celebration in Graceada Park in October of 1919.

In January of 1918, the Spanish flu arrived in Stanislaus County and sickened 2,000 people countywide, including 600 in Modesto. The magnitude of the epidemic overwhelmed local hospitals and the Elks Hall was converted into a temporary hospital to accommodate the great need. Almost 200 people died.

Soon after the U.S. joined World War I in 1917, Congress began a new attempt to pass a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol. The Eighteenth Amendment became law in 1919, making it illegal to grow wine grapes, which had begun with the advent of irrigation in 1904. Despite the hardship posed by the loss of
a market for wine grapes, the city survived in part through the growth of the revived alcohol industry following the end to Prohibition with passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. The E&J Gallo winery opened immediately after Prohibition ended.

Modesto’s Municipal Aviation Field was constructed in 1920, funded in part by a $50,000 bond for the purchase of 74 acres. While not the first municipal airport built, Modesto was the first city in the country to plan for an airport in its 1910 charter. The original site of the air field was near downtown on property that eventually became the Modesto Municipal Golf Course. In celebration of the city’s 50th anniversary and Armistice Day (now known as Veterans’ Day), the air field was used for aerial displays and ball games, including one between the California State League Class D Modesto Reds (1914-1915) and Casey Stengel’s National League All Stars. Harold “Bud” Coffee was killed in 1921 at the airport along with several passengers and the airport was renamed “Coffee Field” in his honor. The airport was moved to its
current location in 1929 due to an approach that was too short for safety.

During the 1920s, growth continued and new schools and social organizations were founded, including Modesto Rotary (1920), Modesto Parent-Teacher Association (1923), the Modesto Garden Club (1924, Frederick Knorr), the largest garden club in the United States, and American Association of University Women (1925). The Old Fisherman’s Club on Maze Boulevard (State Route 132) by the Tuolumne River was also established in 1920, frequented by local politicians and businessmen, and is still in existence today. The Elks built a new hall in 1927, replacing the old hall on 10th Street, and a new state-of-the-art fire station was built in 1939 on 10th Street. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, slowed Modesto’s growth and brought widespread unemployment (25 percent nationally), but brought with it immigrants fleeing the dust bowl conditions brought on by drought in the Midwest in the 1930s.

Most important among the new schools established during this period was Modesto Junior College. Sixty-one students registered for school in 1921. The second junior college in California, it was the first to be chartered in a junior college district. South Hall was the first building, occupied in 1923. Howard
Gilky designed the campus. A great many notable Modestans studied at Modesto Junior College before achieving distinction.

Music had always been important to Modesto, but Frank Mancini refined it by creating the Modesto Symphony Orchestra in 1930. The Symphony Orchestra added to the variety provided by the music program at Modesto High School and the Modesto Band, both directed by Mancini, and numerous music
clubs and community organizations.

The Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts cooperated to construct Don Pedro Dam and reservoir in 1923, expanding water storage capacity, and establishing municipal water and hydroelectric power services, all of which have been central to the development of the county’s agriculture and food packing and processing industries. The first electricity meter was installed in late 1923 with Modesto City Schools and Modesto Junior College as early customers and the first schools in California heated by electricity. The agriculture and food processing industries were the keys to growth and prosperity in the middle decades of the 20th century and their diversity of products helped Modesto weather the Great Depression. Some of Modesto’s largest packing and processing companies were established in the
middle 1930s. The E & J Gallo Winery also opened in this same period, as did Foster Farms.

The city continued to prosper despite the Great Depression and built a new dam on the Tuolumne River, Dennett Dam, to create a lake adjacent to downtown. The dam was named for Lincoln L. Dennett, a former mayor. Legion Park on the Tuolumne River was donated to the city by the American Legion and the park was a good location from which to enjoy water sports on the new Lake Modesto. The dam was destroyed by flooding in 1935, rebuilt in 1937, and damaged again in the 1940s. Tuolumne River Regional Park is planned to once again to take advantage of Modesto’s proximity to the river, but without the dam and lake.

Modesto needed a new post office and the property that had formerly been the home of Elihu Beard on the north corner of 12th and I Streets was purchased for it. The community raised funds to construct a new building in 1923 which was used until that building was replaced by El Viejo Post Office in 1933. In 1924, Modesto’s two competing newspapers, the Stanislaus News and Morning Herald, merged to create the Modesto News-Herald. This paper was purchased by the McClatchy Newspaper Corporation in 1927 and the named changed to The Modesto Bee in 1933. Other Modesto papers have existed over the years, but The Modesto Bee is the only one published today.

Modesto’s population had grown to more than 16,000 by 1940. World War II had an impact on the population. Hundreds of citizens left to work on the war effort, leaving Modesto with a labor shortage, which was particularly hard on farmers, who needed a substantial labor force to harvest crops. Local food
processing plants were pressed into service to provide canned goods for the war effort. The military closed all west coast airports including Modesto’s, except for military service. New construction ceased. Meanwhile, Americans were issued ration and coupon books for many household goods, also to assist the war effort. Modesto Junior College hosted the first annual Northern California Relays (now Modesto Relays), at which the world pole vault record was broken, setting the stage for many future world records to be broken at the stadium.

As news of the end of World War II broke, Modestans flooded downtown to celebrate. An estimated 7,500 people jammed the streets, dancing, sounding horns, and lighting fireworks.


  • December 27, 2016
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