One hundred and forty three years after their great-grandfather settled in the vast fields at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Firebaughs returned to town to dedicate a mural honoring the history they share with the city he founded.
John Franklin Firebaugh’s great-grandchildren and even some great-great-grandchildren attended the Oct. 24 dedication of Exeter’s newest mural, depicting the town’s founder on a horse a buggy with his wife pulling up to one of the first homes in the Exeter area where workers and family members pose for a photograph in the wheat plains they farmed for a living. Among those in attendance were great-grandchildren John Firebaugh and his wife Barbara of Elk Grove, Calif.; Jane (Firebaugh) Johnson and her husband Myron of Fresno, Calif.; and Russell Poe of Fresno, Calif.
“This mural was not a mural just for us, it was a mural for the entire town,” said the 60-year-old John Firebaugh. “John F. Firebaugh would have been extremely proud of this little town. It is really a jewel. This town and its leaders have taken care and pride in an effort to embrace the past but still keep Exeter current.”
Jane added, “I want to thank Exeter for what they have done with this community and this mural. It really is a jewel in the Valley.”
Exeter’s 30th mural takes the City back to its beginnings, before it was even a stop on the railroad called Exeter.
According to a biography published by Professor J.M. Guinn in 1905, John F. Firebaugh was born near Lexington, Rockbridge Co., Virginia on Dec. 12, 1846.
Although a Virginian, John’s father, Benjamin Firebaugh, did not own slaves, nor did he believe in the traffic, but John and his brothers were forced into the Confederate Army. After the war, John F. Firebaugh came to California with the family, following an uncle, Andrew Firebaugh, who crossed the plains in 1849 and established the town of Firebaugh, Fresno County.
In 1873 he married Mary E. Davis of Stanislaus Co., California and located first on the railroad lands on the northeast quarter of section three township 19 range 26 of what would soon be called Exeter, Calif. Firebaugh would eventually own 460 acres mostly devoted to general farming and stock raising. It was Firebaugh who enticed the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. to locate a station here in 1888. In 1890, Firebaugh and D.W. Parkhurst of the Pacific Improvement Co. laid out the town and named it after Parkhurst’s native Exeter, England.
By 1905, Firebaugh still owned 160 acres and held a stake in 120 more. He owned a pumping plant which could irrigate 250 acres of the popular crop of the day, Rocky Ford cantaloupes. He also built a grain mill west of the town known as the San Joaquin Roller Mill, which he owned for 10 years.
Guinn wrote, “… when he sold out, his business interests, horticulture, farming, and stock raising as well as the Exeter, have made him a potent factor in the development and growth of this part of the Tulare County, and justly places him in the front rank representative citizens.”
John and Mary Firebaugh had four children: Minnie B., the wife of M.D. Twinehaus of Exeter; Luther W. a rancher near Exeter; Edna E., the wife or George Hinds of Exeter; Elmer J., located in Bakersfield; Lorena D., still at home.
The Firebaugh Ranch was located just north of downtown just off Old Post Office (now known as N. F Street as it turns into Filbert Street), according to the Official Historical Atlas Map of Tulare County. The barn to the left of the home in the mural burned down in 1929 during the infamous Filipino riot. Firebaugh owned a total of 460 acres in the Exeter area in 1868. The home was later relocated somewhere south of Exeter but eventually burned down.
Last Friday, Oct. 25, the Sun-Gazette spoke with two of the founder’s great-grandchildren – siblings John Firebaugh and Jane Johnson and their spouses Barbara Firebaugh and Myron Johnson. The conversation in the lobby of the Best Western in Exeter shed some light on where the Firebaugh’s are now and the historical connection they still feel to their great-grandfather’s town.
John and Jane are the grandchildren of John F. Firebaugh’s son Luther and his wife Lizzie. The couple had seven children before Lizzie died in 1919 at the age of 42 following the influenza epidemic of 1918. Left to raise crops and seven children on his own, Luther began to place the children with female relatives and families who could raise his children like their own, such as twin, one year-old siblings Gene and Jane who were adopted by a family. Luther lived in Exeter until his death in 1955 at the age of 77.
“The family changed Jane’s name to June after the adoption,” Jane Johnson said. “That’s the reason I was named Jane because my father didn’t think they should have done that.”
The oldest boys, Dick “Eugene” and Drew Firebaugh, went to live with family in Neptune, NJ, who had stayed close to Virginia where their grandparents settled before heading west to California. Maxine, who was three years old when Lizzie died, went to Southern California. The oldest, Doris, was one of the only children to stay in the area. She married John Wesley Poe who opened a creamery in Exeter, which is believed to be the creamery where the “Firebaugh Kids” are headed in the mural.
Jane believes the little boy “driving” the milk cart is her father Russell Firebaugh, Luther’s middle son, who was 11 years old when his mother died. He eventually married Birdie Isabel Trinidade and settled in Le Grande, Calif. in Madera County. They farmed 320 acres in Madera County from the 1930s through the 1960s.
“When mom died, dad sold the land and bought a house on 5 acres,” she said.
Up until her death, John said his parents brought he and his sister to the Exeter Cemetery every Memorial Day to visit the gravesites of their ancestors.
“We would place flowers on the gravesites of the Firebaughs and then go to Mooney Grove for a picnic lunch,” John said.
For the first time in many years, they were able to do that again when they arrived in town for the dedication last Thursday.
Myron Johnson and Jane (Firebaugh) have been married for 45 years. Growing up on a ranch, Jane fell in love with horses. Today she breeds and raises thoroughbred racing horses on her own ranch in Fresno and is on the Board of Directors of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Myron is an amateur military historian having served in the Navy during Vietnam and as the son of a Pearl Harbor survivor. After his service, Myron worked for a steel fabrication firm making tanks. The couple has been raising horses on their ranch since 1979, but it was another of Jane’s interests that reconnected them with Exeter.
Jane has quietly amassed one of the best antique clothing button collections in the Valley and possibly in the United States. At one point, she and Myron purchased and shipped 4,000 pounds of antique buttons from a defunct factory overseas. Last April, Jane was selling her buttons at the Best of the Valley Quilt Show in Lindsay and decided to stop in Exeter while she was in town.
“I was reading the Firebaugh Kids mural and told the manager of the Mural Gift Shop that was incorrect information,” she said.
Exeter’s 19th mural, “Firebaugh Kids” (Roger Cooke, 2002), was thought to depict the children of founder John F. Firebaugh sitting on a wagon hauling milk to the creamery circa 1915. The mural is located at the corner of Pine and C streets.
While in town, Jane contacted Mickey Hirni to explain the photograph the mural is based on was not of John F. Firebaugh’s children, but his grandchildren. The kids in the mural are actually the children of the founder’s son, Luther Firebaugh.
“The little boy driving the milk wagon is my dad, Russell,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the history was correct, but I was a little worried about overturning the apple cart. But Mickey was so gracious. He has done a lot to preserve the history of the town.”
John Firebaugh and Barbara have been married for 37 years. Barbara is the soft-spoken minister of a historic 132-year-old Methodist Church in Elk Grove, Calif. John was a navigator for bombers in the U.S. Air Force for 11 and a half years. After retiring with the rank of captain, John became an aviation logistician with CalFire Aviation based out of the old McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. They have two children Robert Russell and Renee Jeanette. Robert is married to Angela (Ensele) and they live in San Mateo, Calif. Renee is married to Lee Sherbo and they live in Lincoln, Calif. All four toured Exeter shops and its mural before attending the dedication last Thursday.