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By Terry Ommen
Dusting Off History 

Fort Visalia-Marked Forever

 

Last updated 11/11/2023 at 1:11pm | View PDF

There are no photos of Fort Visalia, but shown here is Alice G. Rouleau's representation of how the fort might have looked.

On April 18, 1852, a small wagon train of settlers left Red Rock, Iowa heading west. They traveled for several months, arrived in California, and in the fall they camped on a fertile forested piece of land that would become the town of Visalia. Led by three brothers - Osee, Warren, and Reuben Matthews, the group was looking for a home, preferably one that could turn into a new town. The Matthews family had experience with grist or grain mills, and these millers were anxious to establish one using the heavy millstone that they had carried with them on their journey.

Their campsite, later determined to be in the block bounded by Oak, School Garden and Bridge streets, had everything needed for a new town - trees for shade and lumber, good soil for raising crops, fish and game for food, tall grass for grazing livestock, and plenty of water to drink and even run a waterwheel for a mill. But they had one big concern. The local native people were reportedly hostile, so as a precaution, the group cut down oak trees and used the logs to build a fortress for protection. The resulting log structure was about 60' square with walls about 12' high. In the evening, the settlers stayed inside and during the day, they would go outside to farm.

Eventually, the group abandoned the fortress, which later became known as Fort Visalia, and built homes and buildings around the site. One of the men who greeted the settlers was a man named Nathaniel Vise who had been camping nearby. Prior to the arrival of the Iowans, this hunter had laid claim to a large parcel of land on which the fortress was built. Vise was invited to live in the fort. He accepted and the courtesy apparently touched Vise and he relinquished his right to the land and the new town was named Visalia in his honor.

In 1915, Edgar Reynolds, one of the first arrivals and a builder of the fort, returned to Visalia and identified the block on which the fort was built. In 1981, the Tulare County Historical Society and Mt. Whitney Council of the Boy Scouts of America placed a historical marker on the block - marking the beginning of Visalia. When Self-Help Enterprises (SHE), a community development organization, bought the one square block parcel, they envisioned a housing project with studio, one and two-bedroom units, with some designated for the homeless.

SHE recognized the historical importance of the new land acquisition so they named the new development "The Lofts of Fort Visalia," and asked Visalia Heritage, Inc., a non-profit local history organization, to serve as historical consultants for the project. SHE also asked the Arts Consortium to take part in the project. Both Visalia Heritage and the Arts Consortium were allocated space on the site.

This October photo shows The Lofts at Fort Visalia in the final stage of construction on the northeast corner of Garden and Oak streets.

Today, The Lofts is in its final stage of construction. Tom Collishaw, president and CEO of Self-Help, is excited about the project saying, "The Lofts at Fort Visalia is the realization of a dream that SHE envisioned for this underutilized site for over a decade. It combines history, the arts and desperately needed housing in a vital space that adds to the economic vitality and culture of downtown Visalia."

Located at 340 E. Oak Ave., The Lofts at Fort Visalia will have a grand opening on Thursday, December 7, and Self-Help Enterprises has invited the public to attend. An open house will begin at 4 p.m. with a brief dedication at 5:15 p.m., followed by hosted tours of the various amenities on site as well as the housing units.

You are encouraged to come to this special event and see the living units and the community art gallery named in honor of Peter N. Carey, former Visalia mayor and former Self-Help Enterprises CEO. Other amenities at the site include murals on the building, a tribute monument commemorating the site of Fort Visalia, and the lobby, designated the Fort Visalia Heritage Room, which will display historical Visalia photographs and a model depicting the original fort.

 

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