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Stripping away a small town’s plaque stories

They’re stealing this small town’s history.

The bronze plaques that marked the wheres and noted the whos and whispered the back story of Selma, “raisin capital of the world,” are disappearing.

Gone are the testaments that an elementary school was a public works project built during the Great Depression and that the women’s club has stood since 1911. There are no longer etched letters gracing the town mural in loving memory of Mr. Snodgrow, or a bronzed list of those who donated money to build the church hall at St. Joseph’s.

“Times are tough, but, my God, to take the plaques that mark our history and tell our story — the words ‘nothing sacred’ come to mind,” said local historian Randy McFarland.

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He’s a former managing editor of the Selma Enterprise, which is the longest continuously published newspaper in the Central Valley — something you could have learned from a plaque on the paper’s office building. But they stole that too.

Selma police say the thief or thieves were probably after scrap metal. Prices fluctuate constantly, but bronze is currently at $2 a pound. Copper-wire thefts from light poles and farm machinery have long been a problem.

“But historical markers?” said Det. Vince Bantayan. “The victims are very upset. And the victims are the entire community.”

Although its population has swelled to 26,000 as some farmland has given way to housing tracts, Selma is still surrounded by grapevines and stone fruit trees. People tend to know one another, and a name on an old plaque is likely a relative of someone who still lives in town.

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The thefts began in mid-July with the plaque on the town’s historical mural. Painted on the side of Rose and Scott Robertson’s downtown building, the work includes scenes of Chinese laborers building the Southern Pacific Railroad, a farmer plowing a field, and Selma Michelsen, the railroad employee’s wife who is the town’s namesake. She is framed by leafy vines, grapes and raisins.

It was no small feat, during a recession, to raise $20,000 for the mural last year. Everyone still talks about the fundraising doggedness of Vicki Filgas, a retired high school dance teacher who made the mural her passion.

The plaque expressed appreciation to Filgas, the artists and the people and businesses who donated.

Glacier Refrigeration and Air was listed, and owner Andy Montijo, 50, said that meant something to him.

“The names on that plaque were all people who work 10- to 12-hour days and gave hard-earned money,” he said. “It wasn’t a vanity thing, but so that my kids, and maybe my grandkids someday, could see we were involved in our community.”

The owner of Purefresh, another of the listed sponsors, was born and raised in Selma and is known to most everyone as Bill.

But on the plaque, he and his wife put their proper names: Balvinder and Harpreet Purewal.

Purewal wanted to show it to his father, who arrived from India in 1958 and bought a Selma farm in 1972.

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“I wanted him to be proud, to see me saying, ‘This is who I am and I contribute to my community,’” said Purewal, whose father died this month.

As summer progressed, plaques went missing from the library, church, schools and the Selma Women’s Club, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. To celebrate, it’s publishing a cookbook featuring previous winners of the annual raisin-baking contest.

Before women even had the right to vote, the club was key in establishing the grassy downtown park where its building sits — something you can no longer learn from a marker on its front.

“We don’t have murders or anything like that in Selma,” said the club’s current president, Roseann Galvan. “This was devastating. They carted away things we take pride in, and they’re going to sell them and melt them away for a few dollars.”

After the thieves targeted two elementary schools, district officials decided to remove all bronze plaques for safekeeping.

“I was surprised at how heavy they are. They about tore my arm off,” said Assistant Superintendent Larry Teixera.

He counts the safeguarded plaques among the losses. Five years ago, someone stole an old bell outside a school. The district warehoused the other bells, and they remain in hiding.

“I love a plaque,” Teixera said. “The first school they hit had a grand Art Deco facade, and to the left just before you opened the door was this old bronze plaque that I always noticed.”

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The marker said the school was built as a public works project in 1938 and listed every man who worked on it.

“I’m not saying I read every word every time,” Teixera added, “but when I saw it, thoughts would breeze through my mind about how this school’s bricks and concrete put a lot of people to work and about all the kids who had gone to school there.”

McFarland, the historian, said towns like Selma are on their own when it comes to preserving their history.

“Rural California fights an uphill battle. Pick up a California history book, you won’t find a lot outside of San Francisco, L.A. and the missions,” he said. “We have to tell our own stories.”

There are a few markers left. In Brentlinger Park, east of downtown, a plaque commemorates the spot where the first high school night baseball game was played in October 1929. There’s still a plaque for pioneer Frank Dusy, a mountain explorer and the first to raise sheep in Selma. Residents are working on a marker for the old Libby, McNeill & Libby plant, which from 1911 to 1971 was the largest fruit cannery in the world.

But, mostly, there are discolored, empty squares where plaques used to be on Selma’s buildings. At Msgr. Daniel Lopez Hall at St. Joseph’s, Daniel Paradis’ name once was on a small square listing big donors.

“Plaques tell you this guy came and stuck his shovel here or this group came together to raise this hall. I was going to be one of those names. Maybe my kids would have brought their kids someday and pointed and said, ‘That’s our family,’” said Paradis, 45.

“What’s a town without plaques? Just a bunch of anonymous buildings.”

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.


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