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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Agriculture & Art at the Mid-Point

It is famous for its raisins, for its geographic centrality midway between northern and southern California; and as a gateway to spectacular Yosemite National Park, just 60 miles north. Formed in 1856 after the Gold Rush from parts of Merced, Tulare, and Mariposa Counties, Fresno County was named for the abundant ash trees—fresno, in Spanish—that lined the San Joaquin River.

The area already contained scattered Spanish-Mexican agricultural communities. Camp Barbour (later renamed Fort Miller) had been established in 1850 to provide protection to gold miners traveling through the region, and the Mariposa Indian War Treaty was signed there in 1851. Shortly thereafter, American and European settlers began arriving; the first lumber mill was built in the surrounding mountains in 1852. But it wasn’t until 1872 that the city of Fresno—now the most populous inland city in California—was founded when the Central Pacific Railroad built a railway station there for its new Southern Pacific line. Soon there was a merchant’s store near the station, and the store grew into the town of Fresno Station, later simply called Fresno.

The fertile valley soil attracted farmers from everywhere, in particular Armenian immigrants fleeing from persecution in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere. The first Armenian recorded as living in Fresno settled there in the late 1870s, but substantial Armenian presence really began in 1881 with Hagop Seropian, a merchant, who had settled in Massachusetts, but found the winters too harsh. That year Seropian and his half-brothers moved across the continent to Fresno, where they found the climate and region to be similar to what they had known in Armenia.

The Seropians began as grocers, and then became packers of dried fruit. Their packing house was the first to ship oranges and figs to Eastern markets, setting the stage for the major role Armenians would play in grape, raisin, tree fruit orchards and packing businesses in Fresno County. They were effective promotors, too, writing glowing accounts of the San Joaquin Valley to Armenian communities in the home country, and New England.

Armenians brought new varieties of grapes to Fresno. Within fifty years of the Seropian brothers' arrival, Armenians owned 40 percent of the county's raisin acreage and represented 25 percent of its growers. They also were the leading dried fruit packers and green fruit shippers.

Along the way, the Fresno Armenians not only became leaders in agriculture and business, but produced a Pulitzer Prize winner, William Saroyan (1908 – 1981).

Born and raised in Fresno, Saroyan wrote stories, articles, plays and novels, many based on his childhood experiences in the Armenian-American agricultural community. Described as one of the most prominent literary figures of the mid-20th century, his writing career was established in 1934 when Story magazine published his “Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” His first play, My Heart’s in the Highlands (1939), a comedy about a young boy and his Armenian family, was produced at the Guild Theater in New York, although he is best remembered for his play The Time of Your Life (also in 1939), set in a San Francisco waterfront saloon. His movie script The Human Comedy, which he turned into a novel, won the 1943 Academy Award for Best Story.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1940.

In Saroyan’s own words: “I was born in a town called Fresno, which is now a famous town, and I don't mean I made it famous. Raisins made Fresno famous. As the years went by … I began to notice that I wrote more and more about Fresno. I suppose if you're going to be a writer, you're going to be one no matter where you're born, but perseverance is the important thing, I think. Even so, my perseverance wouldn't have helped me if I hadn't had Fresno to get away from, think about, and to go back to.”

Since its creation in 1856, Fresno County’s original boundaries were changed several times during the 19th century, when it lost territory to Inyo, Mono, Madera, and San Benito Counties. Still an agricultural powerhouse today, Fresno’s top ten crops include almonds, grapes, pistachios, garlic, and tomatoes. However, Fresno’s once strong Armenian presence has diminished, representing about 10% of a population that today is 50% Hispanic.

After his death in 1981, the city of Fresno re-christened its downtown Convention Center Theater as The William Saroyan Theater.

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