Ask Me: Fresno's Fort Miller Middle School's cannon has uncertain history

The Fresno BeeOctober 12, 2013 

The cannon anchored in cement outside Fort Miller Junior High School in Fresno photographed Tuesday, October 8, 2013. The question of the cannon's origin and how it came to be at Ft. Miller will be pondered in a Paula Lloyd Ask Me column.

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Question: What is the history of the cannon in front of Fort Miller Middle School?

-- Patti Potter, Fresno

Answer: Legend has it that the cannon came from Fort Miller, which was founded near Millerton in 1851 to protect Valley settlers from Indians, but records of its history are incomplete.

In her book "Fort Miller: A Memory of the San Joaquin," Helen S. Giffen said cannon balls were among supplies shipped to the new fort, and an 1855 inspection of the fort lists "two 12-pounder howitzers" at Fort Miller.

But it is unclear whether the cannons were removed when the fort was abandoned in 1865 or if they were acquired by Judge Charles A. Hart, who bought the fort's land and buildings at auction in 1866.

Hart, his wife and children lived in the former officers' quarters and he raised cattle on Fort Miller Ranch. When Hart died in 1903, his property went to his stepson, William H. McKenzie.

In 1913, the late McKenzie's estate and Fresno developer Samuel N. Griffith built the city's first skyscraper, a 10-story edifice now known as the Helm Building.

According to a Fort Miller Middle School newsletter story from 1969, Griffith once owned the cannon, which stood on the grounds of his home. Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. maps show Griffith's home on the southeast corner of M and Mariposa streets in 1906.

A 1919 Sanborn map shows Griffith's former home was being used as a boarding house. Griffith moved to San Francisco, where he died in 1930. By 1950, the Fresno County Schools office was located where his home once stood.

At some point, the cannon belonged to American Legion Post 4, the forerunner of Post 509. The cannon was later given to the school, whose original mascot was the Pioneers when it opened in 1954.

Today, the site of Fort Miller is at the bottom of Millerton Lake.

Question: What is the history of Capriola's Café that was in downtown Fresno?

-- Dorothy Brown, Fresno

Answer: Pete and Rocky Capriola opened the café at Fresno and G streets in 1936 and operated it for 16 years. Capriola's Café was owned by Robert Steinhauer and Walter Horn when it closed in 1970.

The corner was first occupied by a two-story wood-frame building constructed in 1890, housing a bicycle shop downstairs and hotel upstairs.

After the building was destroyed by fire about 10 years later, a one-story brick building was erected in 1910, home to a furniture store and various other businesses before Capriola's opened.

In a 1970 Fresno Bee story, Woody Laughnan described Capriola's as an "out-of-the-office headquarters to crusty newspapermen and lawyers, judges, loud fight promoters, farmers and a dozen or so bankers."

During World War II, actor and singer Mario Lanza, who was stationed at Fresno's Hammer Field, regularly sang at Capriola's.

The café served nickel and dime beer and charged 35 cents for one menu favorite, a heel of roast beef or pork served on big pieces of French bread.

Question: Did German prisoners of war work as farm laborers in the Valley during World War II?

-- Duke Crockett, Clovis

Answer: Thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war worked on California farms from about 1944 to 1946, including in the San Joaquin Valley.

According to the book "Fresno County in the 20th Century," in 1944 Congress approved using prisoners of war to ease the country's critical farm labor shortage.

"Due to the isolation of many of the camps, few civilians knew they existed," the book says. "Most of the men in this area came from Hitler's Afrika Korps."

In the Valley, camps of about 250 prisoners each were established in Mendota, Firebaugh, Tranquility, San Joaquin, Five Points and Coalinga. About 1,000 prisoners were housed at a camp near Lemoore.

The California State Military Museum website lists 250 prisoners at Firebaugh and 249 prisoners at Dairyland in Madera.

The prisoners were employees of the federal government and were provided with housing, meals, medical care and wages.

The number of prisoner-workers peaked at 15,435 for the November 1945 cotton harvest. President Harry S. Truman ended the prisoner of war worker program in 1946.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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