W. Mitchell •
Marshall David Atwater
• George Bloss, Sr.
• E.A. "Pop"
A Look Back:
is located in Merced County, California, in the large valley known
as the San Joaquin. The topography, when American settlers arrived,
was that of rolling plains with large rivers cutting through.
This feature is what made it possible to turn the land into an
agricultural paradise. Originally occupied by many clans of the
Indians known as Yokuts and then by the Spanish who had large
land grants, the face of the area began dramatic change after
the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in February of 1848. This treaty
ended the Mexican-American War and California became a part of
the United States. The discovery of gold in 1849 brought people
flooding into California looking for quick riches, however it
also brought men of great moral character and vision.
One such man was John
W. Mitchell who arrived in San Francisco, following his brother
Asal, on February 22,1851. After working in this city long enough
to buy equipment, John and his brother went into business cutting
hay and cordwood around the Stockton area. They sold these items
to the teamsters working the mines. They soon had their own wagon
and tent, and plied the mines selling goods to those working in
the gold fields. They set up the tent and rented out one half
for $50.00 a month. Being an entrepreneur of the first order,
any money John saved was used to buy land from the United States
Government at the rate of $1.25 in greenbacks (paper money), or
75 cents in gold, per acre.
He had a half million
acres in his name even before the official survey was completed
by the United States Government. Having been reared on a farm
in the Woodbury area of Litchfield County, Connecticut, the land
had always been his calling. He convinced other people from his
home state, including the families of his three nieces, to come
west and try their hand at dry land farming. He would provide
those who rented from him with seed to get started, along with
farm equipment, and would also build houses for them. Mr. Mitchell,
who bought and sold thousands of acres in the San Joaquin Valley,
was the man who influenced the growth and settling of the land
in the Atwater vicinity. John Mitchell died on November 26, 1893
at the age of 65. Though Mitchell had married, his wife Jane predeceased
him and they had no children. The bulk of his estate was inherited
by three nieces; Mrs. Henry Geer (Mary), Mrs. Stephen Crane (Emma),
and Mrs. George Bloss (Ella). The three women were sisters and
the children of Mitchell’s sister Mrs. Stone.
Marshall David Atwater
came to California from Bethany, Connecticut as early as 1855.
He spent several years working in the Mokelumne Hills area before
coming to this vicinity in 1868.
He was prompted to
make the move by John Mitchell. As one of the first settlers,
he began to farm wheat on acreage that he rented from Mitchell.
Mr. Atwater also purchased 6,000 acres of his own north of Atwater
“The Winn Ranch”.
He became one of the
largest grain growers in the area. In 1872, when the Central Pacific
Railroad pushed through the Valley to Merced, Mr. Atwater and
Mr. Mitchell induced the railroad to put in a spur at the warehouse
where Atwater stored his grain. This became known as “Atwater
Switch” and made it easier for Mr. Atwater to ship his large
amounts of grain. About this time he also purchased a ranch of
some 4,480 acres, which was located northwest of nearby Merced.
By 1876, Mr. Atwater, his wife Laura and their daughter Eliza
moved to their new home on this ranch.
He became a diversified
farmer growing different grains, citrus fruit, and livestock.
Mr. Atwater also invented a huge grain harvester pulled by twenty-four
mules. He operated this farm for over thirty years, passing away
at the age of eighty in February of 1905.
Bloss, Sr., who settled in Atwater in 1884, administered the Mitchell
Estate, his wife was one of the nieces that inherited from Mr.
1887 Bloss and Henry F. Geer subdivided 480 acres into 20-acre
parcels and called the area Atwater Colony. In 1888, the Merced
Land & Fruit Company laid out the town and sold lots at auction.
George S. Bloss and his wife, Ella Stone Bloss, approved this
plan. The town was given the name of the colony.
was not going to be a fast developer, by the turn of the century
only one hundred people lived in the area and its weekly newspaper
was started in 1911. Atwater was, however, lucky to have George
Bloss, Sr. as a benefactor for the town. He had been president
of Fin de Siecle Investment Company, which had been created by
all three of the niece’s families to handle the Mitchell
this company was liquidated it was divided into thirds –
one for the Bloss Land and Cattle Company, one to the Crane Brothers
Company, and one to the Geer-Dallas Investment Company. Bloss’s
third was used to benefit the town with a library, built in memory
of his grandson, and a hospital in memory of his wife, Ella. George
Bloss, Jr. and his wife Christine later continued these philanthropic
website pictures the progress of one town in the valley from its
inception as a grain warehouse to a thriving community. Despite
its slow start, the town did indeed develop. Situated in the population
belt of the valley, over half of the county’s population
is now centered in the Merced-Atwater area. The Santa Fe Railroad
was laid north of town and, along with Highway 99 passing through
town, brought excellent transportation opportunities.
Atwater Canal brought irrigation to the area, while the advent
of the Merced Army Flying Field (later Castle Air Force Base)
brought people and increased commerce. From the days of the Atwater
Colony, Atwater is now a fully developed community.
Atwater Historical Society wishes to pay tribute to the people
whose vision was so important to the settling of this part of
the San Joaquin. Without a past there would be no future.
Would E. A. Heller follow in his father and grandfather's footsteps
and become a blacksmith, or follow his own dream and become a
pharmacist? It wasn't long after E. A. Heller made his decision
to make his dream come true
up to that was the family’s move from Wisconsin to California
1905, Mr. and Mrs. Elias Heller and their son, E. A. Heller moved
to San Jose, California from Wisconsin due to Mrs. Heller's poor
health. Elias started work in Santa Clara as a blacksmith.
Mrs. Heller died from tuberculosis shortly after the San Francisco
earthquake in 1906. Elias was leery that another earthquake might
follow the devastating 1906 quake, so the family eventually moved
to the Fresno area and lived in several different towns before
moving to Atwater. In 1908 E. A. entered the University of California
School of Pharmacy at San Francisco. He graduated in 1910. While
attending college, E. A. Heller worked at Brommel Pharmacy in
San Francisco. He would stay all night at the pharmacy so that
if there were any nighttime customer requests, he could take a
streetcar and deliver the prescriptions. In 1911 E.A. married
Marguerite Skaggs. Their children were Jim, born June 6, 1912
was it like in the central part of California around 1912?
a little boy, Jim Heller remembers his father E. A. Heller, working
a few Fresno pharmacies and moonlighting as a Victrola phonograph
salesman while living in Fresno County.
had come along, as well as the paving of some of the dirt roads.
Horses and buggies remained in use until the early 1920’s,
although there were a few automobiles on the roads as well.
1912, the town of Atwater suffered a terrible loss when a fire
started in the meat market and all the businesses between Third
and Fourth Street in town burnt down. The only business that survived
on the block was a small grocery store owned by the Williamson
Family, which later became Lawrence Grocery Store.
in the same year, George Bloss Sr. paid $21,000 to have the "Bloss
Block" built. It was a large building and housed several
1917, E. A. and his wife, Marguerite, moved to Atwater. The population
was 596. At first Marguerite refused to move to Atwater because
there was no home to live in. Finally, Mrs. George Bloss Sr. had
a home built on Broadway for the couple. They rented the home
from her for several years and then purchased it.
A. purchased a small store for $250.00 from Dr. Kinney in the
Bloss Block on Third Street and Front Street (Front Street turned
into Highway 99 then Atwater Blvd.). The store was 18 ft. x 30
ft. George Bloss Sr. was E.A.’s landlord. This is where
E.A. followed his dream and became Atwater's first pharmacist.
He soon became known to everyone as"Pop"Heller.
1917, Pop (E.A.) was awarded the Rexall franchise during his first
year in business in Atwater. Meanwhile,
E.A.’s father, Elias, remained a blacksmith and owned his
own shop in Atwater until 1921.
Atwater Rexall Drug Store expanded twice while occupying the entire
highway frontage of the building.
A. established the business, remaining in the Bloss Block for
35 years.The Bloss family and the Heller family became good friends.
Bloss, George and Christine Bloss' only child, played with Jim
and Rosalie Heller.
a child, Jim Heller would walk across the street to the Bloss
Home and fill a ceramic pitcher with milk from their cow.
That is the same ceramic pitcher the Heller family donated to
the Bloss Home Museum.
Thompson Bloss, Jim and Elias Heller
event took place in 1918. There was a terrible flu epidemic. Jim
and his sister, Rosalie, wore masks over their noses and mouths
A. “Pop” Heller was an active leader in the community
affairs, having served as president of the chamber of commerce,
as a school board trustee, as a member of the board of trustees
of the Methodist Church, as a member of the Masonic Lodge and
as a charter member of the Atwater Rotary Club.
Jim and Rosalie were growing up, Pop loved music and played the
banjo, and guitar, and his band played at all kinds of local events.
a young man, Jim had a girlfriend who lived in Oregon. On a trip
to see her, he stopped off at his sister’s,
Rosalie’s, place. Her roommate was Peggy. It was love at
first sight. Jim never made it to Oregon.
married Marjorie "Peggy" Gernreich in 1937. They had
two sons, Jim Jr. and Brian, both of whom share their father's
and grandfather's enthusiasm for the drugstore.
Jim and Peggy lived in Atwater, the population was approximately
1200. It was only natural that, Jim Heller, who spent much of
his youth in the drug store and who had also graduated from the
University of California School of Pharmacy, should go into business
with his father. In 1945, Pop and Jim became partners.
drugstore had a soda fountain. There were 9 round swivel stools
attached to the floor.
Some of the first ladies who managed the soda fountain were Clara
Mello, Ann Frago and Mary Sai Freitas.
the 1940's it was a favorite hangout for the kids in Atwater who
had a few nickels and dimes to spend on a milkshake, banana split
or a lemon-lime fizz. It was also a popular place to stop for
people traveling on Highway 99. The store dispensed prescriptions
and nonprescription remedies. It was the only source in the area
for veterinary medicines up until the 1950's.
you heard the clang of a cow bell, you knew your prescription
was ready. This tradition lasted 69 years.
joined Pop in the development of the Heller subdivision as the
need for a new housing program arose in Atwater. The subdivision
consisted of 60 homes and a public playground. The playground
was called Heller Park. One of the stories passed through the
generations was that Peggy said the first home they moved to in
Atwater was on Elm St. and Locust St., and it was a
“shack”. The first night, the first visitor they had
was George Bloss, Jr. They all sat on boxes and ate minced meat
enjoyed entertaining. After they moved to their new home on Third
Street in 1945, Peggy would have Sunday dinners every week with
all the family. During the Christmas
holidays, the Heller home had an open house for family and friends.
There was always a roasted pig centerpiece on the table, and Joe
Redell supplied the pig for years.
home on Third Street was originally built for Mrs. Christine Bloss’
brother. When Castle Air Force Base opened and young families
would come to town and needed temporary shelter, Jim and Peggy
would open their home to them. They helped many families, as well
as allowing the lifeguards who worked at The Plunge Pool to stay
with them. The Heller’s took
over The Plunge for 12 years before it was demolished.
1951, a new building on Broadway right across the street from
Pop and Marguerite's home became the new site of the Atwater Rexall
Drug Store. The new location was 40 ft. by 95 ft. The building
was air conditioned, was well lit and featured piped-in music.
Some of the original ice cream tables and chairs purchased in
1917 were set up in the Prescription Department for customers
who preferred to sit and wait for their prescriptions.
one time, the drug store had the distinction of being the oldest
continuous business in Atwater and Pop Heller the oldest practicing
pharmacist in Merced County.
Heller died in 1955. Son Jim continued Pop's dream and operated
the Atwater Rexall Drug Store until 1986. Jim was a tall man,
and the townspeople liked to call him "Big Jim". Big
Jim and Peggy were involved in so many organizations and projects
that helped Atwater thrive. In 1956, Big Jim opened another Rexall
drug store in Winton.
was the first chairman of the Atwater Parks and Recreation Commission.
She became a regular visitor to the State Department in Sacramento
as a Recreation Commissioner to get much needed funds for Atwater.
The group was able to obtain land from Clark Ralston to build
what is now Ralston Park.
a ceremony in Sacramento, Peggy was honored as "Woman of
the Year" representing Merced County.
was a school teacher and much loved by the community.
was an elementary school built in her honor -Peggy Heller Elementary
and Peggy's sons, Jim Jr. and Brian, worked with their dad at
the drugstore. Jim Jr. handled all the accounting. Brian, who
acquired the nickname "Bucky", was also a pharmacist,
making him the third generation of pharmacists in the Heller Family
to follow Pop’s dream
Jr. married Barbara Muratore, and have three sons, Jim III, Randy
Brian married Dorella “Dee” Forward, and had three
children, Tamera, Kandace and Brian Boru.
a gesture honoring their friendship with the Bloss family and
showing their love of the Bloss Home, the Heller family donated
Pop Heller's beautiful oak desk and chair that was used in the
pharmacy to the Bloss Museum, as well as a wood and glass cabinet
full of old medicine bottles and other containers. In recent years,
they have donated Marguerite Heller’s vintage couch.
Vicki Carne, Secretary
Atwater Historical Society
provided by The Atwater Historical Society and Jay Baldwin
Rexall Ad-Vantage Magazine July - August 1952 issue
Merced County Shoppers News - January 14, 1965
Atwater Signal Newspaper - January 24, 1973
The Signal Newspaper - April 6, 1983
Winton Times Newspaper - April 21, 2005
Images of America - Atwater - The Atwater Historical Society 2005
Mrs. Barbara Heller - July 31, 2019