Visalia is the county seat of Tulare County. That means that the government of the county meets in Visalia. Visalia is the oldest city in Tulare County. It was established by early settlers soon after Tulare County was founded.
One of these early settlers was Nathaniel Vise. He and some friends found a beautiful spot shaded by large oak trees with plenty of water in creeks flowing nearby. The settlers used strong oak wood to make a fort where they could have some shelter and protect themselves in case they were attacked. The name for Visalia comes from the name Vise.
The settlers built homes, streets, schools, churches, and stores outside the fort. By 1853, Visalia was a trading stop for people traveling to the gold fields in the north from Los Angeles. One of the main things people needed to trade was horses and cattle. Horses needed to rest, so people in a hurry would go part way on one horse, then use a fresh one for the next day. They also needed food, so cows for milk and meat and sheep for meat and wool were valuable. Livestock was the first agriculture in Tulare County.
People who ride horses need good saddles, and by 1860 Visalia had a saddle shop. In 1869 Juan Martarell moved to Visalia and started making the Visalia saddle. This saddle was lighter and more comfortable than heavy Spanish saddles, and it became very famous. People all over the world bought Visalia saddles.
The water in the creeks and rivers made it possible for the settlers to grow crops. When irrigation started in Tulare County, people could grow many crops. Wheat was one of the first crops grown. Wheat is used as animal food and to make bread for people. Wheat must be ground into flour to make bread. A mill was started to grind wheat, using water power from the creek that ran through Visalia. This creek was named Mill Creek. The first house was built on the north side of Mill Creek, and the first store was built on the south side.
They needed a bridge when the creek was full, so the settlers built one. The street that led to the bridge was named Bridge Street, and it was the first street in Visalia. It is still there.
In 1853, the town of Visalia was set up with North Street, now called Murray Avenue, South Street (Mineral King Avenue), East Street (Santa Fe Street) and West Street as the borders. The town quickly filled this area, and more was added near the present day Oval. The streets were all dirt and there were no sidewalks. Almost every home had chickens, a garden, and a milk cow. The first school was built in 1857 near the present children’s library. It was called the Little White Schoolhouse.
Visalia was connected to the rest of the world in 1858 when the Butterfield Stage stopped in town at 11:30 at night. This stagecoach came all the way from St. Louis Missouri, and was on its way to San Francisco. Everyone in town came out to meet the first stage. The first hotel was built in 1859. Several churches were built between 1857 and 1860. Visalia was growing fast.
Gold was discovered in the Kern and White rivers in southern Tulare County in 1855. Many people came to try to mine it. At the same time, the local Indians were angry that the settlers were here to stay and had taken their land. Soldiers came to Visalia to protect the settlers.
In the 1860s the Civil War began in the United States. Many people in Visalia supported the South in this war, while others supported the North. Soldiers were sent to Visalia to make sure California supported the North. Two newspapers in town each supported one side in the war. Angry Visalians debated and fought each other about the issues. The arrival of the telegraph in 1860 made it possible for people in Visalia to receive news almost instantly. When President Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1865 in Washington D.C., the news came to Visalia by telegraph.
Oranges were a luxury fruit in the United States in the 1860s. The first seeds were planted in Visalia in 1860, and 7 years later these trees had fruit. Now oranges are one of the biggest crops in Tulare County. People planted cotton, but there were no machines to make the cotton into cloth.
One problem with growing crops in the Visalia area was that it was difficult to take the grain or fruit to market. It took 15 days for a wagon to go from Visalia to San Francisco and this was very expensive. In 1872, a railroad was finally built to Goshen. This was still a long wagon ride away from Visalia, but much better than the trip all the way to San Francisco. The railroad made it possible to grow crops in Tulare County and sell them in the rest of the country. The first railroad freight car load of fruit shipped from Visalia to San Francisco in 1888. Telephones came to Visalia in that same year. Electric power and the first car were in Visalia in 1900. Visalia was on its way to the modern age.
The population of Visalia has grown from the first ten or fifteen settlers in 1850 to over 110,000 today.