History and culture
Selma owes its beginnings to farming and to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which began in the 1870s as a branch line of the Central Pacific Railroad. The route of the Southern Pacific through California's Central Valley gave rise to a string of small towns between Sacramento and Bakersfield. Selma was among them.
In 1880, residents of the rural community that would become Selma established the Valley View School District. The first post office opened in 1880. A decade later, four farmers — J.D. Whitson, Egbert. H. Tucker, George Otis and Monroe Snyder — formed a partnership and developed a townsite along the railroad. They began auctioning lots and just three years later the city of Selma was formally incorporated.
A persistent local legend is that Selma was named after Selma Gruenberg Lewis (ca. 1867-1944) by Governor Leland Stanford, who was shown her picture by her father. As Lewis first told the story in 1925, Stanford, also a Director of the Central Pacific Railroad, was so taken that he ordered that the next town on the line be named for her. Lewis often repeated the story with further romantic embellishments, and it came to be accepted as fact despite a lack of documentary evidence. Lewis is buried in Floral Memorial Park in Selma, and her marker repeats the story. Subsequent investigation indicates instead that the town was in fact named for Selma Michelsen (1853–1910), wife of a railroad employee who had submitted her name for inclusion on a list of candidate names prepared by his supervisor. George Otis selected the name from this list, in consultation with other local businessmen.
Along with Fowler to its immediate north and Kingsburg to its south, Selma was a railroad stop where agricultural goods could be loaded for shipping. As in the rest of the United States, the railroad played a lesser role as the 20th century progressed. What was once a handsome passenger terminal in the city's downtown became Selma's police station.
In the late 19th century, the town also boasted a water-driven mill for grinding wheat to flour. The mill was powered by the C&K Canal, a seasonal irrigation channel that was known in Selma as the Mill Ditch.
Wheat growing was Selma's first economic engine but was replaced by orchards and vineyards when farmers realized how well peaches, plums, and grapes grew in the sandy soil, irrigated with snow-melt water imported through canals from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Although raisins (sweet grapes preserved by sun-drying) soon became the major crop, Selma called itself the “Home of the Peach” and was also known as "A Peach of a City." Through the 1960s, a major seasonal employer was the local peach cannery, where Libby's brand fruit was packed. Peaches and other tree fruit are still grown in abundance.
With 90 percent of U.S. raisins produced within eight miles of Selma, the city adopted the slogan "Raisin Capital of the World” in 1963. Area vineyards also produce table grapes. A decline in family farming, the national trend in U.S. agriculture after World War II, and depressed prices for raisins and table grapes, especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, were drains on the Selma-area agribusiness economy. Harris Ranch is based in Selma.
Shifting business center
Like many other American cities, Selma suffered a decline in its old downtown in the late decades of the 20th century and into the 21st. Post-World War II development spread the growing city to the north and east, away from its business center. U.S. Highway 99 (demoted to State Route 99 in the 1960s), once a main road north and south through town, running parallel to the railroad, was rebuilt as a freeway in the 1960s. Several blocks to the west of the old road (now Whitson Street and Golden State Boulevard), the freeway bisects the oldest residential neighborhood in Selma. Freeway travel made the new shopping malls of Fresno more accessible. The freeway also made Selma more attractive as a place to live for Fresno workers, who contributed to ever-faster residential growth into the 21st century.
The downtown experienced one of its biggest changes when Wal-Mart corporation built one of its giant retail stores at the intersection of East Floral Avenue and the freeway—at the northwest edge of town. As the 21st century began, this area became the de facto commercial center of the city providing great economic benefits. The old downtown, despite vacant storefronts, remained a struggling but viable district of city offices and small businesses.
The Selma Unified School District has eight neighborhood elementary schools. Students from all of these schools are channeled to Abraham Lincoln Middle School and continue on to Selma High School or two alternative high schools. Selma High School fields a range of sports teams nicknamed The Bears. School colors are orange and black. The yearbook is entitled The Magnet.
Well-known people who have lived in and around Selma include 19th-century inventors Frank Dusy, Abijah McCall and William Deidrick; the poets William Everson (Brother Antoninus, 1912–94) and Larry Levis (1946–96); William R. Shockley (1918–1945), recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II; author-historian Victor Davis Hanson (1953- ); and Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox (1941- ). Clarence Berry (1867–1930), who struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and became known as an innovative mining engineer and businessman, had earlier been a fruit farmer in Selma. Also known as C.J. Berry, he left Selma for Canada's Yukon Territory after he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Beatrice Kozera (1920-2013), born Beatrice Rentería, also spent much of her childhood in Selma where her family worked in the fields. In 1947, she met Jack Kerouac who represented her as "The Mexican Girl" in On the Road where Selma is referred to as Sabinal.