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Rich history overlooks downtown Manteca
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Manteca Bulletin Managing Editor James Burns makes his way up the stairs of the IOFF Hall using an aging elevator chair. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin

Sometimes you stumble upon a stranger who opens your eyes to a world hiding in plain sight.

Betty Mueller, a gentle soul with a steel-trap memory, helped showed me a side of the City of Manteca I’ve never known.

We had never met before our lives intersected last week with a phone call. Her name and phone number were given to me by local historian Ken Hafer, who believed Mueller could better tell the story of the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

She was a Rebekah, a female member of the now-defunct local Odd Fellows lodge, one of Manteca’s oldest fraternal organizations.

I was researching today’s series of stories on the forgotten spaces around the City of Manteca – shops, stores and homes rich in history but otherwise abandoned, repurposed or left behind by these fast and sometimes unforgiving times.

The Odd Fellows once owned the two-story building occupied by Manteca Bedquarters at the corner of Yosemite Avenue and Main Street. That particular space has intrigued me the most over the years.

 I’ve called Manteca home for more than two decades and I’ve driven that stretch of downtown a gazillion times. I’ve memorized the street-side shops – from Tipton’s Stationary to Century Furniture – to the color balloon arrangement outside Manteca Bedquarters, but never bothered to investigate what lay behind the darkened windows of the second stories.

That changed last week when Manteca Bedquarters managing partner Steve Lewis invited photographer Hime Romero and I up for a tour of the old Odd Fellows lodge.

It was nothing short of mesmerizing with its stunning hardwood floors, stained-glass artwork, red shag carpet and cement ashtrays. It was as if time had stopped the moment the Odd Fellows turned in their charter and keys, preserving this space in a vacuum above downtown.

I told Mueller all about my experience, detailing for her my walk through the lodge. She marveled at my amazement, which seemed to pique her curiosity as well.

She began to ask me questions about the city we shared.

Did I know Center Street used to be a dirt road that dead end at the railroad tracks?

Was I familiar with Hildebrand Park, a small patch of grass off Pine Street and Garfield Avenue named in her father’s family’s honor?

Had I been by the home of late actor Dennis Weaver? I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t put a face to the name.

“You don’t know who Dennis Weaver is?” Mueller asked in a shocking tone. “You’ve never seen ‘Duel’ or ‘Gunsmoke’? Have you ever been by his house on Center Street, right between Walnut and Almond?”

Sorry, ma’am, I haven’t.

She remembers a lively downtown corridor where people flocked to shop and stay, party and play.

Did you know downtown featured two hotels, popular destinations for traveling salesmen?

The Marion Hotel occupied the second floor of the building now anchored by Aksland Realty, German Glas Werks and others. For many years, the Marion sat atop Leo’s Groceries. Imagine that – a grocery store at the center of town.

Legend has it plumbing problems at the Marion would send market employees scrambling to cover meats and produce.

The other hotel topped Tipton’s Stationary and was used primarily for extended stays.

The beautiful brick two-story on Sycamore, near the post office and often regarded as one of the more beautiful establishments, was the original home to City Hall.

We spoke for more nearly a half hour, Betty and I. And before we parted our separate ways, she left me with a homework assignment.

Mueller wants me to rent the movie “Duel” – “It really is a good movie,” she said – and study up on my Dennis Weaver trivia. She gave me the whereabouts of his Manteca home and challenged me to visit with her and friends.

A group of longtime residents meet every month at the Manteca Historical Museum on Yosemite Avenue.  There, they take turns leading each other back through time, reminiscing about years gone by and the friends they’ve lost.

Many of their childhood memories – and the backdrops for many of their stories – are contained in the pictures that dress the museum.

“You should really join us,” she said, seducing me with her soft, inviting tone. “You’d learn so much.”

Betty, I already have.