Amanda and Darren Thomas wanted to ride their horses over to the historic Merryman Station, which they recently reopened as a boutique gift shop. Click to read more!
Along the 198 just outside Exeter, there are two notable landmarks: the citrus orchards and one particularly rustic building. In the last year, decade and even century, this wooden building has found itself in varying conditions and states of operation. Some might remember it most recently as the restaurant Orange Blossom Junction, or perhaps even under another name from one of the many businesses that came before.
When Orange Blossom Junction closed in 2012, the building – isolated from neighboring Exeter and Visalia – quickly took on the air of a structure better suited for a ghost town. That it had ever been a bustling restaurant was a distant memory.
But an even more distant memory, and one that few living might even remember, is that the building was the site of a stop for the Visalia Electric Railroad, whose tracks had come to Visalia as early as 1874 and extended to Exeter in 1898.
“There’s a lot of history here and it was much more than a restaurant,” says Amanda Thomas, who with her husband purchased the property about three years ago. “Merryman was actually the original name of the station, a stop on the railroad and a famous packing house next door that packed the citrus.”
The couple had originally bought the building to use its second floor as offices for their Tulare-based construction company, and also to open a small shop for travelers and tourists en route to Sequoia National Park. But they abandoned the idea for offices and focused solely on renovating the building to open as a specialty goods market and banquet facility.
“We felt it was a really good opportunity to bring back this old building,” says Thomas, who with her husband spent two and a half years remodeling the building before opening as Merryman Station in December 2016.
Thankfully, the Thomases are lovers of history, because while this building has historical significance, it is not an officially designated historical landmark. In other words, whoever owns the building could renovate – or demolish – it as they please. But for the Thomases, preservation was always a priority.
“How could it not be?” asks Thomas. “It’s a fixture in this community, and we wanted to showcase the beauty of the building.”
According to Thomas, “We tore down a lot of walls and ceilings so we could showcase the rafters and beams, and we put in some industrial elements, like glass walls,” in order to see more of the interior. They also added modern touches, adding, “We wanted to maintain the structure but also bring out the beauty of it so people could admire it. Plus, the building itself was in good shape.” Still, Thomas says, “We’ve probably touched every inch of that building.”
But for all their preservation and renovation, Thomas says their main priority was showcasing the old railroad tracks.
“As we were remodeling the building, it was so important to preserve the railroad tracks, which most people don’t even know are there,” says Thomas. “These are the original electric railroads and when we discovered they were used in the Visalia Electric Railroad, we did our whole deck plan to showcase them.”
The Thomases remodeled the deck that offers a view of the tracks. They even purchased a velocipede, which is similar to a stationary bike and is used to travel along the rail of the tracks.
“My husband and I both enjoy history a great deal,” says Thomas, and they both used the remodeling process as a kind of exercise and opportunity to investigate the property’s history. They visited the museum at Visalia’s Mooney Grove Park, and also found old articles about the property.
“We went through a gathering process to get as much information as possible,” says Thomas. “It was much more than ‘let’s buy a building and put a business in it.’ The building has touched so many lives in this area, so for us it was we are going to purchase a piece of history and we want everyone to know about it.”
While the historical qualities of the building are interesting, what interests Thomas most is “how many people from outside the area are enthralled with the oranges – basically the citrus we have in our area that a lot of us take for granted.”
Tourists take pictures of the orange trees, ask to walk through the groves, and wonder whether Merryman Station sells any products made with local oranges – which they do. Merryman Station, true to its name, is a kind of weigh station between the valley and the foothills, selling local products such as honey, nuts and other provisions for those on their way up the mountain. Their market and banquet facility is a new twist on an old building, and if the 1907 date engraved on one of their doors is any indication, they’re carrying on a tradition that goes back more than a century.