The community of Woodlake was founded in 1912 by Gilbert F. Stevenson, a wealthy land developer from southern California. Stevenson purchased options on some 13,000 acres in the Woodlake area with the vision of establishing citrus orchards around a model planned community. Stevenson first built a two-story brick building on the corner of Valencia and Naranjo Boulevards – still Woodlake’s main intersection to this day. Stevenson went on to establish the beginnings of Woodlake’s infrastructure, installing streets, water and sewer lines and water wells. Several residences began to spring up around the city’s core. Stevenson’s company “The Woodlake Townsite Company” promoted the town extensively, claiming that it was “the fastest growing town in central California”.
Within its first year, Woodlake could boast of several retail stores, two schools, two churches, a telephone company, a bank, a doctor’s office and a newspaper in addition to more residences. Stevenson lobbied for a bridge to cross the St. John’s River and ended up paying for half of the structure himself.
By donating three miles of right-of-way, Stevenson ensured the railroad came to town. Both the Visalia Electric Railroad and Santa Fe eventually extended lines to Woodlake. In the outlying area, Stevenson sold agricultural land and soon miles of orchards sprang up.
Stevenson built stout levees around the natural Bravo Lake (also known as Wood Lake) at the southeast edge of town, ensuring the lake as a permanent water feature and a source of recreational activity for the community’s residents. Islands were developed in the lake and were used for various recreational activities such as boat docks and picnics. Stevenson even planned a narrow gauge railroad around the levee for scenic excursions. A park was to be developed along the outside of the levee, featuring shade trees, fountains and walkways.
Eventually, Stevenson’s numerous financial committments resulted in his downfall during the Great Depression. However, Woodlake did continue to grow and prosper, becoming a shipping hub for the productive agricultural region surrounding the city. In 1940, Woodlake’s residents voted to incorporate, becoming Tulare County’s seventh city. Woodlake has continued to prosper adding new housing, businesses and industrial operations as well as schools, parks and an airport. Every May, the city plays host to the famous Lion’s Rodeo. Woodlake’s downtown enjoys continued success as the center of the community. Recently, the city’s Redevelopment Agency has started a facade renovation program that is restoring glory to downtown’s many older buildings. A new senior citizen’s apartment building has added additional life and vitality to the downtown environment.
With its past secure in the pages of history, Woodlake looks forward to its future as a small, prosperous agricultural town nestled snuggly in California’s citrus belt, at the foot of the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains.