The Milpitas Beat last Saturday caught up with Milpitas Historical Society President Bill Hare for a fun, quick chat about our city’s long yet forgotten history as the butt of endless jokes around the nation…
Hare started off by describing a current-day Internet activity: for a laugh, people can key their birthday plus the word “Florida man” into Google and inevitably bring up search results that include hilarious news headlines. (This reporter got back “Naked Florida man starts house fire while baking cookies on George Foreman grill,” although I should point out that the article itself was not from my birthday. Nonetheless, I was pleased to participate.) The point, simply stated, is that since people from Florida tend to be, um, wild, you’re guaranteed to get back wild results.
According to Hare, for about a century, a comparable cultural sentiment was in circulation about a “man from Milpitas…” No man in particular, just a general, fictional Milpitas resident…
The Milpitas Historical Society can trace the whole thing back to news articles from the 1860s. According to Hare, “In 1863, there was talk of California maybe leaving the union and becoming a slave state…There was enough Southern sympathy that there was talk of this. So there were various meetings going on [across the state]…”
At one such meeting, a pro-Union group from Milpitas brought in a banner (or, depending upon which accounts you believe, a kerosene wall projection powered by a lantern) that was visible to everyone there. Upon it were the words “As goes Milpitas, so goes the state.”
With a smile, Hare said, “People found this very amusing…” The attitude was, “You think a whole lot of yourself, don’t you, Milpitas?” Hare continued, “The Oakland Tribune was a big factor in this. They loved to make fun of Milpitas.”
Back in the late 1800s, the Oakland Tribune would sometimes run a serious article, then end it with a dose of mockery at Milpitas’ expense.
“A man from Milpitas” became synonymous with an unsophisticated country bumpkin who thought himself to be intelligent. All around America, jokes sprang up like wildflowers: “Two guys from Milpitas walk into a bar…”
Hare has even found century-old limericks from old books, making fun of Milpitas. He also once interviewed Ballard French, a 90-year-old man who came to California from Virginia then saw a real live Milpitas sign and laughed uproariously, having heard so many jokes and limericks about the place as a kid. He’d figured the town to be made up! “I’d never thought to look it up,” French said.
Hare claimed that in the 1930s and 1940s, comedians made jokes at Milpitas’ expense. It was a staple of vaudeville, as well. Milpitas was on par with what people might call Timbuktu or Podunk. Nowadays, it’s more common to say East Bumblef–k. Meanwhile, Hare also pointed out that our town’s name, of course, can evoke some inappropriate words (ahem, those last two syllables).
The last mainstream Milpitas joke in Hare’s awareness traces back to the mid-1970s. On “Sesame Street,” the game show host Guy Smiley was offering tickets to Milpitas as a prize. (The idea being, naturally, that it wasn’t much of a prize.) Go to 1:53 in the video to hear Smiley reference Milpitas.
Eventually, though, the entire thing died down.
“It just ran its course,” Hare said. “By the time you get to the 1970s and stuff like that, Milpitas had just become a [regular] town. A different level.”
Below are more examples of Milpitas being mentioned in various newspapers during the 1800s. Thank you to the Milpitas Historical Society for compiling this collection.