In 1867 the 209 region of the San Joaquin Valley was known for growing one thing – wheat.
It was the one crop able to survive from what little rainfall dropped on the arid plains qualifying as a desert. Water from gravity flow irrigation canal systems would not come until 1901 when a Ceres farm on Hatch Road was first connected to Tuolumne River water through the La Grange Dam and its gravity-flow canal system.
Wheat was the sole reason that Daniel Whitmore (1816-93) left the Stockton area in 1867 to build a home and farm 7,000 acres of wheat in what would become Ceres – so named for the Roman goddess of grain crops, or agriculture. Whitmore’s abode – the first house built in Ceres – is beautifully preserved on Fifth Street and has presided over the last century of progress since the city was incorporated 100 years ago.
All this year Ceres, home to about 48,000 people, has been celebrating the centennial of the founding of its city government. Still boasting the small town feel it had when the town had 1,000 residents and became a city in 1918, the community has come together – true to its motto of “Ceres, Together We Achieve” – to enjoy a number of celebrations throughout the year. Together they achieved a special Centennial logo, commemorative coins and wine glasses, and a gala in March. A special committee headed up by former Stanislaus County supervisor Paul Caruso has raised about $15,000 to allow the city to build a more permanent tribute in Centennial Plaza in front of the Ceres Community Center in downtown Ceres.
Ceres was a growing settlement during the four decades before incorporation. The first recorded subdivision map of Ceres was filed Feb. 20, 1875. The triangle-shaped town site stretched for a whole four blocks with North Street being the more northern street. Today Ceres stretches virtually to the Tuolumne River where it meets Modesto; and branches out to Ustick Road on the west; and to Faith Home Road on the east.
A devout Baptist, Whitmore inserted a temperance clause into deeds with buyers of lots pledging not to drink booze. Things are more relaxed in Ceres today with the city’s embrace of Blaker Brewing, a craft beer brewery that opened last year, not to mention a medical marijuana manufacturing plant and two pot dispensaries that bring in hefty revenue to city coffers.
A century ago Ceres – like many small Valley towns – was served by a private water company. But the need for fire and police protection prompted the town to form a city government on March 4, 1918. Local doctor S.W. Cartwright served as the first mayor just one month and nine days until the first city election could be held on April 8, 1918. Vaughn Daniel Whitmore collected 28 votes to defeat Cartwright by a single vote to become Ceres’ first elected mayor. Whitmore, son of real estate developer Clinton Whitmore and Maria Whitmore and grandson of Daniel Whitmore, presided over the new city government for 12 years – from 1918 to 1930. Serving with him on that first City Council were C.T. Haynes, lumber yard manager J.U. Gartin and C.H. Sikes.
Vaughn helped manage the Whitmore Ranch for a while and helped establish the Bank of Ceres with his brother Charles Whitmore, along with Arthur Harris, Fred Moffet and the Service family. Whitmore later moved up to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors for 24 years.
Twenty-four men and two women have served as mayor of Ceres over the past century. Two of them, Eric Ingwerson and Louis Arrollo, served two non-consecutive terms. Three mayors had the distinction of serving in the California State Legislature and one became a U.S. congressman.
For a time the mayor’s job was thrown around from businessman to businessman out of a sense of civic obligation in true Mayberry fashion. Town druggist Claude McKnight served in 1938 and 1939. Gas station owner S.M. Christiansen served from 1939 to 1942. The strict school principal and superintendent Walter White served as mayor from 1956 to 1964. Plumber Brian Carlin served 1983 to 1985. Furniture store owner Jim Delhart served from 1985 to 1987. Former Ceres police officer and Ceres High School truancy officer Louis Arrollo served as mayor from 1987 to 1990 and again from 1999 to 2001.
Sal Cannella was in power when the 1980s started out. He first ran for council in 1976 because he didn’t like the way the city had planned several duplex housing and apartment projects along Whitmore Avenue. Cannella later moved up to county supervisor and state assemblyman, succeeding former Mayor Gary Condit who was elected to Congress.
“I’m just damned proud to be from Ceres,” said Cannella. “When I was in the Assembly I didn’t go as a member from Modesto. I was a member from Ceres so everybody had an opportunity to know where Ceres was. I really am pleased and proud to live in Ceres.”
Cannella’s son, Anthony Cannella, served as mayor of Ceres from 2005 to 2010 before his election to the state Senate.
Politics in Ceres hit a zenith of controversy and turn-over in the 1990s. Five persons occupied the office of mayor from 1990 to 2000. The decade started out with Richard McBride, a trucking company dispatcher and member of the Lions Club, as mayor.
Barbara Hinton became the first woman mayor of Ceres in 1993. Hinton was most frustrated when Memorial Hospital officials announced plans to close Ceres’ only hospital. She is known for having started the Ceres Concerts in the Park tradition which is going strong today.
One of the more popular mayors in Ceres’ past was Arrollo, who was known as a police officer for many years until he became a school resource officer. He was elected as mayor in November 1987 and served out a full term, deciding not to run because of health issues. He left in Dec. 1989, turning the reins of the council over to Richard McBride, mayor during an explosive period of population growth created by commuters priced out of Bay Area housing. Arrollo later returned to be elected in 1999 and served out a full term.
Much was accomplished under Arrollo’s administrations. He helped enact the creation of the Department of Public Safety which cross-trained police and fire and administered police and fire agencies under one roof. At the time it proved cost effective, plus there was a continuity of command and supervision of all public safety personnel. Later the city reverted back to the traditional police and fire departments.
Under his leadership the city expanded and upgraded of the Wastewater Treatment plant, and created the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan to established design standards along one of Ceres’ main thoroughfares. He also helped spur the building of Ceres Fire Station #1 in downtown, the skate park in Smyrna Park and the building of the $20,000 gazebo in Whitmore Park in 1988 through private funding.
Ceres’ current mayor, Chris Vierra, took over in 2010 when Anthony Cannella resigned to become a state senator.
Anticipating the prideful year of celebration, a year ago the city wrapped up its makeover of Fourth Street, the main focus of the downtown business district. The $3.1 million effort was designed to entice business and property owners to invest in façade makeovers and build on vacant lots.
Brimming with optimism, Steve Hallam, the city’s economic development manager, sees bright days for downtown Ceres. He points to the coming of a train station for the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) line that should drive more traffic into downtown.
Still, the city has not found the occasion yet to implement its Downtown Specific Plan, adopted in 2011 at a cost of about $350,000. It calls for development of a “destination downtown” with a movie theater, mixed uses of professional offices and retail spaces, eateries to offer nightlife atmosphere, additional parking, an expanded civic center and inviting streetscapes. An ingredient of that plan is to infuse 495 more residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area. When the plan was adopted seven years ago, Mayor Vierra commented the blueprint would probably take 30 to 50 years to come to fruition.
With redevelopment funding a thing of the past in California, downtown dreams will have to rely on private investment – a process that takes time.
“You have to look long term,” said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. “A private owner has to decide what’s the best use of their property. We set the framework with the Specific Plan of showing what they can do; they make the decision on what is the best fit for what they want to do with their property.”
Community spirit is also reflected in an ambitious group of citizens who are trying to brush aside scoffers and raise enough funds to help the city – which doesn’t have the money – refurbish and paint Ceres’ iconic water tower that has been part of the skyscape since 1934. The city has given its blessings to the herculean task but acknowledge coming up with $450,000 to $500,000 may be too formidable. ■