Ceres is a city in Stanislaus County along California State Route 99, south of Modesto and north of Turlock.
Most California cities sprang up as a result of immigration brought on by the gold rush of 1849. Though Ceres is far from the gold fields, it can trace its foundation to the gold rush. Word of James Marshall’s gold discovery on January 24, 1848 in Coloma was the single greatest catalyst for the development of California. Many Easterners came to the “Gold Country” on a dangerous wagon trail journey over land or by a treacherous sea route to San Francisco. Life as a gold miner was hard. Many turned to more traditional jobs, such as supplying freight, blacksmithing, and farming. They came down out of the hills to squat on the flat land of the San Joaquin Valley where soil was perfect for farming wheat and alfalfa. Many who settled in Ceres did so out of indifference to gold striking.
The first settlers in the Ceres-Keyes region were Levi Carter and his wife Fanna. Elma J. Carter, their daughter, was responsible for giving Ceres its name in 1871, when Levi Carter sold a section of his real estate holdings to Daniel Whitmore. That parcel of land extended from Tenth Street to Central Avenue and from Whitmore Avenue to Service Road (also named after one of the town’s founders.) Ceres was built within that block.
Fertile soil drew Ceres’ founder Daniel Whitmore to the Ceres region in 1867. Daniel Whitmore knew the life of an Atlantic sea captain and packed up for a five-month, cross-country wagon ride with his wife and children from Michigan to California in 1854. He arrived in Stockton to grow wheat and soon would be the first one to build a home in Ceres, which has been preserved to this day and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His brother’s mansion is also a point of interest in Ceres today. A devout Baptist, Whitmore offered free lots to anyone who wanted to make Ceres their home with a pledge never to use or sell alcohol. Today, Ceres has retained its agricultural roots, and drinking is now permissible. In fact, one of the nation’s largest wine producers, Bronco Winery, calls Ceres home.
The first buildings in the Ceres area were Levi Carter’s granary and warehouse. A depot was added to the Central Pacific Railroad at Ceres in 1871. Ceres was incorporated as a General Law City on February 25, 1918.
Ceres and its neighboring city to the north, Modesto, were established at about the same time, but it was the latter that boomed. Ceres grew at a small but steady rate from the early 20th century to the beginning of WWII. Ceres remained a sleepy town compared to Modesto, the county seat, and by 1920 had just 637 citizens. A decade later, Ceres grew to 981 residents. By 1940, the town was home to 1,332 people. A number of stores provided immediate goods, while Modesto and Turlock establishments offered what wasn’t available in Ceres.
Between 1901 and 1903, the town’s happenings were published in a newssheet called The Ceres Scraper. An official newspaper, The Ceres Courier, started in 1901. The town’s first mayor opened the Ceres Drug Store in 1907, and the Bank of Ceres began in 1911.
With its mild climate (except for blisteringly hot summer days), Ceres blossomed as town. Wheat remained the primary crop grown in the area until irrigation was made available from the La Grange Dam in 1900. Wheat was shipped through the railroad and also through “river highways” on barges in the Tuolumne River. An availability of year-round water allowed other crops to be grown, including figs, peaches, walnuts, almonds, and vegetables. Dairy cattle provided milk for the Ceres Creamery which produced Ceres Butter.
Ceres is a growing community with a heartfelt commitment to retaining its small neighborhood personality. They now have two high schools and are expanding business, bringing opportunities to residents with them. With a population now over 40,000, Ceres has adopted the motto, “Together We Achieve.” Businesses, organizations, and nonprofit community service groups come together for a number of activities throughout the year. Events such as the annual Downtown Street Fair in May, summertime concerts in the park, Halloween Fun Festival, and the Christmas Tree Lane are well attended by the community.
**We would like to extend out thanks to Phil Reynders and Jim Bergmachi, members of the Ceres Historical Society, for meeting with us and giving us helpful historical materials, including a historical book, “Ceres,” by Jeff Benzinger and “From Amber Grain…To Fruited Plain,” by Mildred Lucas. The Historical Society’s Facebook page can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/CeresHistoricalSocietyAndMuseum?ref=stream. The City of Ceres also has a website at: http://www.ci.ceres.ca.us/**