Sam’s Café has been closed for over a year now because of a November 2017 fire and prolonged efforts to restore the Fifth Street building. Recently the removal of stucco on the outer wall of the block building exposed a bit of Ceres business history. There on the southern wall are the faint ghostly images of lettering for Hancock’s Auto Repair which closed in 1978.
Sam’s Café and the entire adjoining Fifth Street Plaza commercial strip was for decades solely the home of Hancock’s Auto Repair. At the end of World War II – accounts say 1944 or 1946 – the late Rolla Hancock opened his original auto repair garage opposite the building on Fifth Street. The original shop is still standing on a used car lot on the corner of Fifth Street and El Camino Avenue. In 1957 Hancock moved into what was then a new and modern building on the east side of the street where the café is today. For the grand opening the entire town of Ceres celebrated with a street dance, remember Rolla Hancock’s sons, Jerry and Bob, who gathered to speak to the Courier about the long-gone business.
Jerry Hancock graduated from Ceres High School in 1955 and was drafted into the Army at a time when the country was not at war. When he returned, he went to work in his dad’s garage and eventually took the business when Rolla retired in 1978. Jerry’s shop was relocated to 3400 Moore Road where Hancock’s Farm Repair operated until Jerry closed it in 1998.
“You know how business is,” said Jerry Hancock, 81, of Ceres. “My dad had all of these customers and I had all these customers and then they all died and I started losing eight to 12 customers a month. It hurts. All those old-timers.”
Old-timers like Elton Turner, Charlie Hanson and Fred Moffett.
“... he wanted for me to work down there but I wouldn’t do it. I became a sheet metal worker for 30 something years.”Bob Hancock
“I was recruited to work,” said Bob Hancock, 79, now of Hughson. “He was always wanting help down there. In fact he wanted for me to work down there but I wouldn’t do it. I became a sheet metal worker for 30 something years.”
Rolla Hancock had been drafted a number of times during World War II but was rejected on account of a body temperature that consistently ran high, said Bob. He remained in Ceres which had a small town Mayberry-like feeling. His shop was a busy place with four mechanics since he was maintaining Ceres school busses as well as city vehicles and the cars of everybody else in town.
For seven years the Hancocks lived in a house rented from the Caswells near what is now Harvest Presbyterian Church on Moffett Road. Rolla later built a brick house at Ninth and Magnolia; at that time Ninth Street dead-ended at the location. To make his way between home and the shop, Mr. Hancock had to go up Ninth Street to Whitmore Avenue and south on Fifth Street. Ceres was such a sleepy town that Jerry remembers riding his bike down Whitmore Avenue and “never seeing a car.”
Jennie Whitmore Caswell was so fond of Rolla that she offered to build him a new garage opposite his original. When he said that he couldn’t afford a new building Rolla was told “the way she wants to build it, you can afford it.” Caswell built the entire building now known as the Fifth Street Plaza.
“What price I have no idea but she had all the money in town,” said Bob Hancock. “He ended up buying it.”
Another old customer of the shop was Duryea Warn, who recently passed away.
“He thought the sun rose and set on Rolla Hancock,” said Bob. “Our dad was very popular in town. He was an original member of the Lions Club, was in the volunteer fire department, all the things a businessman does in a small town. He was well respected, except for Jerry and I. We stayed clear of him because he was a mean old man.”
The faint image of the painted words “Auto Transmission Service” are significant, said Rolla’s great-grandson, Ceres firefighter Bret Presson, because cars first started being built with automatic tranmissions after the war. The 1948 Oldsmobile was the first model to use a true automatic transmission even though the device was invented in 1921.