When traveling through the subdivisions with streets that bear names of Thomas Street, Caswell Avenue or Mary Avenue, it’s hard to picture the Ceres of a century ago as a farming berg on land stretching wide open. Yet this part of Ceres was the former land on which the Caswells lived and farmed.
Yes, the same Caswells for whom Caswell State Park near Ripon is named. These are the Caswells of whom Thomas Caswell was a second-generation Irish immigrant and who worked hard, prospered and owned land in the area west of Smyrna Park with his wife, Mary Dixon Caswell, the namesake for Mary Avenue in Ceres.
Besides street names, Ceres also honored the Caswells – who came to Ceres about three decades after town founder Daniel Whitmore arrived – by naming an elementary school honoring the family’s legacy.
The Caswells ended up in Ceres in 1901 thanks to a mention of it in the newspaper of his hometown of Cherokee, Iowa where he had a bustling manufacturing plant.
But let’s start with how the Caswell story in America began – the Irish Potato Famine. The people of Ireland depended on the potato as part of their sustenance and when blight wiped out the important potato crop in the 1840s, an estimated one million starved to death – and prompted a mass exodus.
Andrew and Mary Jane Caswell were among the millions fleeing their homeland and headed to Canada. Packing what belongings they had, they scraped up enough money to book passage for them and their numerous children on a sailing ship to Ontario, Canada, sometime during the potato famine of 1846-1848.
Life in Canada wasn’t easy but at least there was ample food and opportunities to work their way out of poverty. Andrew farmed for three years in Ontario before moving his wife and children to Granton east of Toronto. Thomas, the fourth son of the family of 13, was born on Oct. 12, 1844, in Armaugh County, Ireland. He was a small boy when they arrived in Canada.
Thomas and his siblings worked on the family farm and received only seasonal education during the idle winter months.
When he was 20, Thomas Caswell struck out on his own and moved to the forests north of Grand Rapid, Michigan, near Greenville. He found work as a lumberman and when younger brother John joined him, they worked as a team and contracted to fell trees for lumber mills.
While in Michigan, Thomas became attracted to school teacher Mary Orinda Andrews, a native of Hector, NY where she had graduated from a seminary. Her father was Rev. Richard Andrews, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The two were married on April 5, 1871, in her hometown.
Cutting down trees wasn’t his preferred vocation. The call to return to farming – like he had done with his father in Canada – was appealing. So in 1871, the young couple set down roots in the heartland and saw endless possibilities in the Iowa soil. They bought 180 acres in Cherokee County, about seven miles from the town of Cherokee, where he farmed and raised Aberdeen Angus cattle.
Mary was now a plains pioneer woman who faced a life that was rugged and arduous. She was removed from family, culture, and comfort. They lived in uncomfortably in a cramped one-room cabin which would soon be filled with five rambunctious children – Adella, Wallace, Henry, Andrew and Earl.
In November 1889, they realized a parent’s worst fear when diphtheria, an epidemic that spread through coughing and sneezing not unlike COVID-19 today, took the lives of Adella, 17, and Edwin Earl, 5, just days apart. Grief was strong but life had to move on for the sake of survival.
A brilliant man who was virtually self-educated, Thomas became a self-made inventor of farm implements which were designed to make farm work quicker and easier. After obtaining several patents, in 1897 he went to work building an iron foundry and established the Caswell Manufacturing Company. The foundry was enlarged in 1903 into a full-scale manufacturing facility which turned out hydraulic manure spreaders and land-levelers. The company experimented with tractors, threshing machines and hay balers. After tractors became common, the company manufactured tractor attachments. At its peak, the plant employed nearly 80 personnel who were supervised by Thomas and sons Wallace, Charles Henry and Andrew. Interestingly, the Cherokee company is still operating today 119 years later.
While in Iowa, Thomas Caswell wrote articles in the local newspapers, reflecting on life and issues. Eventually he tried his hand as publisher of a newspaper.
Because Thomas suffered from asthma he decided to seek out a climate that would alleviate his condition. One day in 1900, while reading the Cherokee Times newspaper, he came across this article: “Some Agricultural Conditions in California as Observed by an Iowa Farmer… The Central Valley is drained by the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers which empty at the Golden Gate. It is 400 miles from South to North with an average of 50 miles in width and is intersected by numerous streams from the snow-capped mountains to the east, which constitute water supply. The soil is rich and productive, especially the alluvial deposits along the rivers, which when above overflow or reclaimed, are capable of a high state of cultivation.”
During the winter of 1900, the Caswells journeyed to Ceres to see things for themselves. While Iowa was buried under snow, Ceres was a bit warmer, mostly sunny with occasional spells of a fog layer. At that time, the Turlock Irrigation District was just beginning to channel irrigation water to the farmland in and around Ceres, and land speculators were busy bringing in buyers by the droves – especially from the Midwest.
When spring arrived, TID released water into its canal system for the first time. Water was flowing down the Ceres main canal adjacent to the ranch he wanted to buy. That irrigation water allowed the large grain farms to be converted to smaller farms. Thomas’ mind was swimming with possibilities.
It was the beginning of a period of prosperity that would later be reflected in the motto of the 1912 Modesto arch of “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.” In 1901, there were 951 farms on Stanislaus County land worth $18 an acre. Just nine years later, there were 2,200 farms worth $60 to $200 an acre.
The Caswells were drawn to a 125-acre farm and large two-story house built by pioneer David Kennedy Woodbridge, who left Maine in 1849 for California in the stampede of gold seekers. The 28-year-old Woodbridge was tossed around on a whaling ship for 150 wearisome days until it reached San Francisco that July. Like many, his backbreaking time toil to find gold in Tuolumne County was disappointing so he settled in the Valley where he farmed. After farming near Stockton for 25 years, Woodbridge made Ceres his home in 1876. (Although he died in Stockton in 1906, Woodbridge is buried in the Ceres cemetery).
In L.C. Branch’s 1881 “History of Stanislaus County,” this description appears of the future Caswell home, which was located somewhere along Sixth Street: “D.K. Woodbridge has a fine residence at Ceres. It is a two-story house of modern construction with bay windows, blinds, stoops, and all the conveniences of a comfortable home. The yard is neat and supplied with flowers, trees, and evergreen shrubs. In front are young trees and at the side an evergreen hedge. A windmill supplies water to a large tank, from which it is conveyed to the house and surroundings …. (the earth) is a rich sandy loam soil, yielding from 10 to 20 bushels of wheat per acre.”
After they signed papers, the Caswells moved in.
In 1902, Thomas and Mary purchased an additional 294 acres along the Tuolumne River, five miles west of their Ceres ranch, concentrating on alfalfa, grain and cattle. The purchase was detailed in the Feb. 4, 1902 issue of the Modesto Daily Evening News: “The sale of 294 acres of choice farming land was consummated yesterday. The land is owned by Louis Garlock of Stockton and purchaser was Thomas Caswell of Cherokee, Iowa. The sale was negotiated by T.E.B. Rice and sons of this city. Mr. Caswell is the senior member of the firm Thomas Caswell and Sons of Cherokee, in the extensive raising of feed cattle. The land will be put into alfalfa at once and stock-raising will be the principal use to which the new purchase will be put. Mr. Caswell is a practical man as well as an experienced one, and has had many years of experience in the cattle business and recognized the aptness of this region for the enlargement of his business. It is such sales that show that Stanislaus County is becoming known to the outside world.”
Thomas Caswell loved his Ceres home where he planted palms, citrus, oleanders and exotic shrubs. He was often seen watering his plants on hot summer days. He loved tinkering with machinery and owned one of the finest automobiles in the Ceres area. But he didn’t gravitate to the new mode of conveyance quickly. It was reported that occasionally he could be seen pulling back on the steering wheel like the reins of a horse and shouting “Whoa! You iron varmint! Whoa!”
Early Stanislaus County historian George Tinkham provided this assessment of Thomas Caswell in his 1921 publication, “History of Stanislaus County”: “He has probably done more for the county in the matter of the development of raw waste lands than any other single individual.”
Eventually Caswell and his three sons would eventually own and farm 965 acres in Stanislaus County, and 654 acres in San Joaquin County.
When Thomas and Mary moved to California, the manufacturing company in Iowa was left in the hands of his sons, Wallace and Andrew. Son Charles Henry Caswell (he went by Henry) came to Ceres to own 640 acres at the west end of Fairview Road (now Whitmore Avenue), crossing Vivian Road, to the south bank of the Tuolumne River. He used a Fresno scraper to prepare the land and sent for one of the Caswell land-levelers, which came by railcar from Iowa. Apparently the implement had turned some on the railcar while in transit, causing the family a momentary headache.
Henry farmed his land in alfalfa, beans, almonds, grapes and cattle while leasing part of the ranch for dairying.
Henry Caswell and his wife, Helen Cross Caswell, were the parents of four children – Helen Ruth Caswell Jorgensen, Earl Caswell, Mary Caswell Bucknam and Edith Caswell Wheeler. Ruth Jorgensen, who died in 2012, was known as a local artist and historian and co-owned Bob’s Yuletide Forest in Ceres with husband Homer.
Thomas and son Henry made occasional treks from Ceres to the Cherokee plant to consult and plan business operations. Wallace came to California for a brief time, but returned to Iowa and stayed until 1933, helping to manage the business. The other brother, Andrew, remained in Iowa supervising the plant besides farming his own land.
Unquestionably, the family was land-wealthy in addition to its robust Caswell Manufacturing Company. There was also the property in lowa and another 875 acres in Mexico.
Granddaughter Ruth Jorgensen recalled visiting her grandparents each Sunday in the house that no longer stands. She once wrote about “the large dining room where the relatives enjoyed grandmother’s bounteous dinners, the spacious living room. Many deep discussions of issues of the day took place during the mealtime and in the living room into the afternoon or evening. On Sunday evenings we gathered around the piano in the front parlor, and at the piano was our mother, Helen Caswell. With her fine voice, she would lead the singing of hymns and popular songs of the day. [Grandfather] Thomas, by nature was gregarious, well-liked and respected. From the surrounding area, Scrantons, Styles, Quimbys, and Caswells often came to ‘Uncle Tom’s’ for Sunday afternoons. He kept in touch with his brothers and sisters, some of whom came from Canada for extended visits. Grandmother’s relatives from New York State also would come for visits.”
The children enjoyed playing behind the carriage house where an aboveground 40-foot-diameter cement water tank served as a swimming pool for family and neighbors in the summer. When the tank was empty, it served as a running track for children.
Ruth recalled traveling through Ceres and seeing Robert Craig’s blacksmith shop, the large grain warehouses along the railroad tracks, the small railroad station, George Wood’s store, Whitmore Park, and Ceres Drug Store, which later had an ice cream parlor.
Mary belonged to the local Temperance Union and fit right in with the Whitmores who established the town of Ceres as a dry town. The Caswells regularly attended the First Presbyterian Church in Modesto and were very active as its members. The California mission-style church building was located across from what is now the McHenry Museum but was razed. Caswell sons, Wallace and Henry, donated chimes to the church in their parents’ memory. When the church building was demolished, the chimes were kept and reinstalled in 1990 at the Trinity United Presbyterian Church on Carver Road in Modesto.
Thomas’s brother Alex lived in Ceres for a short time, dying in 1911. His other brother, John, settled in San Jose in 1905, which allowed for occasional visits.
Thomas Caswell passed away in 1927 and Mary in 1928. They are both at rest in Cherokee’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Son Henry died in 1949 and is buried in Modesto’s Acacia Memorial Park.
The Caswells gifted their 640-acre spread on the Stanislaus River west of Ripon to the state of California for Caswell Memorial State Park.
(This information came from the September-October 2006 edition of Stanislaus Stepping Stones edited by Jeff Benziger)