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Soda fountain days
Marge Derby, daughter of town druggist Claude McKnight looks back on a Ceres mainstay of yesteryea
Ceres Drug Store, with its old fashioned soda fountain, was a popular place in the 1940s. Claude and Jean McKnight (seen on the corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets) took over the business from J.D. Anderson in the 1930s. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Anybody who's seen Bedford Falls' Gower Drug Store in the celebrated holiday film "It's A Wonderful Life" might be envious of Jimmy Stewart's generation. But a whole generation of Ceres residents of long ago enjoyed a similar pharmacy and soda fountain right at the corner of Fourth and Lawrence streets.

You couldn't tell, in looking at Steps Dance Arts Studio, that this was where town druggist Claude McKnight owned and operated the hotspot of Ceres.

Marge Derby remembers it well. Her parents, Claude and Jean McKnight owned it.

"Everybody hung out at the drug store," recalled Marge.

Specifically it was the soda fountain that drew in the young people where they could be served soda and ice cream and candy.

Derby remembers the counter of the soda fountain lined up with people sitting on stools until 8 p.m.

"He finally had someone come in and just kind of take it over and make sandwiches and serve Cokes and sundaes," she said.

Midred Taylor later took over the soda fountain so Claude didn't have to split his time between dipping ice cream and filling prescriptions.

Derby pulls out a 1952 Ceres High School Cereal yearbook and points out an ad that her dad placed. The ad pictured him filling a prescription, prompting Marge to say: "I saw him look like that all the time. All the time and I got to wash all those beakers and all those mortars and pestles."

In those days, downtown was the nerve center of Ceres where Carl Miner owned a department store and where Wendell Aspinall, a good friend of the McKnights, owned the hardware store the next block over. Bud Norwood and Chub Sterling had a barber shop. Marge remembers being told the pool hall wasn't a nice place and that she would often speed up to walk past "but wanting so desperately really what went on in there."

The drug store also sold magazines, newspaper, candy, cosmetics and potions and cigarettes - until they were considered harmful.

Claude McKnight may have been the face of Ceres Drugs during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s but his wife Jean was "the woman behind the man, and the quiet one," said Derby. "Everybody knows about my father but little did they know half of it was because of my mother."

Claude and Jean had known each other from a young age, having attended school together in Ceres, which was very small then. Ceres had only 637 people in 1920 and 981 by 1930.

Jean Parks was born in a home at the end of Parks Road between Ceres and Hughson in 1907. She was one of six children of Walter Scott Parks and Edith Morison Parks, who had a dairy and later grew peaches. The first three Parks children attended Hughson schools but when Lloyd, Stan and Jean came along, Edith petitioned for Ceres to offer bus services for them. Jean later graduated from San Jose Teacher's College (now San Jose State University).

Claude came along in 1908, born in Selma to Lyman Trumbull and Etha McKnight. He had three sisters, including Eleanor McKnight Haines. They came to Ceres in 1915 so that Lyman could work at Prattlowe Cannery in Modesto.

"Everyone in town knew Etha," said Marge. "Very very active church lady and very poor driver. She had a little car and she would park it on the street and never park it straight. She loved men and they would come out to offer to back her car out. They called her Grandma Mac."

Claude grew up in a home on Fifth Street on land that is now the Ceres High School baseball field.

While in high school, Claude worked as a soda jerk at Anderson's Drug Store. After graduating from Ceres High School in 1925, Claude attended Modesto Junior College when he contemplated taking up a job offer made by Prattlowe Cannery where his father was employed.

"My mother said, ‘You are not. You have too much science,' " said Marge.

Because of his work at the pharmacy, Claude decided to become a pharmacist. He earned his pharmacy degree in San Francisco and automatically He returned to Ceres.

"He liked Ceres and the people. My mother with her large family and very close to her mother wanted to be here too."

Jean was taking a summer school class in Oregon. On July 3, 1929, Claude drove to her and said, "I've been to see your parents. They've given their permission that I can marry you and I want to marry you now." My mother never forgave him for not letting her have a wedding. They got married up there in Newberg."

The couple was married in 1929, the year the Great Depression hit the United States. Marge was teaching first-grade in Denair making $750 per year while Claude was finishing up school. Jean's father, Walter Parks needed help with the ranch and no money to hire hands.

"My mother helped support and give money to her dad so that he could keep the ranch running, along with helping my Dad finish up school while she taught."

McKnight eventually purchased the drug store from J.D. Anderson. Claude's civic stature grew and he became mayor of Ceres in 1939. The McKnights lived on Fourth Street opposite the new Ceres Community Center parking lot. Marge, who was born in 1936, remembers growing up on the east side of Second Street three houses south of Whitmore Avenue. Their across the street neighbors were Ernie and June Barnes. Her sister was born in 1939. By then the McKnights were living in a home at the northwest corner of Hatch and Moffet on what was the old Shady Nook, home of Ceres blacksmith Robert Craig and wife Viola Craig. The move put the McKnights outside of the Ceres city limits and he had to give up the mayor's position.

"They built on that site because they wanted to put in peaches."

Because early-day blacksmith Robert Craig left so much metal in the ground, the McKnights had to build their house on the site so they could plant peach trees farther away.

"My uncle Lloyd Parks went in with them on an additional 20 acres so they had 40. My Dad bought him out and my uncle Lloyd ran it for him. My Dad truly was not a rancher."

During WWII, Claude worked all day and twice a week would scan the skies for enemy planes at night from a rural location. Jean would bundle up the girls and head out to where he was to feed him dinner and keep him company.

Because of wartime gas rationing, Claude often rode his bicycle from his home on Hatch Road to the Fourth Street store and drop off Marge at Ceres Grammar School in between. She rode in a basket.

Her grandmother Etha, a devout Methodist, was not happy with her son decided to keep Sunday hours.

"She and my grandfather were very tried and true Methodists. What really killed my Grandmother was the fact that my dad decided to leave his store open on Sundays until 1 o'clock. There were too many people who needed his services. During the war we didn't have the doctors around. Many would come to my Dad for advice. I can remember, unfortunately, the names of several where my Dad said ‘You have to go up to U.C.' He knew they were dying of lung cancer or something."

Because the McKnights' home number was listed, he would often get calls after hours from people with medical emergencies.

"My Dad would get those calls late at night. It always worried my mother. But you just didn't turn anybody down."

Mr. McKnight was a "softie," said his daughter, when it came to helping others. She remembers how some customers would charge their medications and accumulate big bills. Every holiday he would pick some of the accounts to write off and would send the bill with "Paid in Full" written across it.

At other times he'd encounter a hungry vagrant and send them to Mae's Café across the street, calling Mae first to say he would pay for it. He'd often walk the money over, or send Marge.

Her mother would help a homeless person who stumbled upon the ranch, offering to feed them if they raked the yard or some other chore.

"She'd always have them do something."

Mr. McKnight also made the generous offer to pay for a Ceres kid to go to pharmacy school if they returned and take over the drug store. Nobody took him up on it.

"I thought that I wanted to do what he did until I took chemistry in high school."

When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all Japanese-Americans to uproot their lives to live in internment camps after the outbreak of World War II, McKnight extended his help to Ceres area families who had to go to places like Manzanar or Amache, Colo.

"They all hoped they would return but they couldn't take everything. That old drug store had a basement. He cleared out his basement and he told those Japanese people that he knew, ‘If you have anything of value that you want to keep and make sure it's safe, I will store it until all of this is over. And he did. And he did."

Life in the McKnight household was fun. Marge remembers that her mother would host Halloween parties in the home basement.

"She delighted in scaring the dickens out of them," said Marge. Kids were told that peeled grapes were eyeballs and that cold wet spaghetti was intestines. Claude would moan like a ghost through the heating vent from his desk area above.

"They had a good marriage."

For all his hard work, Claude did have his expensive toys, including sports cars and airplanes including a Piper Cub. He received his pilot's lessons from Harry Sham, for whom the Modesto Airport is named. McKnight and Sham were partners in a Cessna airplane business. He was instrumental in starting the 99ers Sports Club.

The drug store was eventually relocated to the current Ceres Drug Store location on Fourth Street.

"My father considered himself a real pharmacist and I recall the day Long's Drug Store opened on Tenth Street in Modesto and my Dad said, ‘Honey, come on, I want to take you for a ride.' We went down to Long's Drugs and he said, ‘I want you to look at the future of pharmacies. This is what you are going to have. You're going to be able to buy your motor oil in a pharmacy.' "

The store was eventually turned over to Roger Strange who turned it over to Ted Smernes.

Jean died in 1995, Claude in 1980.