Ceres isn't exactly Mayberry. But many feel it's the right size to still have that "small town" feel.
Every once in a while, I‘m reminded that Ceres really is a small town by 2015 standards. After all, Ceres (46,714 population) is dwarfed by Modesto at 204,933 and Modesto is still small enough to where it's likely you'll bump into people you know. Take, for example, when motorcycle patrol officer Jason Coley spotted me in my car sitting at the signal light waiting to make a left turn onto Whitmore Avenue from Mitchell Road. He got on his bullhorn to knowledge me and remind me that Coley is spelled with one "o," not two. It was a private joke we shared, not because I misspelled his name but because a local radio station called him "Cooley."
I can't help but draw parallels between the popular and perpetual Andy Griffith Show and Ceres. I wonder what Mayberry would look like today. Would Mayberry of 2015 resemble Ceres of today?
It's been 50 years since the zenith of American innocence as depicted on the Andy Griffith Show. So much has changed in our country. Our values have shifted. Things were simpler and we were less sophisticated. We're less innocent than the days of Opie and Goober and Gomer. Opie could play cowboys and Indians and nobody would have thought twice about it. He was only emulating the celluloid western stars like Roy Rogers and Lash Larue. Not only could an Opie today not take a toy gun to school because the world is different and boys don't play cowboys and Indians because it's not remotely politically correct but he could be expelled in this post Columbine age for drawing a picture of a gun. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry died long ago. So did Buffalo Bob Smith and the Howdy Doody Club.
Ceres residents of yore seemed to be more vested in their community than those up today. Ceres was perhaps more relevant to Ceres residents than today. In 1961, the whole town came out for the Paint Up Festival. How many would show up for that today?
In the 1940s and 1950s, few people owned a TV in Ceres - or any town for that matter - and you certainly didn't have cable. The folks in Mayberry, if they wanted entertainment, would sing in the church choir, go fishing as a family, read a book, strum guitar and sing on the porch or have a family dinner. Likewise, in Ceres you'd walk down to the one-screen Fourth Street movie house - since the town was very small - and watch one of two films being shown there. Today, any theater showing only two movies will have trouble remaining competitive.
The Ceres theater is gone, of course, as it fell by the wayside to the drive-in, which is also gone, forcing you to leave town for the top-run movies.
Mayberry was so small Andy Griffith could head home to have lunch provided by Aunt Bee. That was probably true of old Walter White who lived in that grand old house at the corner of Fifth and North streets just blocks from the school where he was the principal. A decade before Andy Griffith ruled TV sets in the 1950s, Ceres was indeed small with a mere 1,332 residents. Bu today, most school teachers and principals and exorbitantly paid school superintendents commute into town from Modesto or Turlock or elsewhere.
With the influx of Bay area commuters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ceres became a bedroom community to a lot of folks who bore no allegiance to their "hometown." Many only came here, in fact, because they were priced out of their urban communities and they had a hard time adjusting to the lack of cultural, entertainment and dining options here. Likewise, many locals resented the commuters for causing their city limits to expand, clog the roads with more traffic and how they complained about farmers causing dust and the hayseed mentality in the Valley.
Like Andy and Barney heading off to Mount Pilot for a good dinner date, Ceres residents often must head to Turlock or Modesto for finer dining. As I was being seated on a recent visit to Cool Hand Luke's in Turlock I brushed past two Ceres residents who were on their way out. Ceres of 1950 - all 2,351 of them and certainly less demanding of choices expected today - were content to go to Maye's Diner on Fourth Street or Hendy's Drive-In west of 99 or Burger 19 a little farther south on the four-lane 99 highway. If you want to know how the freeway looked back then, take a drive up South 9th Street and that's what you had back then.
Ruth and Bob Simpson ran Burger 19. It was always hopping with customers wanting six burgers for a dollar. It was the local hangout, from what Ruth Simpson told me.
Ruth, who passed away in 2012, was quite a splash of local color. I remember her barking out her displeasure about the way Ceres City Hall was conducting business with her residential neighborhood. She was upset when someone raised the neighboring old historic house at the south east corner of Whitmore Avenue and Six Street to build duplexes. Her crusty outward demeanor softened in front of my eyes when she defended a disabled neighbor whose perpetual yard sales were shot down by the city. Those sales didn't bother her, she said.
Ruth typified Mayberry values. I think of all the other local characters I've met over the years and know that Ceres really is a reflection of Mayberry. We have had several Floyd the barbers, among them Jim Bergamaschi who is quite a character himself. Ceres has had a number of Helen Crumps, the caring local school teacher. May Hensley, Virginia Parks and Betty Davis come to mind. Ceres has also had a number of boisterous mayors. We even had a Barney in Leroy Cunningham, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the good ol' one-bullet Barney. With this self-effacing humor, Cunningham told the Courier once that the gun he had on his hip held him to the ground and how he felt sorry that they put him in charge of Ceres with a little law enforcement experience. That would never happen today with high standards being set for police and firefighters today.
In some respects, there is a bit of Mayberry still in Ceres. We simply don't know if Mayberry would have ended up like Ceres of today. It seems likely that they would share similar qualities, both good and bad. Even Mayberry had its problems. But they seemed pale in comparison to the ones we have today.
They say you can never go back. But wouldn't it be nice if we could?