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Betty Ham's inlaws were an interesting lot
When Betty Ham returns to Ceres it's an experience freighted in nostalgia.

On a recent visit to her old stomping grounds, the daughter-in-law of the late Ceres constable and fire chief Will Ham shared her link to two key Ceres family of the last century - the Hams and the Baldridges.

Old-timers in Stanislaus County will recognize the name of Betty's late husband, Gordon Ham. Together they ran a portrait studio in Modesto. Mr. Ham died eight years ago.

"You readjust but it hurts," said Betty. "We were married 54 years. It was a happy marriage."

Gordon's father Will Ham was an important name in Ceres for many years. But when Betty, now 80, talks about Mr. Ham - calling him "Dad" - it's easy to see that she still loves and reveres him.

"Dad was a lovely man," she said. "He was pretty quiet but something would bring a statement about."

Will Ham was raised in Tuolumne County by his widowed mother, Katy Ham, before they relocated and ended up in Ceres. Katie had immigrated to the United States in the early 1860s from England; she lived in Soulsbyville where she and her husband were originally miners. Will came along in 1889 and saw his father become ill. Mr. Ham died in 1908 after a two-year bout with miner's consumption.

Betty recalls that Will once spoke about having a Miwok Indian babysitter before the family moved to the Bay Area. There Will experienced the greaqt San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

In August 1910 the Hams came to Ceres. Katy operated a boarding home for teachers on Fifth Street. Will was 21. Not many years into their Ceres experience and tragedy struck the family. Will's sister, Pearl, an attractive and intelligent woman with a promising future, died of a ruptured appendix shortly after she graduated from college. She's buried in Sonora.

"That was a pain that was in the family for many years," recalled Betty.

Will also had a brother Allen Ham and a sister Doreen.

Baldridge family

Will Ham eventually found a bride in Ceres when he met Myrtle Baldridge. Her story is equally interesting. Myrtle came with her parents, Charles and Evangeline Baldridge, to Ceres in 1902 from Hollister by covered wagon. In a written account published in Mildred Lucas' "From Amber Grain To Fruited Plain," Myrtle Ham noted that: "I always wondered why we came because my father had worked for a fine man... and mother gave us such a bleak description of the country that I couldn't imagine she liked it." Apparently Evangeline had traveled through the Valley as a girl with her parents before the days of irrigation and saw "miles and miles of grain fields and in the distance an occasional oak tree with a little house under it, that it was terribly hot and there were lots of scorpions. But in two camp wagons - which mother's brother brought over from Ceres - we made the two-and-a-half day trip from Hollister to Ceres. The trip over was a thrilling experience for me as it was the first time I could remember having been more than 15 miles from home."

Myrtle's father found immediate work on the ranch owned and operated by the Whitmores, and stayed with it until 1929. They lived on an experimental fruit garden at the intersection of Service and the highway.

Will Ham kept store

After World War I broke out, Will Ham went to fight in France as an American "doughboy." Upon his return to Ceres after the war, Will got into the grocery business, working for George Wood's Mercantile. It was located on the triangle block in downtown Ceres on the same lot now occupied by Jackpot gas south of Lawrence Street.

Will later went into the grocery business himself with brother-in-law Wayne Baldridge, who also was mayor of Ceres from 1930 to 1938. Ceres Grocery Store was located on the east side of Fourth Street south of the Bank of Ceres in downtown Ceres. Will bought out Wayne's part and operated the store into the 1940s.

Public servant

He became Ceres constable. Betty said Gordon recalled riding along with his father on occasion. On one occasion Will was to arrest a woman. From the car, Gordon watched his dad speak to the woman for 20 minutes. When he came back he explained that he offered pointers on how she could resolve her legal problems, saying that going to jail would not help her, especially since she was caring for children.

Gordon later tried his hand at law enforcement, working as a Sheriff's deputy until he got into photography.

From 1926 to 1935, Will Ham served as Ceres' fire chief. At the time the Ceres Fire Station was located on the east side of Fourth Street on what is now the Pina Tips shop. Ham made an unusual Model T fire engine that had two front ends which garnered some ridicule. On a particular mutual aid call Modesto firefighters saw the contraption and laughed - until Ham directed a spray at them to show how much water pressure would blast them.

His compassionate nature resulted in many turning up for his funeral. Betty recalls at least two of the mourners were townfolk for whom he served arrest warrant papers on.

Another interesting member of the Ham family is Dick Ham, Betty's brother-in-law. The Ceres High School graduate is now 89 and living in Portola Valley.

Dick was a photographer who was assigned to the unit of famed world traveler and radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas. In the summer of 1944 Dick Ham asked if he could photograph famed artist Pablo Picasso. He agreed and during their meetingtreated Dick to a lunch of a tomato and lettuce sandwich and was informed that he just "ate the most famous tomato in the world." Apparently the tomatoes had been plucked from a tomato plant perched in a window sill which Picasso had just painted.

The family has a photo of Dick taking a photo of Winston Churchill during one of his speeches in Europe.

"They're all very accomplished, comfortable, interesting and educated people," said Betty of her husband's family.

Gordon's cousin, Bud Baldridge, had a successful career as a commercial airline pilot.

Betty only lived in Ceres for a short time. Right after her wedding to Gordon after World War II, housing was not easy to find, she recalls. Her and Gordon lived for a while in Myrtle's house at 2945 Fifth Street.

Among those Betty got to meet during her time in Ceres was Walter White, a key figure in Ceres. He was principal and superintendent and later mayor. She also got to know George Wood's daughter, Jessie Wood Crombie and her husband Jim Crombie.

"She was a very down-to-earth," said Betty of the celebrated figure of Jessie Crombie. "She was the kind of person who would help anybody, quietly. She was well educated, bright, of comfortable means."

"Aunt Jessie" as she calls her, was involved in what was known as the Ceres Study Club. A group of women would read a certain book and then come together to talk about it.

Later the Crombies moved to Oakland where they operated a rose nursery.

Besides the two Ham boys, there is also Doreen, who is still living in Sacramento.