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Clarence Smit Museum

Ripon destination offers treasure trove of history

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Clarence Smit Museum

A monument recognizing the first wheat to be produced at the New Hope colony in Ripon in 1846 stands in front of the Ripon Historical Society’s Clarence Smit Museum at 430 West Main Street in downt...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin


POSTED February 11, 2012 1:09 a.m.

RIPON — A priceless collection of memorabilia telling the story of the historic River School and list the names of all its students dating back to 1914 has found its way to the Clarence Smit Museum in downtown Ripon.

While River School was located on River Road east of Murphy Ferry Road on a one-acre site purchased for $30 from Eldridge Reynolds, the original one-room school serving 13 students was built in 1864 on Murphy Road one half mile south of River Road.

It was named “River” because of its proximity to the Stanislaus River and would be sold in 1971 for $19,600 becoming a private residence.

The files tell of the construction of the schoolhouse in 1917 – completed in 1919 – at a cost of little more than $8,000. It also offers an explanation of a later budgetary crisis when board members attempted to float a tax increase of 50 cents that failed by four votes.

Trustees said the slim margin of no votes brought only an “indecisive” result and would put Ripon’s River District education in jeopardy as they demanded a second vote.

The tax issue included a petition signed by two dozen citizens calling for a second chance at the ballot box “because the general inflation of our economy has greatly increased the expenses of operating our elementary school” saying the failure of a July 20 election would severely cause a cutback in the services that could be provided to the farming community’s students.

“The parents of children in the River District and others interested in the welfare of children in the district feel that the board of trustees should have enough funds to be able to repair and maintain the present school property, provide the materials and supplies needed to continue the present curriculum, provide one teacher for each two grades and increase the instrumental music program,” – asking for a new tax for a period of five years.

A familiar name to many of the older Ripon residents, John Madsen, was listed as being the builder of the school. 

“It’s kind of amazing stuff,” said coordinator of the museum John Mangelos, reflecting on the boxes of files collected by the late Elsie Alfieri of Escalon.  As Mangelos knelt by the display case of some of the files, he noted that the old school desk he was leaning on was that of a River School student who had earlier donated it to the museum.  Bert Ballatore, who continues to farm his acreage on Carrolton Road, also donated his desk complete with ink well at the museum.

Mangelos said he was reviewing records of the old milk program when the state would first assist in the milk purchases.  The kids who could afford to pay for the milk would pay for it and the children “who didn’t have the where-with-all to pay for the milk” didn’t have to pay for it. 

“These particular books logged everyone that paid and they logged teachers that bought milk as well.  Also when they did reconstruction and did repairs on the building, all the receipts they received are also kept here.  So this nice lady who made up this collection had a complete family history of the River School,” he said.

The museum coordinator said it is the most complete journal of a school’s history that he has yet to see from its beginning to its closure decades later.  At Mrs. Alfieri’s passing it was taken to the Escalon Historical Society, he added. 

Mangelos noted that one of the principals at the Escalon Historical Society realized that the collection needed to be in Ripon, knowing the River School was part of the Ripon educational system’s past. 

“He contacted me and said that this resource should be in our museum where the people in our community, who are listed in the logs and attended the school, could appreciate it,” he said.

Mangelos pointed out that after receiving the boxes of materials, he realized the show cases he had were already being used and additional cases to display the River School memorabilia would be quite expensive, often costing upwards of $2,000 each.

Museums in the area from Escalon to Modesto to Ripon and Manteca are a family that helps each other out in times of need, and this need for cases was no exception.

Escalon had provided the volumes of files and now Wayne Mathis at the McHenry Modesto Museum and the McHenry Mansion responded as a source for the display cases.

There was already a need for a show case at the nearby Veterans’ Museum half a block away.  One case was donated at no cost – 10-foot-long, four-feet-wide, 10-feet-tall— and five others were made available at a reduced cost of $100 apiece.  Mangelos said museum funds are at low ebb at the present time noting that the cost for new cases would have been prohibitive.

Several Ripon citizens came up with the funds to provide for the new display cases.  One of those individuals was Richard Miller who asked that the showcase he was providing would contain the records of the school he also had attended. 

“So the one case we have at the museum now with the River School documents was donated by Richard Miller,” Mangelos said.

“It’s amazing how one museum helps another museum,” he added. Museums are very good at doing that because they know that all museums are non-profits.  They will lose money if people don’t give to them.  And, they only operate through the goodness of people who work there,” he said.

A 1932 Ripon High School class ring found its way back to the community through the watchful eyes of the staff at the McHenry Museum in Modesto.  The docents, in examining jewelry donations they had received recently, noticed the RHS keepsake and delivered it to the Ripon museum to be included in its collection.

“The Manteca Historical Society has brought us photographs after realizing they are not part of their collection and redirect them to us to make sure they are part of ours, “the coordinator said. 

Mangelos said Ripon museum is very fortunate to have Helen Whitmore as a volunteer – a leader who started out as an individual who just wanted to work a little to becoming the main docent, to being the person that makes sure the museum opens and closes.

“We have a difficult time in finding people who can donate just three hours to dedicate toward the museum.  She fills in when people can’t be there and she often fills in when other people are there so she is there to assist and to help,” he said.

While Helen Whitmore leads the volunteers, their numbers are lacking and new people are constantly being recruited.  The museum at 430 West Main Street is open Saturdays only from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., call 599-2084.  Helen is often available to open the building by appointment.



— Glenn Kahl
staff reporter

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