Ceres leader led charge to rebuild church

Dedicated in 1882, the Ceres Baptist church was a point of local pride -- a year after the church opened, it was the site of a meeting of Northern California Baptists. But it almost ceased to be, and it took the tireless work of one of Ceres' founding fathers to get it rebuilt.

On Sunday night, Nov. 12, 1889, a fire destroyed the church.

Normally the church would have used its insurance money to restore the building, but the policy had been allowed to lapse. Through the work of local residents, led by Alfred Jackson Roberts, an effort was made to raise the money needed to rebuild.

A Tennessee native, born Christmas Eve 1848, "he claimed to have voted against secession at the age of 12."

Roberts enlisted in the Union army in November 1862. He served in the 5th Kentucky Cavalry. During a small-scale fight in Tennessee, the force he was with was scattered, and Roberts described a long odyssey he made to evade capture.

Those efforts took him to his sister's home in North Carolina, where he stayed three months, then continued on to his brother's home in Virginia where he spent another month.

Upon return to his regiment, Roberts served as an orderly under cavalry Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, derisively nicknamed by his troopers as "Kill-Cavalry" for his recklessness in battle.

In 1864, Roberts was standing in line with his much older and taller fellow soldiers waiting to cast their ballots in the presidential election between the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, and the former Union general, George B. McClellan.

Though only 15, "the law which gave the soldiers the right of franchise, regardless of whether they had reached their majority or not, enabled him to cast his first vote," and that was to re-elect Lincoln.

By the spring of 1865, the war was over and Roberts was discharged from the army. Moving about from Kentucky to Wyoming, he finally came to California in 1876. He first settled in Bakersfield, where he married Lottie Rice, with whom he would eventually have eight children.

In 1880, Roberts arrived in Stanislaus County, taking up residence in Ceres. He spent the next 20 years working his land and running a hay-bailing outfit. He also built the family home, which was on the corner of Roberts and Roeding roads. According to a history of Ceres, "Roberts Road, as it is known, (was) called so after A.J. Roberts."

With the loss of the church in Ceres, Roberts used all the connections he had made over the years from his bailing business to ask for donations. From the congregation he received more than $1,400 and from nonmembers $1,200 more, all of which led to the quick rebuilding of the church and restoring a part of the community's life.

After that success, Roberts continued to be involved in community matters, including Civil War veterans groups. His involvement in local affairs was greatly curtailed when, in 1911, he was seriously injured in an accident involving a runaway team of horses. Roberts spent the rest of his life in Ceres until his passing in February 1929.

Sources: George H. Tinkham, "History of Stanislaus County" (1921) and Mildred D. Lucas, "From Amber Grain to Fruited Plain: A History of Ceres, California and its Surroundings, 1776-1976."

McAndrews is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. He can be reached at