by John J. Lesjack
After Ripon High School’s principal talked about Yokut Indian, Estanislao, varsity basketball player Derek Hickman brought to class the little iron ball that changed the Hickman family history. Derek explained to fellow students that his great-grandfather had found the ball and his family believed it to be connected to the famous 1829 battle between Mexican soldiers and Yokut Indians.
Until that December day in 2013, Jesse Franklin’s iron ball was never made public, never in school for “show and tell,” and never photographed or written about for any publication. The ball’s first picture appeared on line in 2014.
“Derek is my grandson,” said Sharon Hickman, guardian of the historic relic. “Jesse Franklin was my grandfather and he never allowed anyone to take the ball out of his den.”
Sharon, second oldest granddaughter of Jesse’s 14 grandchildren, lived her first five years close to the Caswell Ranch. “As foreman, Grandpa drove tractors, milked cows and did many jobs,” Sharon said. “I was born in 1944 and have seen that ball all my life so I figure Grandpa found it sometime in the mid 1940s on the Ranch. I don’t know if the ball was buried when he found it in the river bottom near some oak trees.”
If Jesse Franklin’s discovery proved to be the second cannonball found in Ripon—the first was found in 1933 north of town—historical societies might see that find as encouragement to use GPR and other noninvasive instruments to locate enough artifacts to establish, once and for all, the official 1829 battle site. Historical landmarks, satellite landmarks, monuments and plaques could then favor both sides of the river.
As local historians know, the official site of the 1829 battle was never established by any archeological society, battlefield preservation organization or history driven group. California Historical Landmark 214, originally “California Registered Landmark 214,” was awarded to the Ripon Record’s editor C.A. McBrian in 1935. Although he had requested an historical point of interest for land in front of the old City Hall building, CHL 214 was mysteriously placed six miles west of Ripon “near” the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers where it never received a monument, a plaque or a dedication.
Franklin’s iron ball was loaned to Park Ranger Terri Jensen (Now Detective Jensen), a few years ago, when plans were afoot to construct a museum in Caswell Memorial State Park. But, before Ranger Jensen could authenticate the ball, museum plans fell through.
Jesse Franklin, born in Oklahoma “territory” in 1900 married the lovely Mary Atwell from Missouri in Mayes County, Chocteau Township, Oklahoma in 1919. He moved to Ceres, California during the Great Depression with his wife and five daughters.
“Grandpa Jesse was a collector,” said Sharon Hickman. “Wherever he went he brought home something to display in his den, a den no one entered without Grandpa’s permission. I was five years old when he showed me a dried and stiff leather vest with beading on it. I tried it on but the vest was too big.”
In 1970, always history conscious, Jesse mentioned to Sharon and her husband, Mickey Hickman that the San Joaquin School building was for sale. Authorities deemed the building below earthquake standards. Three of Jesse’s daughters—Norma, Pauline and Eldee– had graduated eighth grade from the stage in that school. Sharon, a hair dresser, and Mickey, a journeyman carpenter, bought the historic 1915 building that became their family home for 35 years. Son Brad and family are the current owners. Several publications featured articles and photographs about daughter-in-law Trisha Hickman’s decorations for holiday events in her historic residence.
In late October 2017, for the first time in family history, Sharon Hickman and 21-year old grandson Derek measured and weighed the Franklin ball that had been part of the family since 1944. They also photographed it beside a chicken egg. Circumference: 6 ½ inches. Weight: one pound.
Ripon’s 1933 cannonball, when “plowed up from its bed eighteen inches under the top soil, after Thompson had already removed ten inches while leveling his land for irrigation,” according to Editor McBrian, was slightly rusted. It had been in the ground for 104 years. Editor McBrian’s comment was, “I wonder if the ball dropped off the pack of a bucking Spanish pack mule.”
Eighty-four years ago, William H. Thompson was featured in Ripon Record’s headlines: RIPON FARMER UNCOVERS THREE INCH CANNONBALL.
Editor C.A. McBrian weighed and measured that first Ripon cannonball in his newspaper office on Main Street but took no photographs. The iron ball was nearly nine inches in circumference. After his U.C. Berkeley contacts verified that Mexican soldiers used a three-pounder cannon in 1829, McBrian and farmer Thompson donated the 3-lb cannonball, along with a copy of the Record’s story as provenance, to Sutter’s Fort Museum, Sacramento. Item #1-308-1087 is stored in the California Statewide Collections Center, McClelland Park, CA. Thompson’s cannonball, the only artifact from the 1829 conflict in any museum, requires handlers to wear gloves.
Jesse’s ball was too small to have been fired from a three-pounder cannon, but the family plans to have the ball authenticated by experts.
After he left Caswell Ranch in 1952, Jesse drove a Ripon school bus, built his own house, owned Valley Variety and Franklin Department Stores in Ripon and managed his rental properties. Jesse passed away in 1981.
“I remember seeing a small cannonball in Grandpa’s den,” Sharon said. “It might have been grapeshot or a musket ball. It was painted gold. After Grandpa died, I never saw that little ball again.”
BIO: John J. Lesjack is a free lance who specializes in historical feature stories and a frequent visitor to Ripon. He especially loves rumors about items left over from the 1829 conflict along the Stanislaus River. He may be contacted at Jlesjack@gmail.com.