RIPON -- Is the city of Ripon suffering from an identity crisis? For evidence, look no farther than the Jack Tone Road exit on Highway 99, where the 2½-foot-high letters that once spelled out the city's name on a roadside wall are missing.
Authorities believe the letters are one of the more visible examples of the Central Valley's metal theft epidemic.
The metal letters were reported stolen in late July. The letters' value is estimated at $4,000, said Ripon Police Lt. Ed Ormonde. The three consonants and two vowels were discovered missing when a city crew was doing landscaping in the area, Ormonde said.
Now a white expanse sits where Ripon's name once did. Mayor Curt Pernice said the blank wall hasn't gone unnoticed. He's gotten comments from residents, who regard the sign as something of a landmark. Earlier this year, Pernice asked city staff to trim bushes near the sign so it would be easier to see. Unfortunately, that effort was for naught, he noted.
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Councilman Elden "Red" Nutt said he's not too worried about the wayward letters. "We're a unique community and people know where Ripon's at," he said. "The town's not going to fall apart because the letters are missing."
He said Ripon prospered even when its signage was limited to one that said, "City of Ripon Population 1,700." That was back in the mid-1960s. The city's population now stands at nearly 15,000.
Old-timers may recall that Ripon was known as Stanislaus City until 1874, when it was renamed for the Ripon, Wis., birthplace of town founder Amplias B. Crooks.
Now that the name Ripon has apparently stood the test of time, it can be found in more than one high-visibility spot. A water tower emblazoned with the town name looms above the local landscape. An antenna near the Stanislaus River also carries the city's moniker.
City officials are in the process of getting the roadside sign replaced. The city has contacted sign companies for suggestions, but Public Works Director Ted Johnston said he's not sure when the new sign will be installed. The project isn't very high on the city's priority list, he said.
Johnston said he's not sure what kind of metal the letters were made of; it's possible they were part bronze. "I'm surprised (they were stolen)," Johnston said. "There's not a whole lot of weight to them."
Johnston said the highway letters are just the latest in a string of losses the city has suffered because of metal thieves.
In the past two years, thieves have made off with six brass plaques affixed to public monuments around town. Those are being replaced with granite, Johnston said.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.