chickencrisis

THE PETALUMA ROOSTER CRISIS OF 1951

All Bernice wanted was a good night’s sleep. She didn’t mean to throw the town into an existential crisis. At least, I don’t think so.

On July 2, 1951, she went to a City Council meeting. “I am complaining about roosters that wake us up,” she said. “I think we should get rid of these birds.”

It was a shocking proposal. The birds in question were chickens and Bernice Gardner lived in Petaluma, a town which had long shackled itself to the Leghorn and its skill at reliably cranking out lovely white eggs – which sometimes pop out fuzzy baby chicks, hence: Roosters.

“We must consider the poultry business,” Councilman Walter Brown said, adding helpfully “all roosters crow.” Perhaps he was wondering if Mrs. Gardner didn’t understand she was complaining about chickens. In Petaluma.

The acting City Manager pointed out there was no prohibition on keeping animals within city limits and presented a thumbnail history of an earlier tussle over the issue that limited the animal kingdom to dogs and cats. This was useful, as it gave the Council members a moment to recover from shock and gather their political wits about them.

Councilman Norwood suggested they could write an anti-noise ordinance. A zoning ordinance might be the thing, Councilman Shoemaker thought. Norwood added that they could make it a nuisance ordinance. “We would do something about a howling dog. It’s the same thing, only a different noise.”

City attorney Brooks offered his two cents, although I’ll bet he billed the city at a considerably higher rate. He said the Council could write a general ordinance or a specific rooster ordinance – but if roosters were being kept with malicious intent, a special specific ordinance could be enacted. With that said, the council voted to hold the item over for the next meeting.

Note there was no thought of restricting – much less banishing – chickens within city limits.

Bernice and husband Ralph, both in their early sixties, lived in the 600 block of Baker street, a Westside neighborhood off of Bodega Ave. where many homes have big backyards and plenty of room for a hen house. She told the Council, “at 5AM it’s anything but trivial. There are two across the street from my house, and another large one nearby which crows every five seconds. I have called the neighbors at 5AM to complain but nothing has been done about it.”

She seemed to make a valid point but at the next Council meeting, a woman named Clara Perry said she represented the neighbors and they had something to say – and not about chickens, but about Bernice. This was an eccentric thing to complain about, Clara charged, and surely the Council had more serious matters to consider. The record does not reveal whether she was, or was not, in possession of a rooster.

Again punting on a decision, the Council decided Bernice should next visit the Planning Commission. She also needed to file a complaint with the police signed by six other persons. It’s likely they now believed she was an isolated crank – although there was always a risk the rooster fight could turn into a replay of 1948.

That was the year of the petition against “fowls and livestock within the city limits” (Bernice was one of the three ringleaders in that effort). Petaluma was no longer a rural community the petitioners argued, and animals were both a nuisance and health risk, specifically “chicken raising in residential areas [is] an insurmountable source of rat nuisance.” About 300 signed the petition and a draft ordinance was hammered together. At the first Council meeting of 1949 the room was packed with protesters and a counter-petition with 900 signatures was presented. Their lawyer made a 15-point argument against the ordinance; #7 was that seized animals would be denied due process. The Argus-Courier headline the next day was, “Livestock Ordinance Beaten Down by Opposition Barrage.”

Alas for Bernice, her 1951 appearance before the Planning Commission didn’t go so well, either. Commissioners were only willing to discuss future considerations on the “subject of nuisances.” Nor could she muster even six people to sign her noise complaint. All the city had received was a single letter which condemned all “roosters, hens, flies, rats and odors” within the city. It was anonymously signed, “A Petaluma Citizen.”

Petalumans, it seems, were a remarkably tolerant bunch when it came to barnyard noises; a quick search of mid-century newspapers turns up surprisingly few police blotter items. In 1952 a woman on I street called the police over her neighbor’s cow, who “mooed all night and was still making a noise the next day.” A couple of times the Argus-Courier joked that rooster complaints were resolved via a dinner table. In fact, there’s only one other occasion that can be found where a resident thought roostering was serious enough to merit the government’s attention.

The year was 1945, and a woman complained to the City Council that roosters were waking her up each morning at 4:30. At the next Council meeting five of her neighbors showed up to defend the right to crow. “Mostly all the speakers felt the situation could be amicably corrected by the neighborhood itself,” the A-C reported. Note the article implied at least one of them thought the matter couldn’t be settled peaceably.

So here’s the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! reveal: The warring neighborhood in 1945 was Baker street, same as in 1951. One of the neighbors fighting the complaint in 1945 was again Clara Perry, who lived three door away from the woman who was so bothered by the crowing. The woman who said she couldn’t sleep in 1945 was again Bernice Gardner. And Bernice – who apparently couldn’t stand to be around chickens even though she was living in the most chicken-y town in America – knew well what roosters do, having spent about twenty years of her early married life on chicken ranches in Vallejo and Cotati. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. In her case, lots.

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lean

WHEN THE HIGH DRY WINDS BLOW

The “Diablo Winds” are apparently a Regular Thing now, with the high, dry northeasterly gales ripping through the North Bay and too often creating firestorms. But how common were these damned winds historically?

Start with our three examples that caused major fires: The 2017 Tubbs Fire, the forgotten Great Fire of 1870 and the 1964 Hanly Fire. Beyond those incidents, however, it’s hard to say with much certainty.

First, “Diablo Winds” is a modern term, invented in 1991 (Wikipedia has a good explanation of the meteorology), so looking for that name in the old newspapers is a non-starter. A century ago and more they sometimes called any bad winds “Boreas,” although that was the classical name for a cold north wind often accompanied by rains. But the bigger problem is that our ancestors didn’t care much about recording wind directions or speeds; while they diligently kept records of rainfall down to the hundredth of an inch, apparently no one in Sonoma County had an anemometer in the old days.

Searches of the Santa Rosa and Healdsburg newspapers turned up surprisingly few historic windstorms that match the Diablo pattern with certainty (I limited my research to destructive weather events during the California autumn months with no rain mentioned). If I find more I’ll add it here and flag the update in the title of this article, but I think it’s safe to presume these big winds weren’t very common. Sources of all newspaper items are transcribed below.

The most surprising discovery was 1871, the year following the Great Fire. Once again there were “large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma…It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality.”

“A vicious wind” in 1887, which might also have been a freak tornado, took down a two-story hotel at Los Guilucos that was under construction. “Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles.”

There are two accounts of the two-day storm in 1892; rain was mentioned in Petaluma but not elsewhere. It was “one of the severest [windstorms] felt in Sonoma county for a number of years,” the Sonoma Democrat reported, with hundreds of mature trees downed. An elderly woman died of fright.

“The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm,” the Healdsburg Tribune noted in 1900, making it sure bet to be classified as a Diablo Wind. Then a few weeks later, an even more destructive wind hit the town following a light rain: “The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake.”

Our last historic windstorm conveniently also provides our obl. Believe-it-or-Not! finish. This item is from the Press Democrat in 1919:

The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.

 

sources
 

The Storm.

A terrific wind storm prevailed throughout the county on Thursday night, during which large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma, and it is feared serious damage was done in those localities. About Santa Rosa, sign boards were demoralized to a considerable extent, that of the Kessing Hotel being torn from its fastenings and broken to pieces. Those of the telegraph office and Santa Rosa Book Store, were blown down. The tin roof of the store occupied by Carithers & Martin, was transferred to the building of E. T. Farmer, next adjoining. Wind mills upon the premises of Windfield Wright, Henry Worthington and Adam Shane, were blown down, and orchards through the Township literally stripped of fruit. It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality, and our people are fortunate in getting off with damages so slight.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 14 1871

 

HIGH WIND —One of the most violent windstorm ever known in this region raged last Tuesday. It subsided during the night without causing any material damage in any way. But it made a lively dust.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1880

 

A Vicious Wind.

The new two-story hotel at Los Guilucos town was razed to the ground during a violent wind storm which occurred there about 7:45 o’clock Thursday evening. If the building was as substantial as its appearances would indicate it certainly must have been a vicious wind, and the descriptions given by the workmen who were on the spot are now too highly colored. The men employed in tinning the roof had not been out of the building three minutes when the crash came. The air was full of flying timbers, some of the largest of which weighed several hundred pounds and were hurled high above the tops of the trees and lodged on top of the hotel before it fell. It seemed to be the nature of a whirlwind, and the doors and windows of the structure being open its interior formed an amphitheatre for the sports and athletic feats of Boreas. Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles. Not a timber was left standing and all that remained to mark the spot where had once stood the first building in Los Guilucos town was a few pieces of roof timbers held together by long narrow strips of twisted and misshaped tin. Other reports received from the valley are somewhat contradictory of the nature of the storm. A gentleman residing within two miles of the hotel says the wind was somewhat stronger than a zephyr, but not of sufficient violence to cause him or his family any alarm concerning the safety of their residence and outbuildings. The damage it is estimated will not be over 4,000. Messrs. Ludwig & Kroncke visited the scene of the disaster Friday.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 26 1887

 

Early Monday morning Petaluma was visited by the swiftest and most disastrous windstorm known for many years. The wind did not only whistle, but it howled and groaned through every chink accessible. This account will read very true to many Petalumans, for most of them were kept awake by the ceaseless noise of boreas and his companion, the rain. Trees were uprooted in many parts of the town. Robert Spotswood, on Keller street had a pepper and an acacia tree blown down. A eucalyptus was blown from the sidewalk in front of the Newburgh residence on Liberty street. A poplar was uprooted at Father Cleary’s, and many other trees. The fence was blown from in front of the D street school. Also the fence surrounding the Sweed property on Sixth and B streets. The scaffolding left by the carpenters on the handsome Haubrick residence now in course of construction was scattered far into the street. Not satisfied with this, the wind sailed three miles out of town and lifted a goodly section of roof off the old adobe built by General Vallejo in the early days and now used as a home by M. Riely. This old building was perfectly strong and secure and it must have been a terrific wind to carry that roof as it did.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892

 

Effects of the Storm of Sunday Night.

The storm last Saturday and especially Sunday and Sunday night was one of the severest felt in Sonoma county for a number of years.

Trees were blown down all over town Sunday night. Near the corner of the Baptist Church, a large maple, which Street Commissioner Cozad will remember very well, blew down across B street.

The top of a large pine tree, standing near the residence of R. M. Swain, broke off about twenty-five feat from the top, and in falling just missed the house. The fragment was fully one foot in diameter, which shows the force of the wind.

Two large trees standing near the home of O. H. Hoag were blown down. They struck the house and rather demolished the kitchen.

A tree on William Hopper’s place fell Sunday night and carried with it a large section of Mr. Hopper’s front fence.

Keegan Bros, heard the wind whistle to the tune of $100 Sunday night. The force of the wind tore off the front sign hanging to the awning and carrying it in struck and broke the beautiful plate glass window.

The wind also played havoc with the sky-light of the engine house, picking it up and setting it down rather roughly where it did not belong, breaking every pane of glass. A number of panes of glass were also broken in the courthouse.

Carithers & Forsythe and George F. King have the turbulent elements of Sunday night to blame for misplacing their signs.

Beldin & Hehir’s sign, aided by the gentle zephyrs, drifted from its moorings and tapped the window of the postoffice and the adjacent transom a little too hard,

A passenger on the down train from Guerneville says that all hands were required to get off and help remove two large trees that had fallen across the track a few miles from Guerneville.

About seventy trees are down across the road from Duncan Mills to Guerneville, and one citizen from Bodega says the storm Saturday and Sunday was the severest felt in that windy locality for years. It blew down most of the fences in Bodega, together with several trees and old out-buildings that were insecurely anchored.

The Pacific Methodist College came near being scalped when the gale caught one corner of the tin roof and tore off about six hundred square feet of the roof.

A large maple in front of the residence of Dr. Savage, on Fourth street, succumbed to the breeze.

Many windmills throughout the valley got more wind than they could stand, and went to the ground, and one barn was blown down.

No very heavy damage to property is reported.

The saddest occurrence of all was the death of Mrs. Clark, elsewhere reported, who was afflicted with heart troubles, and it is believed her death was precipitated by nervousness and fright occasioned by the storm.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892

 

The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm. The winds and the intense heat of the sun have been of great advantage to prune drying, condensing into a few days what would take weeks to dry. It’s an ill wind that blows evil to the fruit dryer.

– Healdsburg Tribune, September 27 1900

 

THE STORM.
Violent Windstorm Does Considerable Damage Tuesday Night.

The rain that had been gently falling for the previous few days, culminated in a terrific windstorm on Tuesday night. Old Bordeas went on a toot, tearing down signs, breaking windows, uprooting trees and doing damage to a greater or less extent in all directions. The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake and sleep became an unknown quantity with many residents. The damage to ornamental trees must have been considerable in the aggregate. The electric lights were snuffed out at about 11 o’clock but resumed business a few hours later. The rainfall for Tuesday night was 1.53, and 9.11 for the season. The symmetrical circle of umbrella trees on the Plaza was broken, two of the trees falling prone on the sward, and the others being blown out of perpendicular. Silberstein’s sign became loosened at one end and becoming a plaything in the power of the winds, smashed much of the glass front of the store into smithereens. The early morning hours indicated that the proprietors had gone out of business, and had moved their signs to other parts of the city, Carl Muller, who has kept a record of the rainfall for many years, reports the windstorm as severe, if not more so, than any previous windstorm within his memory.

– Healdsburg Tribune, November 22 1900

 

BARN MOVED BY WIND, BUT HORSE REMAINS BEHIND

The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.

– Press Democrat, November 29 1919

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kitty

PG&E: THINGS WE HATE ABOUT YOU

Dear PG&E: We need to talk. I think you’re aware (dimly, maybe?) everybody hates you. It’s not just because of the deaths and the places that burned up, or even how the recent shutoffs revealed you can’t even keep a website running, much less handle the power grid. No, it’s not just neglecting to do your job properly; you’ve been behaving badly for over a century including a hot mess of corporate malfeasance. Maybe you’re hoping we’ll patch things up after your bankruptcy and jury trial over the Tubbs Fire, but not this time – we want you to get out. Let someone else run the show. Sincerely, Northern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric has a history that deserves a spot in the Hall of Infamy somewhere between the tobacco companies and the railroads. The next time you’re hanging with friends, ask each to crawl down memory lane and recall a news story about the company. Someone will surely bring up when eight were killed in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion; auditors found PG&E had slashed the pipeline maintenance budget in order to award fat bonuses to the CEO and executives. (Afterwards, they spent tens of million$ on ads touting the company’s high commitment to safety.) An older friend might remember their mad plan to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head which they were determined to do even after it was discovered the San Andreas Fault ran directly through the site. There’s plenty more stories to share because the list of outrages goes on and on and on. Okay, one more: PG&E used a loophole to siphon over a billion dollars from a state fund for affordable housing. And on and on. Okay, one more: Diablo Canyon was the only nuclear power plant which generated electricity not with fuel rods, but by throwing dollars down a black hole. (And by the way, PG&E will soon sock customers with a $1.6 billion bill to pay for decommissioning the place, despite repeated promises that it was paid for in advance.) And on.

Aside from rage against dumb schemes like Bodega Head, most pushback against PG&E over the last 75 years has concerned rate increases, and came from the same pocketbook protectors who regularly manned the ramparts against taxes. But in 1952 there was a one-of-a-kind presentation given in Santa Rosa that exposed doings that the company did not want known. The Press Democrat and Argus-Courier offered more fact-filled editorials, letters and columns, and as a result the Sonoma county newspaper readers were likely the best informed people in the state that year.

The setting was a January 8 meeting at Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Grange Hall, in those years a popular place for holding meetings, monthly dances and other shindigs. Discussed that evening was PG&E’s proposed $37.6 million annual rate hike. (Inflation has gone up almost exactly 10x since then, so just add another zero on any dollar amounts discussed below.)

The speakers were Joe C. Lewis and Oliver O. Rands, both experts on hydroelectric power who knew how PG&E was making huge profits by reselling energy from the federal Central Valley system at a jaw-dropping 1,500 percent markup, buying it for only 0.4¢ per KWH and reselling it in Santa Rosa and elsewhere for about 6.5¢ per KWH. Yet the company still wanted a hefty rate hike.

Lewis was an ex-Assemblyman from Buttonwillow (best known to travelers on I-5 as, “hey look, there’s an exit for a town named Buttonwillow!”) and then the head of the “California Farm Research and Legislative Committee,” a grassroots organization representing hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farmworkers against agribusiness and PG&E/SoCal Edison. Rands was the federal Bureau of Reclamation chief overseeing the contracts providing ultra-cheap power to PG&E. As far as I can tell, this was the only time the two men appeared together to shine a spotlight on the monopoly’s practices.

PG&E’s argument(s) went something like this: Although the proposed rate hike will raise the average bill by 21 percent, that’s not a lot. Heck, some other power companies have doubled their rates in the last dozen years – thanks to our good management we’ve kept rates low. But we’re really paying a lot of taxes (more than half of all taxes collected in some counties!) and we’ve had to expand because of all the people who moved to California since the end of WWII. Our profits are way down and we might have to reduce the approx. 12% annual dividend we’ve paid our thousands of shareholders (fun fact: More women than men own stock!) this year. Also, we’re entitled to raise prices because we’re legally allowed to make a 5.8 percent profit under regulations, which makes this rate increase only fair.

Bullshit, said Lewis, Rands and the other PG&E critics. The true reason to hate PG&E in those years was because in all ways it acted more like a Fortune 500 company than a regional utility.

The company’s balance sheet was filled with hard-to-justify operating costs, starting with the president’s whopping base salary of over $107,000 – a shocking number back then, when average family income was $3,300 and a CEO typically only made 20x more than its workers (far more obscene today is that a major corporation CEO makes about 360x over the employees).

PG&E also paid over $1 million between 1949-1952 on lobbyists in Washington and Sacramento and spent lavishly to defeat ballot items it didn’t like. When Redding, which has its own municipal electric utility, held a 1949 referendum on buying energy directly from the Bureau of Reclamation, PG&E poured money into their small town politics (population 10,000) blocking the switch by spending $7 for every vote – and remember, multiply all these dollar amounts by ten.

But the most questionable item in its operation budget was “sales promotion,” which Lewis said totaled $2,100,000 in 1950. That did not include the cost of “PG&E Progress,” the chatty little newsletter sent to each customer in the same envelope as the monthly bill; much of that PR budget paid for large, expensive ads in newspapers and national magazines such as Life, Look, Time, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest and similar. This was certainly a major reason why it’s so hard to find any scrutiny of PG&E in the press during the 1950s – publishers are always loathe to portray major advertisers in a bad light.

The national ads didn’t tout PG&E by name; the source was a trade group that identified the ad as being sponsored by “America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies.” Known in the industry as the “Electric Companies Advertising Program” (ECAP) it was among the top 100 national advertisers, spending $25 million in 1950. At various times there were about a hundred ±30 companies underwriting the program and we don’t know how much of their funding came from PG&E, but you can bet it was a greater chunk than all the pee-wee members such as the Conowingo Power Company of Elkton, Maryland.

The ECAP ads from the ’50s and ’60s are often campy fun, urging consumers to embrace “modern electric living” (which usually meant buying major appliances) and feel-good “world of tomorrow” stuff (a personal favorite is found at the end of this article). But there were other ad campaigns which were anything but fluffy PR.

Another type of their print ads (ECAP also sponsored popular network radio shows) brought scrutiny by crossing the line into lobbying, particularly by complaining the companies were being taxed unfairly. Since PG&E and the other companies claimed those ads as part of their operating expenses, they sometimes were investigated or sued over doing so – and it’s only thanks to legal documents about the issue (such as this one) do we know some of what was going on behind the curtain at ECAP.

Sometimes the ads changed the name to something like, “Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies” as a reminder that some of the big companies like PG&E were ready to sell stock to non-customers. While their newsletter boasted that it was California owned, almost half of PG&E’s stock in 1952 was held by sixteen East Coast corporations, according to a PD columnist.

socialistic(RIGHT: 1950 ECAP ad calling public-owned utilities un-American)

At the Santa Rosa meeting Mr. Rands was clearly angered by a particularly despicable class of ECAP ads that attacked municipal power utilities as “socialistic poison.” He explained that PG&E not only didn’t like the competition, but wanted to conceal that towns such as Healdsburg had much lower rates because they could buy power directly from the Bureau of Reclamation at a fraction of the cost of other places in Sonoma county.

And finally, PG&E was even covering up why they really needed to increase prices – it was in order to pay for the $62M “Super Inch” natural gas pipeline from Arizona to Milpitas. Under federal regs they had to show they had the income to pay for building and maintaining this enormous project. Looking forward forty years, the pipeline would become national news in the 1990s, after Erin Brockovich exposed it had contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, CA – another major PG&E scandal one of your friends might have recalled.

In the autumn of 1952 the Public Utilities Commission allowed PG&E to increase rates, but by 16% instead of the 21% they had insisted was needed. From the wire service reporting it appears the company’s inflated operating costs were not mentioned at the PUC hearing. (PG&E’s funding of ECAP did come up when they requested another rate increase in 1974.)

This is not the place to poke through all of PG&E’s dirty laundry from that era, although there’s no book or internet source that explores it (at least, none I’m aware of). Those wanting to know more will find the testimony of Robert Read and Louis Bartlett at the 1945 state water conference to be stimulating reading. This scarcity of background makes the 1952 coverage by the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier all the more extraordinary.

Credit where it’s due: Besides Lewis and Rands, we were educated by W. D. Mackay of the Los Angeles-based “Commercial Utility Service,” a watchdog group that sent letters to mayors and city attorneys about the gas pipeline. The Argus-Courier was apparently the only paper in the state that published the letter. In the Press Democrat solid information was provided by Ulla Bauers, the paper’s night editor and sometimes columnist. Because of him, we have a great Believe-it-or-Not! footnote: “Ulla Bauers” was the name of a dislikable minor character in the sci-fi DUNE universe who appears in a novella published in “The Road to Dune.” Author Frank Herbert worked at the PD 1949-1952, so the name can be no coincidence. Herbert also later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle.”

1959 ECAP ad
1959 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad

TOP PHOTO: “Kitty” @blackksiren weheartit.com
PG&E ads: advertisingcliche.blogspot.com

 

sources
“Letter Read to City Council” Argus-Courier, July 4, 1951

“P.G.&E. Rate Case Affects Interests Of All Santa Rosans” Press Democrat, December 7, 1951

“‘Unjustified’ PG&E Costs Reported in Rate Protest” Press Democrat, January 9, 1952

“Much of P.G.&E.’s Profits Are Drained Out to the East” Press Democrat, April 1, 1952

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