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ALL OUR FUTURES PAST

Santa Rosa is an optimistic town, and has been since the first trains chugged into Railroad Square in the 1870s. But it’s not truly a virtue; that optimism is rooted in our bigshots having relentless ambitions to make us into an economic powerhouse which would make them rich. Someday, in their fever dreams, Santa Rosa will be a great metropolis anchoring the northern end of the Bay Area. True, such growth or clout might not happen tomorrow, but it’s surely just over the horizon – or so the town’s nabobs have told us, our parents, our grandparents and even our great-grandparents.

That may be why the Press Democrat had a fondness for stories predicting Santa Rosa’s bonny future. Other newspapers also printed those sorts of articles, usually on special anniversaries such as a town’s centennial. But the PD needed no excuse to gaze into a crystal ball and their forecasts would pop up at any time.

I’ve collected a dozen from the first half of the 20th century (likely there are many more to find) and I love these things; usually they’re a mix of whiz-bang gadgets that are nearly magical, loopy ideas culled from science fiction and wild predictions which sometimes actually did come true. Common threads include flying cars, that television will make us smarter and better people and nobody will really have to work hard. Women’s fashions are always going to be very, very strange.

vogueman(RIGHT: “Man of the Future” by Gilbert Rohde had an antenna hat for “snatching radio and Omega waves from the ether” and wore a telephone on his chest. The “solo-suit” is considered the first example of wearable tech. Rohde was best known as a modernist furniture designer. Vogue, Feb. 1939)

The wildest prediction appeared here earlier in its own article, “SANTA ROSA IN THE YEAR 3000.” Author John Tyler Campbell, an attorney who penned the city’s first charter and later became a politician and diplomat, predicted in 1913 that a “great upheaval” in the Pacific Ocean would close the Golden Gate Strait. Fortunately, “around the year 1925 Sonoma county built a canal connecting the Russian river to the Petaluma river, through the Laguna, Mark West and Santa Rosa creeks. It was big enough to handle the largest ocean steamships…” Santa Rosa thus became the major seaport on the coast, and in the year 2905 the nation’s capitol was moved from Washington D.C. and “built on Taylor mountain after it was graded down to an elevated plateau.” Give it a read – it’s pretty wacky stuff.

Here’s a sample of some of the other futuristic visions that appeared in the Press Democrat:

1928 → 1953   Lee W. Nelson was a Press Democrat city reporter in the late 1920s-early 1930s before becoming an editor at the Healdsburg Tribune. His October 28, 1928 semi-humor essay is on par with what many others believed about radio evolving into an internet-like media appliance.

“A telephontophone service” is now available to PD subscribers. “Users of this service will now receive their papers the instant they are off the press, as the telephotophone transmits the copies directly to home radio sets equipped with the special attachment…where they are recorded on photostatic plates. After the paper has been read the plates are cleaned by a special chemical preparation and replaced in the receiver to be used again.”

This week the California Theater will be broadcasting “Primitive Passion” on its private wave length. Anyone with a season key can watch it at home, but “One-week keys, which will bring the theater programs for seven days into the home by attaching the key to the radio, are on sale at the box office.”

He wrote the fictional Mrs. Carrie Waite Leightly was divorcing her husband for lying about “going on a fishing trip to Michigan for the day. But Mrs. Leightly, while sitting in her parlor, casually looking over the world with her radio television, discovered him at the Folies Bergère in Paris with a bold blonde.”

The city and county have enacted new air and motor reform laws, “making it a misdemeanor for private or taxi planes to use Fourth street or Mendocino avenue for landing or taking off between 6AM and 6PM on weekdays.” It is also illegal to operate commercial landing fields on buildings less than 25 stories in height, so apparently we have skyscrapers in 1953.

“Construction of a helicopter-rocket catapult at the Santa Rosa airport was completed today…” This means we have direct flights “to the nearest planets” (Mars and Saturn are mentioned) and no longer need making the “long trip to San Francisco” which takes twelve minutes.

Reporter Nelson seems to have believed Prohibition would never end and finished his satire with a very Roaring Twenties view of the future: “SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 13, 1953 – Mortimer C. de Kay, noted sociologist visiting here today, declared the younger generation is ‘going to the dogs.’ ‘Fast roadster planes, one-armed piloting, petting parties on the planets, jazz music and liquor are doing the evil,’ he asserted.”

1935 → 1985/2010   Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley penned many editorials in the 1930s promising TV was right around the corner, but in this July 17, 1935 op/ed he predicted what life would be like 50-75 years from then. Some of it misses the target (doors will open and close “automatically by invisible rays”) but mostly it’s the usual stuff with everyone flying everywhere and living lives of leisure:

Air-conditioning in summer and automatic heating in winter will be provided everywhere. Our power will probably be drawn from the sun. The automobile of that day, swift, light and sure, will be propelled at small cost with little or no inconvenience. Television will be part of the radio or telephone, in every home.

Another part of the column, however, leaves us wondering what the hell was going on in the Finley household: “The people of that day will look back upon what we are doing now and laugh at our crudeness and simplicity…They will joke about the way grandpa and grandma had to get along with only one bathroom downstairs, and two, perhaps, on the upper floor.”

Finley ends on a weird utopian/apocalyptic note – which is quite a bit of acrobatics: “California will be a veritable empire of itself, unique, offering climatic and cultural advantages to be found no other place on the continent. Or there may be no California. Who can tell?” (July 17, 1935)

1956 → 2056   The houses of tomorrow are all gonna be like double-wides – albeit nice ones.

“Cal” Caulkins was Santa Rosa’s top architect c. 1935-1960 and when he came back from WWII he had a vision to redesign almost all of Santa Rosa’s downtown core from the ground up. His plan was the city’s last hope to remake itself into a model civic center; what happened to that design was told here in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.”

Caulkins thought in the mid-21st century “houses will be built of a wide variety of standard aluminum, insulated sections, colored as desired.” These pre-fabricated parts are completely finished at the factories and the interlocking sections can be easily assembled at the building site without the need of skilled labor.

Because of the many sections and colors the design possibilities will be almost unlimited. Natural climate will have practically no affect on comfort in the future home. The house will be completely sealed. All air will be automatically conditioned, that is washed, adjusted humidity, medically treated, filtered, heated or cooled to any desired temperature and without delay.

Land is still expensive, tho, so these houses are “very compact.” But no need to feel claustrophobic – the whole house is able to rotate, so the view can shift as desired. (Pity the poor mail carriers and delivery people hunting for the front door, sometimes having to thrash through shrubbery – or does the landscaping rotate too?)

Only bedrooms and bathrooms have fixed partitions; the rest of the interior is separated by movable screens. “Much of the furniture including beds and chairs and tables will be out of sight, and will appear at the wave of the hand in a particular area.” There are no lamps or other light fixtures; the whole ceiling glows, its brightness set with dimmers.

In Caulkins’ future there are no utility bills except for water. All power is supplied by a small nuclear plant that came with the house. There’s no sewer because wastewater is “flushed into a container filled with chemicals.” Next time you visit a Porta Potty, think of it as offering a whiff of the future.

Cal Caulkins "House of Tomorrow." Press Democrat, Oct. 21, 1956
Cal Caulkins “House of Tomorrow.” Press Democrat, Oct. 21, 1956

1956 → 2056   Like the Caulkins prediction, this opinion on future fashion comes from the Oct. 21, 1956 centennial edition of the Press Democrat. (The PD was founded in 1897. Why they claimed – and continue to claim – their roots go back to the disreputable, bigoted Sonoma Democrat is beyond me.)

Elizabeth Case, a top-shelf Hollywood fashion designer who resettled here a couple of years earlier, thought the women of 2056 would be “taller and more slender than today” thanks to exercise and improved processed foods. “People will know how to live longer so that the mature body of a sixty-year-old woman will be active, firm and far more beautiful than at the formative age of 16.”

casefashionIt is an “era of comfort and good taste” without corsets (“waistlines will be diminutive naturally”) and the “freedom costume of tomorrow” might be knee breeches with a lingerie blouse – although sans that tacky “TV cleavage display” – or the woman of tomorrow might “go completely feminine in short, full skirts.”

The “ruffled petticoats so popular today should be even more so 100 years hence” and historical styles could also be revived; “hoop skirts may make a simulated comeback, but not of whalebone and crinoline. They will be purely inflationary push button style.” Ladies, guard that remote control from falling into a prankster’s hand.

“The combination of chemistry and agricultural waste will establish a wondrous foundation for a whole new series of ‘Phenomenal Phabrics,'” particularly in swimwear. “Woven of exquisite leaf pattern, the swimsuit is actually made partly of waste wood pulp and sheds water like a duck. It is also sensitive to ultraviolet rays so the wearer receives an even suntan.”

Miss Redwood Empire also has a Phenomenal Phabric flying suit:

The new model is a marvel of light, seamless construction from an indestructible, protective fabric with a system of fins and gliders under push button control at finger tips. The peak of the helmet provides an ideal spot for directional antenna. Clear vision is supplied for the eyes, and the face covering gives the effect of a seductive veil. The boots lock together at the ankles so that the wearer is actually poised on her own private landing gear…
…She need not wait for helicopter taxi at the airport because she is wearing her own short haul transportation. Naturally, she will have to learn to fly just like learning to dance ballet, to ski, to swim and to dive. What a new sport to sail through the air on her own little nuclear power! What a thrill to be tuned in on her destination beam a few hundred feet above ground, over the tree and roof tops. Imagine flying through rain or snow!
So goodbye to topcoat, umbrella and galoshes for the flying suit makes a perfect traveling costume. From luncheon in Paris to shopping in New York, it can be quickly checked in restaurant or department store dressing rooms…under it she wears a new type of garment combining trousers, hosiery and shoes which allows absolute freedom of motion in this nuclear way of living.

But why would she limit her luncheons and shopping to boring old Earth? “When a passenger on a giant ‘Nuclearnautica’ linking the planets, she can relax in her own pressurized atmosphere and arrive in a new world completely refreshed.”

1968 → 2068   In less than fifty years from now, Santa Rosa will disappear.

So sayeth Ken Blackman, who was city manager for three decades starting in 1970. Before that he was city planning director and between the two positions, he deserves a big share of the thanks (or voodoo doll pins) for how downtown Santa Rosa looks today. This makes him a particularly interesting person to predict our future.

Blackman thought the entire West Coast, from San Diego to Canada, would be a single, unbroken megalopolis – although there will be some “small pockets of resistance that will remain remote,” he told the PD. Gentle Reader may wish to take a moment to ponder that a man in his position viewed critics of unfettered development as the “resistance.”

“I think Santa Rosa’s population by 2068 will be in the area of 300,000 to 500,000 depending on the density of development allowed. The predominate method of living will be apartments with most in excess of five stories.” (The 2021 population of Santa Rosa is about 175 thousand.) Packing the place formerly known as Santa Rosa with so many people will lead to big-city problems, Blackman told the paper, which he expected will create demands for some type of sound regional government. He did not address how those pesky pockets of resistance might fit into his utopia.

“Agricultural areas will be clearly defined and off-limits to subdivision development. Separations between cities may well be by agricultural means such as farming and timber.” National forests and reserves are still preserved, and most open space is “government controlled as other areas are utilized for urban purposes.”

Autos are banned because of dwindling petroleum and air pollution, with most streets turned over to foot traffic. “There will have to be some form of above ground travel at low cost and high speed” but it won’t be today’s forms of rapid transit, which are considered as much an antique as the steam engine. There are no major airports because of nearby “sub-airports” large enough to handle vertical takeoff aircraft. Most of our leisure time is spent visiting other places, and “travel time to San Francisco from Santa Rosa will be four or five minutes.”

All utilities are underground because buildings keep getting higher and higher. Following that comment the 1968 article noted, “a step toward this is the State Public Utilities Commission ruling that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. must start converting to underground this year.” Was that memo lost in the mail?

Our water comes from desalination plants and our sewage is probably handled by incineration. As for garbage, “all resources in 100 years will have realized importance and we won’t be throwing them away as we are today. We can’t find places today to get rid of garbage. In 100 years, we’ll be reusing it.” (March 17, 1968)

The Press Democrat didn’t just tap local soothsayers – they ran seemingly every future prediction item that came across the wire. Other papers reprinted some of those stories too, of course, but the PD had an insatiable appetite for them, particularly under the editorship of the town’s über-booster Finley.

Those broader predictions likewise had a mixed record of accuracy. In 1923 E. Fatterini, an “able Italian engineer,” said “the problem of power for flying machines would be solved by wireless transmission of power.” A Dr. Panunzio at UCLA looked at the census data in 1940 and predicted we would be drinking less milk and more whisky, beauty parlors would multiply and people would flee the cities for the country life. Someone could fill a book with all those predictions. Probably several books.

Many were just silly because the “expert” didn’t know what (s)he was talking about, but not all were fools or cranks. One very peculiar example was British “Professor” A. M. Low, whose views of things to come were the subject of a July 21, 1925 wire service article in the PD:

Taking a peep at the average man on an average day in the near future. Low sees him rising at 9:30 o’clock at the call of a radio alarm clock. He will then have to exercise care not to put on his wife’s clothing by mistake, the scientist remarks. During his quickly dispatched breakfast taken while dressing the pleasant-toned loud speaker will keep him informed on the days happenings, while a television machine will give him a glimpse thereof. Food will either come from a communal kitchen by the tube or delivered hot daily from the big store.

Low was undeniably a genius who did pioneering work in many scientific fields and can be called the inventor of the drone airplane. Trouble was, he couldn’t keep his focus on anything long enough to finish it. As his Wikipedia entry states, “if it wasn’t for this inability to see things to a conclusion, Low could well have been remembered as one of the great men of science.”

The article about Low that appeared in the PD was to promote his new work, “The Future.” In the next thousand years, he declared in the book, education of children will begin before birth, men will become bald and our legs will gradually be atrophied from non-use. “Telepathy will be more employed” and war will be conducted by “flying submarines.” Those details weren’t in the Press Democrat version of the article, however; only rosy futures – and preferably those describing great sprawling cities – were welcome here, thanks.

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A RED CARPET FOR THE WILD BLUE YONDER

Forget Charles Schulz and Peanuts; forget Luther Burbank and his garden. Forget tourism, with its spas and wine tasting (and for that matter, forget boutique wineries). Santa Rosa and the surrounding area are known for one thing alone – it’s the home of the Air Force Academy.

Oh, you say, that’s in Colorado Springs – and notice how quickly the name of that city comes to mind – but in 1950 the Academy didn’t yet exist and its future location was very much up in the air (sorry), with Santa Rosa among the top contenders. The Chamber of Commerce waged a year-long campaign to bring it here, even though it quickly turned neighbor against neighbor and pitted the city against the county Farm Bureau.

When the new year of 1950 began, the whereabouts of a future Air Force Academy was a much discussed topic nationwide. There were already 150 communities in the running, in part because the search criteria were so broad. Col. Freeman Tandy, chairman of the task force screening possible sites in California, said basic requirements were that it be within fifty miles of a major city, be close to all means of transportation, have utilities available and sport natural beauty. He explained they wanted a place suitable for a university more than an airfield with lots of noisy flight operations.

And there was this: Colonel Tandy said the government expected to spend up to $300M to acquire land and build the campus – the equivalent of spending $3.2 BILLION today. When the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce invited the selection board to come here and look around we can only hope there was no obvious drool on the letter.

A survey team from the Army Corps of Engineers was slated to visit in mid-January but there was one teensy problem: We hadn’t settled on a location to show them.

With only three days to spare, the Santa Rosa Chamber met with the Petaluma Chamber and agreed they would offer a site between the cities. “It’s now a Sonoma county project,” said the Petaluma Chamber.

The property was directly across from modern-day SSU on the east side of Petaluma Hill Road. The Air Force was looking for 9,000 acres and the four square miles would be less than a third of that, so maybe they were counting a large chunk of land on the west side of the road – there was no Rohnert Park at the time, remember. It was pointed out that buildings could be on the scenic slope of Sonoma Mountain and part of the site was “a natural football bowl.” Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

When the two guys arrived for the tour, a throng of local poobahs swarmed over them like a pack of dumpster raccoons. Reps from the city and/or Chamber for Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati, Forestville and Sebastopol trailed the caravan driving up and down Petaluma Hill Road and out to Crane Canyon Road – although they couldn’t see much because of heavy rain. Then it was off to Santa Rosa and its lush Topaz Room for lunch and fine speeches about how everyone thought it would be the bestest choice the Air Force could ever make. Afterwards they all piled back into cars and went off to see the “Sonoma County Airport tract.”

Normally you’d expect it would be the last anyone heard of a project like this; competition was fierce from more prominent cities in California and other states in the West. Then suddenly the North Bay became a top contender because General “Hap” Arnold happened to die right then.

Hap Arnold was the indisputable father of the U.S. Air Force. Besides wrenching it away from the Army as its own military branch (no small task, that), he won highest praise for leadership during WWII, winning the air war against both Germany and Japan. Hap retired to his 35-acre “El Rancho Feliz” on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain and wrote a 1948 article for National Geographic, “My Life in the Valley of the Moon” which spoke of his contentment there. The Santa Rosa-Petaluma site might have been easily extended to encompass his little homestead. He also kept an office at Hamilton Field.

Our congressman lobbied the Air Force Secretary to bring here the “Arnold Air Academy” or somesuch, and letter writers to the Press Democrat urged we take the initiative, beginning with a “General Arnold Day” countywide holiday and a military parade, maybe. We could also start naming things after him – which we did a few months later when the Board of Supervisors changed Glen Ellen Road to Arnold Drive. The Napa Chamber of Commerce, which had its own bid for the Academy, insisted they, too, wanted a nod to “Arnold” should they be given the Golden Ticket (which would have created absolutely no hard feelings over here, I’m sure).

But amid the national mourning for Hap Arnold and locals Burbank-inizing him into our new Favorite Son, the county quietly took the Santa Rosa-Petaluma site out of the running, despite it being the showcase of the presentation to the inspection team – as well as being the only landmark connection to the famed general. From the Jan. 21 Press Democrat:

Sonoma county has pinned all its hopes for the “West Point of the Air” being located here on the former army air base near Windsor, it was indicated at the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting yesterday. J. Mervyn Daw, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce president, and A. M. Lewis, secretary-manager of the chamber, appeared before the board to ask that the county’s master plan of airports booklet be revised to include detailed maps of the proposed air academy site. They said that Col. F. S. Tandy, district engineer of the Corps of Army Engineers, personally picked the Windsor site over one located east of Penngrove…

There are several shaky details in that clip, although some may be due to lousy journalism. Was the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce (not the city) really directing the Supervisors to make historic, sweeping changes in county planning? Col. Tandy was not part of the survey party that was here the previous week, so when did he evaluate the sites? Did he officially issue this opinion or was it an offhand remark made to someone? Previously, his only comment was that he didn’t think there was an adequate water supply in Sonoma County, which led the PD to boast there would be more than enough once Lake Mendocino was created (as of this writing in 2021, drought has reduced the lake to little more than a mud puddle).

The proposed site encompassed 14,000 acres, of which 5k would be actively used as the Air Force campus. Roughly all of the Russian River between Windsor and Hacienda Bridge would now belong to the government, with a dam somewhere to create a lake (hey, we could name it Arnold Beach!) for boating and freshwater supply. The site also included the area which is now the Sonoma County Airport, requiring us to develop a different airfield.*

Proposed site for the Air Force Academy as presented to the Air Force's site selection committee in 1950. The location of the Sonoma County Airport shown in red. (CLICK HERE for a full size version of the map)
Proposed site for the Air Force Academy as presented to the Air Force’s site selection committee in 1950. The location of the Sonoma County Airport shown in red. (CLICK HERE for a full size and unedited version of the map)

But the Academy’s greatest impact on the county wouldn’t be its whopping size – it would be the sudden pop in population. The Air Force planned to begin with 2,000 cadets and ramp up to 5,000. Together with the staff required to support operations it would add 20,000 people to Sonoma County. That was more than lived in Santa Rosa, which then was under eighteen thousand.

It’s no wonder why the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was racing after this project; it was said the Air Force expected a town of about 8,000 would be built nearby. Whether that would be North Santa Rosa or West Windsor didn’t really matter – those newbies would still have few shopping options except for the City of Roses’ downtown stores.

The big loser in this switcheroo of preferred sites was Petaluma, of course, and it’s a wonder it didn’t destroy what comity remained between Santa Rosa and the egg city. The Argus-Courier assured the Petaluma Hill road site wasn’t fully out of the running and would still be submitted as an alternate. “At least we are not going to give up hope yet,” an editorial said. Yet the 62-page brochure presented to Washington D.C. on behalf of “Sonoma County in the Redwood Empire” had no mention of it, while including several pages just on school districts in and north of Santa Rosa.

Not surrendering graciously were many small farmers who would be required to sell their land. Nor did the Press Democrat soothe their irk by printing op/eds like this: “By far the greatest amount of land taken over by the Academy would be so-called ‘marginal land,’ much of which is now used as pasture or not used at all.”

Leading the opposition was Fulton hops farmer Lawrence (L. M.) Meredith, spokesman for “The Committee on Public Relations” and frequent letter writer to the PD. He insisted this would take out of production “thousands of acres of the most highly cultivated land in Sonoma county river bottom land that is equal to any in the state,” with an annual revenue of about $22 million today. A pro-Academy rancher with a spread in the target area called BS; farmers were no longer getting the big bucks seen “during the lush war years period” and prune growers worried prices were so low their fruit was barely worth the picking.

About a month after the site was announced, Meredith and other protesters had back-to-back meetings with the Santa Rosa Chamber and the Farm Bureau. The Chamber president said they wouldn’t comment “until ‘all the facts’ are learned about the exact site proposed for the academy,” according to the PD. (Hey, bub, YOU were the one who drew the map!) The next night the protesters met with the Hall Farm Center, which was one of the Farm Bureau’s regional branches. Members voted against the site.

afacolorado(RIGHT: The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. Imagine this on the west side of Highway 101 near Windsor)

Tensions continued to rise between the Chamber and the farmers. On March 2nd there was a big meeting at the Windsor Grange where around 200 farmers attended, supposedly representing 10X more people living within the site borders. The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce snubbed an invitation to attend. Asked why, Al Lewis, secretary-manager of the Chamber gave an answer certain to further antagonize protesters: “If anyone requests you to talk at a meeting, they generally write you a letter asking you to attend. This notice invited me to listen to an explanation of the proposed Air Force academy. I already know about the academy.”

Lewis continued his perfectly tone-deaf reply: “At the present time the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce is not plugging the Santa Rosa area at all as a location for the academy. We are merely working with other state chambers in getting the academy located somewhere in California.” Um, yeah.

At another Grange meeting a few months later the Chamber president attended “on a mission of good will” (per the PD) and listened to people voice their opposition to the project. During the meeting a farmer proposed a boycott of Santa Rosa businesses, which was met with applause. A pro-academy resident described the toxic mood at that meeting:

My husband and I attended the meeting on the Air Force Academy site at the Windsor Grange the other evening. When we entered the hall, it looked like a lions den, There was one gentleman in particular who seemed like the leader. He has been in the community only 2 years and really doesn’t know as yet where he is living. There were all kinds of objections, so I thought I’d sit tight and listen, because if I had got up and really told them what was in my mind I know well that they would have pounced on me.

By that time there had been 580 sites proposed for the academy and when the first cut was announced before Thanksgiving, Santa Rosa was among 29 semi-finalists. We were now so close to the jackpot that the Press Democrat editorial writer lapsed into a somnambulatory abstraction and began spewing numbers: “A $3,344,000 annual payroll, a livelihood for 4,000 persons, a $4,300,000 retail market, opportunities for 75 retail stores, sales and service for 1,300 automobiles…”

The site selection commission visited here and took a 90 minute tour of the site, followed by a Chamber luncheon at the Topaz Room where Hap Arnold’s widow was a featured guest. The day before the PD had dedicated a large portion of the Sunday edition to extolling the county’s virtues, including an editorial with a lengthy quote from her late husband’s National Geographic article. The op/ed closed with a reminder Hap lived only “a few miles from the Air Academy site.”

But come March 1951, the list of potential sites was winnowed to seven – and Santa Rosa was no longer in the running. Sad! (Or not.)

It came out years later the commission appeared more interested in the Petaluma Hill Road site than the one close to Santa Rosa. From the June 3, 1954 UP wire: “The group inspected the Windsor site by auto and flew over the southeastern site twice. That location included the Sonoma Valley estate of the late Gen. H. H. Arnold, war-time chief of the Air Force.”

In hindsight, there are a few different ways to look at the Misadventure of the Air Force Academy:

*
  It’s a Believe–it-or-Not! story because the whole episode is nearly forgotten. At the next picnic or holiday party you can spritz up the conversation with, “hey, did’ja hear about the time they tried to sell a big piece of West County to the government and build a big military academy?”
*
  It might be a kind of Aesop’s fable where the moral is, “He who gets greedy may end up with nothing.” Santa Rosa was quick to elbow Petaluma out of the contest, but maybe the generals ordered the Petaluma Hill Road flyovers because they were giving the location serious consideration as a better place for the academy – or perhaps they were just sentimental about seeing where their old pal had happily retired. We don’t know.
*
  This was the second time in as many years that the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce meddled in county planning issues – the first being the disastrous decision to split the town in half with the highway. In the following decades the Chamber similarly had an outsized influence on city planning, particularly the redevelopment that destroyed most of the downtown core. A Chamber of Commerce should never function as a shadow government, but for too much of our history that’s been the case.

 

* In 1950 the other choices for a commercial airfield included the Santa Rosa Airpark, which was near today’s Coddingtown and had a single runway about 2,000′ long. The more likely option was the Santa Rosa Air Center (the decommissioned Naval Auxiliary Air Station) just west of modern Corporate Center Parkway with a tower and two concrete 7,000′ runways.

 

Aerial photo of the proposed academy site taken by Charles Ackley and the Santa Rosa School of Aviation. Regrettably, the artist who drew the overlay flipped the east and west borders, creating a mirror image. PD, Feb. 12 1950
Aerial photo of the proposed academy site taken by Charles Ackley and the Santa Rosa School of Aviation. Regrettably, the artist who drew the overlay flipped the east and west borders, creating a mirror image. PD, Feb. 12 1950

 

Front page of the Press Democrat, Dec. 10 1950
Front page of the Press Democrat, Dec. 10 1950

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WILL WE EVER GET TO SEE TV?

Santa Rosa waited twenty years for it to happen. Twenty years! Yet when the big day arrived almost no one was able to enjoy it.

The date was December 22, 1948; the event was the first TV broadcast in the Bay Area (except for test patterns and other experiments). In Santa Rosa, the lucky folks who had a television got to watch an episode of Howdy Doody, a travelogue about Santa Clara county and a hockey match between the San Francisco Shamrocks and Oakland.

During the game Santa Rosa received a shout-out from the station for getting calls from local viewers. The Press Democrat remarked the KPIX broadcast came in “surprisingly well” while the Argus-Courier noted reception was “first class…[with] a number of excellent clearcut, contrasty pictures on the screen. Such deficiencies as loss of the sound component and flickering were still noticeable.” So aside from no audio and a lousy picture, everything went just swell.

1949consoleFew were watching that night because there was no reason to have a TV unless something was being broadcast – and it was difficult to justify the enormous cost of building a station without a large audience to watch commercials. Chicken, egg, repeat. Television sets were also extremely expensive; the Admiral console shown at right with its massive 10″ screen cost the modern (2021) equivalent of over $6,000.

Over the prior two decades, however, Santa Rosa was told that television would transform us. Speculating about this brave new world was a frequent topic at Rotary lunches and other club meetings; the Press Democrat used barrels of ink printing editorials and columns on What It Would All Mean – despite, of course, probably no one around here having actually seen a television.

PD editor Ernest Finley seemed determine to wish it into existence. “Television radio” (as many called it in the early 1930s) “will come into common household use, just as the telephone and radio are today. And it will not be long,” he wrote in 1931. Later that year he speculated it was “about three years away” and said it was still “at least three years away” in 1938 and “still far away” the following year.

Finley, who founded KSRO in 1937, had muddled ideas TV would operate like radio with specialized bands, such as used by police: “Crime detection would be greatly facilitated if officers could send a row of suspects across a television screen…’Is the man you are looking for among these suspects?'”

Or maybe it would be more like today’s live webcams, where we could dial in the frequency of places around the world: “…we can view St. Peter’s, Rome, visit Niagara Falls, see the pyramids of Egypt by moonlight without subjecting ourselves to the annoyance and expense of making a long journey…We may be doing a lot of things differently a hundred years from now than we do them today.” Well, he got that much right.

But pundits in the 1930s said it was certain: Television broadcasts would destroy the motion picture industry, wipe out newspapers and empty the sports stadiums. Or maybe television broadcasts would be completely controlled by Hollywood, daily papers would thrive and ballgames would attract far more viewers than could possibly fit in a stadium. It was definitely going to be the best and/or worst of times.

1937tvperm(RIGHT: 1937 ad for “Celovision,” a hair treatment which used cellophane. The name became simplified as the “television permanent wave” when it was still available at the Uptown Beauty Salon on Exchange Avenue in 1948)

Oddly, “television” became a buzzword slapped on things which had nothing to do with, you know, television. There was the women’s hair wave shown at right and also in 1937 the White House toy dept. sold the $1.98 battery-operated “Irwin Television Rifle” which flashed a sharp beam of light when the trigger was pulled. And then there was chiropractor W. T. Abell and his “television radionic instrument” hokum, discussed below.

1939rca(LEFT: Bruner’s ad in Oct. 15, 1939 Press Democrat)

Come the late 1930s, all the talk of TV being right around the corner was badly hurting the sale of radios, particularly after it became clear the FCC was about to approve TV stations on the East Coast (commercial broadcasting began in New York City and Philadelphia in September 1941).

To their discredit, manufacturers suckered in consumers by promising their radios were “television ready,” “built to receive television sound” or had a “television audio key.” Pedersen’s sold a radio/phono console advertising “Magnavox television can be added to your Magnavox at any time.”

Most (all?) of these c. 1940 radios were probably just providing an input jack so the television’s audio could play through the radio speaker – assuming the TV came with a matching output jack, of course. But by the time KPIX and other stations began broadcasting here, terms like “television attachment” nearly disappeared from newspapers, except in For Sale ads of people wanting to unload their ten year old radios for which they paid a premium price.

Sonoma county was certainly TV-curious; the Ward’s ad shown here was in the Press Democrat August 5, 1948 and invited customers to see an actual television set, although nothing would be onscreen since nothing was being aired yet. Until that first KPIX broadcast in December, the PD continued to write about television as if it were some exotic curiosity, even though stations on the East Coast had been broadcasting for seven years. As a result, the paper still sometimes spouted hyperbolic nonsense.

1948wardsAfter a 1946 news item appeared about a BBC experiment to see if subjects could be hypnotized remotely, a PD editorial called for legislation against “hypnotic commercials,” writing “it will no doubt be necessary to set up a new set of regulations to govern practices in presentation of television programs when that science reaches out generally into the homes of America.” PD sports columnist Bill Claus in 1948 called for laws against watching TV while driving – although such a rig would’ve filled up the passenger side; the smallest set available weighed 26 pounds, was the size of today’s microwave ovens and would have required its own auto battery plus DC-AC inverter.

After New Year’s 1949 the paper began writing about television more realistically, including a little item on the Brandeburg family of Santa Rosa visiting relatives in Los Angeles where they watched the Rose Bowl game and Rose Parade on TV. A front page box titled “Television Tonight” announced where the public could stop by and see it for themselves: Berger’s Cigar Store, the Tack Room on Redwood Highway South, The Office on Third street.

Even after KGO began broadcasting in May, only thin gruel was offered for viewing. The broadcast day was typically just from 6:45PM until signoff around 10 o’clock, although there would sometimes be a Saturday afternoon ballgame.

In the early part of 1949 there would be a kid’s show at 7, usually film of an episode of Howdy Doody or Kukla, Fran & Ollie. There were many open slots in the schedule “to be announced” or filled by newsreels or promo material (“Washington State: Appleland”). Some shows were seemingly about as interesting as watching paint dry (Clem’s Barbershop, Tele-Tales). There was 10-15 minutes of news on KPIX and a weekly five minute program called Wanted Persons (oh, the late Ernest Finley would have been so tickled).

But later in the year the programming on KPIX, KGO, and newcomer KRON was much improved and the same as seen on the East Coast, albeit a week or so later: Milton Berle, The Goldbergs, Ed Wynn, Arthur Godfrey, Lone Ranger, Studio One. It was a mix of filmed studio productions and poor quality kinescopes of live shows, as there was no coast-to-coast broadcast until 1952 (although a speech by President Truman aired a year before).

By the end of the year likely the entire town had seen sports or a program at someone’s home “television party,” in a tavern or club or in a store window. The most talked about demonstration happened in November, when Armand Saare, who had a radio and TV dealership, rented a hall which was large enough to seat 300 people to watch the Big Game between Cal and Stanford. At either end of the NSGW lodge on Mendocino Ave. (this lovely building from 1909 is still there, but often overlooked) he set up two televisions with 19½ inch screens, which would have seemed huge at the time.

Every family in Santa Rosa didn’t rush to buy televisions in 1949, of course, but enough did to spawn a new little industry: TV installation and repair. Newspaper ads from the dealerships increasingly emphasized their service departments, particularly skill in antenna installation. Anyone paying (the modern equivalent of) thousands of dollars for a set was not going to scrimp on adding an antenna, which was no simple thing. Besides properly mounting it to the house or mast and aligning it for best reception, Santa Rosa then required payment of a $9 building permit per antenna, plus inspection.

Looking backward, it seems we didn’t notice that a kind of earthquake was rippling through the Bay Area in 1949. A new technology had arrived which began disrupting the pattern of our daily lives; it demanded more of our attention than radio ever had and we wasted time watching it even when there was nothing of particular interest to see. TV crept into our lives because we thought of it as just a simple entertainment upgrade, “radio with pictures.”

Everyone of a certain age can recall the year their family got that first television. I certainly do, as well as some of my favorite shows from the time (what I can’t remember is how many countless hours were spent watching dreck). Having a TV gave kids important things to talk about the next day at school – funny things heard on a cartoon show, new toy commercials, who could do the best Klem Kadiddlehopper imitation and whether TV wrestling was phony or not.

 

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In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a "scientific television radionist." His ads claimed "each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it" which his "Electro-Metabograph" could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added "television" to his pitch - before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was "Abell's artificial ear drums" which he claimed could cure deafness.
In late 1948 and 1949, chiropractor W. T. Abell ran ads in all local newspapers claiming he was a “scientific television radionist.” His ads claimed “each type of cell, heart, liver, kidney, etc. has a normal vibration peculiar to it” which his “Electro-Metabograph” could detect. The device was simply an oscilloscope. Abell had been doing this scam around the country since early 1930s, primarily in Southern California, and had only recently added “television” to his pitch – before it seems he was only pretending to have a special sort of x-ray machine. Among his other quackery was “Abell’s artificial ear drums” which he claimed could cure deafness.

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