Welcome to the 650th entry appearing in this journal, which sifts down to 1.3 million words posted over a decade – enough to fill eleven meaty academic books. Should that wobbly leg on a coffee table fall off, such a stack might well serve as an emergency prop.

Overviews are usually reserved for 100x milestones but it’s been over three years since a “best of” item appeared here. It might also be a while before I reach #700 – not that I am writing less, but articles are now lengthier and more footnote-ier on the average, some multipart stories composed of tens of thousands of words.

For those unfamiliar with the territory, this is (and will remain) a warts-and-all accounting of Santa Rosa and its environs, researched via original newspapers and other primary sources. Any errors discovered are corrected with mistakes acknowledged, and the borders between documented fact and opinion are (hopefully) always clear. The survey article for the 500th milestone speaks about the origins of this journal and offers another selected list of stories, of which only a few are duplicated here.



THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK Santa Rosa was very, very, lucky in 1908 and 1939 when major fires burned at the same locations destroyed in 2017. Had the winds shifted on either occasion much of Santa Rosa could have burned. Also popular are the bonus details about the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, which was between Piner Road and Hopper Ave.


WHEN THE FAIRIES CAME FOR THOMAS LAKE HARRIS After the guru of the former Fountaingrove commune died in 1906, his followers left his body untouched for three months – he was supposed to be immortal, after all, so maybe he just was in a really deep sleep. Even after he was buried, Harris’s supposedly scandalous life remained catnip to Bay Area newspapers; when the big Fountaingrove dormitory was destroyed in 1908 (see above item) a San Francisco headline read, “Free Love’ Home Burned to Ground.”


THE GRAND MANSION SANTA ROSA THREW AWAY It was the grandest, most beautiful house ever built in Santa Rosa, and a century ago this was a town with no shortage of grand and beautiful homes. Hundreds attended one swank affair in 1903, with an orchestra on the balcony and San Francisco chefs in the kitchen. Elaborate evening gowns and diamonds glimmering in myriad electric lights, the rooms perfumed from honeysuckle, azaleas, carnations and roses – overall an ostentatious show of wealth by the scion of an old Sonoma County family with enough money to act like aristocrats. Then in 1969 the grand mansion disappeared – and why it came down will make you want to scream.


THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON Probably America’s first criminal celebrity, “General” Hinton was a conman extraordinaire. Newspapers in the Midwest and beyond reported every sighting of the infamous mail robber as he was arrested, escaped, was arrested again and escaped again; Hinton sightings were reported all over the country and in Cuba, making him something of a mid-19th century Elvis. He lived for a time in Hawai’i where he declared himself a lawyer, then moved to Santa Rosa after the statutes of limitations expired on his felonies. Here he practiced law, but only after the county Bar Association quizzed him on “charges touching his moral character.” But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose, and in the years around the Civil War he convinced locals he was the town’s benefactor while actually doing little beyond making pompous speeches. After his death in 1865 the street on the east side of Courthouse Square was named after him.



THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were members of one of Sonoma county’s most esteemed families, and their horrific 1886 murders became nationwide news after their Chinese house servant was named as the only suspect. There was zero evidence he committed the crime, but anti-Chinese sentiment then was at its peak on the West Coast and he made a perfect villain. Although the inquest testimony pointed to a robbery gone wrong, in that swirling torrent of racist hate and fear no one questioned that he murdered the couple in cold blood for no apparent reason.


THE CRIME OF DR. BURKE Although no one was killed, the Burke case was Sonoma county’s crime of the 20th century; newspapers in East Coast cities and small Western mining towns alike were often publishing daily courtroom updates, sometimes with front page headlines. The crime in question was the 1910 attempted murder of his mistress and their baby – by blowing them up with dynamite. This nine part series follows the unfolding suspenseful story.


THE CASE FOR ARSON AT WOLF HOUSE Jack London didn’t spend a night in the baronial home he named “Wolf House” before it burned down in 1913. A forensic report in 1995 concluded the cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion, but that theory leaned heavily on evidence that is now shown to be provably wrong. That reopens the possibility of arson, and there’s a strong suspect: Jack’s unstable brother-in-law who quarreled with him a few hours before the fire.



NEW REVELATIONS Think you kinda know what happened in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906? Sorry; details found in the Petaluma Argus rewrite the story significantly. The big takeaway is that the interim newspaper published by Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley covered up the worst news about the disaster. There was serious looting and the stench of death lingered over the town for days. Most significant was confirmation of a massive explosion at the Haven Hardware store, which was so huge it took out one side of its block on Fourth street, killing at least eight. As it turns out, Haven Hardware was one of two places in town that sold gasoline.


SEEKING MISS EXCELSA “Mrs. C. Heath” is named at the top of the memorial stone at the Rural Cemetery, but in the newspapers death lists she appeared usually as “Miss Excelsa,” which was a misspelling of her vaudeville stage name; the earthquake came the morning after her second performance at Santa Rosa’s tiny theater. Hers is probably the most poignant story of what happened that day, because her stage partner – the only person in the Bay Area who knew anything about her – promptly fled after the quake. Her backstory remained a mystery until now.


THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE GRAVESTONE: WHO LIES BENEATH? Buried along with Heath in the mass grave are others whose presence reveals the chaos during the aftermath of the quake. There is someone listed on the tombstone who is actually buried somewhere else and there are certainly more people under that concrete slab than the sixteen claimed.




SELLING LUTHER BURBANK Always seeking the financial independence that would allow him to concentrate on his plant breeding, Burbank repeatedly stumbled into deals with dodgy characters through no fault of his own. Probably the worst was a 1909 plan to sell Burbank’s seeds and live plants directly to the public. The main investors were the Law brothers, who owned the Fairmont Hotel and other blue-ribbon real estate. But the brothers made their fortune through a quack medicine and pyramid scheme (which they still owned) that was singled out by medical journals and muckrakers as one of the worst of all the insidious medical frauds. It seems likely the Laws sought out a partnership with Luther Burbank – one of the most respected men in the nation – so he could be called as a character witness, should they ever be enmeshed in a wrongful death lawsuit.


THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK Burbank expected his set of “Methods & Discoveries” books would establish his legacy as a great scientist and provide a steady income, thanks in part to a $300,000 bond issue in late 1912, only a few months after Burbank Press was formed. What he did not know was that the man directing his publishing company was a fugitive on the run with several aliases, wanted for a previous stock scam as well as bigamy after having abandoned his wife and children.


THE PRICKLY LUTHER BURBANK The spineless cactus was Burbank’s moon shot – an odyssey with the goal of creating a hybrid that would be as important to mankind as his namesake potato, where deserts would be turned into pastures and croplands. But never would the desert bloom in vast cactus farms; spineless varieties were more delicate than the spiny forms, sensitive to cold and not as drought tolerant. His variety grew best only in places with year-around rainfall or with wet, mild winters and dry summers. Places like Santa Rosa, California, for example.




MARTIN TARWATER, MOST HAPPY FELLA Had Martin Tarwater behaved himself, he would have died peacefully at home near Mark West Creek and been quickly forgotten. Instead, he did something so crazy that he was immortalized in one of the best stories written by Jack London. At age 66 he joined the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush, despite having no experience with prospecting or, for that matter, surviving in extremely bad weather. Despite the awful conditions, Tarwater kept such a cheery disposition he appeared to be nuts. A correspondent to the Press Democrat wrote of coming across “Mart” alone in the wilderness that winter merrily bellowing out an old music hall tune.


ED MANNION HAS SOMETHING TO TELL YOU “Grizzly Bear wanted for bull and bear fight Main Street Petaluma, reply to the judge”, read the ad in a San Francisco paper a month before the town’s centennial celebration in 1958. “The judge” was Ed Mannion, Petaluma’s unofficial historian and sometimes columnist for the Argus-Courier. Mannion had a wild sense of humor for his time but took history research seriously, tapping primary sources for information rather than repeating hand-me-down stories. He wrote so much there are probably mistakes which I don’t know enough to spot, but so far I’ve only found one glaring error – and to his credit, he found it himself some years later and corrected it.


OUR LOVEABLE, AWFUL HISTORIAN The most cited history of Sonoma county is probably the 1911 version written by Tom Gregory, and that’s unfortunate. He was a popular, maybe even beloved, fellow around Santa Rosa but he wasn’t a scholar or historian as much as he was a storyteller – and that is why his book is so godawful. Errors probably blot every page; at times his book resembles nothing more than the TV series “Drunk History,” where someone is liquored-up and asked to recount some great moment in history which they only half remember from school. That said, if I could go back in time to his day there’s nothing more I’d like to do than hang out with Tom and have a beer while listening to him spin his wild tales. He was the closest we’ve ever had to homegrown Mark Twain.




THE SEDUCER’S SCHOOL Around 110 years ago, “professor” Forest C. Richardson ran a little business school on Fourth street which was mainly attended by “poor girls, struggling to get along in the world and make something of themselves.” Only after a Santa Rosa woman died from a botched abortion in 1909 was it discovered he was a serial sexual predator who was preying on his students. When any of them became pregnant he gave them some sort of pill that was supposed to induce miscarriage. Richardson – who was married with four kids – was arrested after signing a lengthy confession and charged with criminal assault (rape) and furnishing drugs for illegal purposes (abortion). He was sentenced to only four years in San Quentin.


THE MAN WHO STOLE BODEGA BAY Tyler Curtis married the widow of Captain Stephen Smith (who owned the vast Mexican land grant of Rancho Bodega), making him the richest person on the Sonoma county coast during the early decades of statehood. Over the following years he acted with methodical guile, destroying the lives of everyone around him, robbing Smith’s children of their inheritance and then wasting much of the family fortune in a Quixotic attempt to become mayor of San Francisco. He embezzled the modern equivalent of a million dollars from an insurance company and after his wife died, was engaged simultaneously to five or more women in the city. He fled to Europe and the East Coast, posing as a wealthy Californian who had found himself in the embarrassing position of asking for loans until he could sort out complicated business deals back home. When Curtis died in New York City (“a victim to rum and loathsome diseases”) one of Smith’s sons told the press he suspected Curtis had poisoned his mother.


THE BATTLE FOR SANTA ROSA HIGH After its old high school burned down, Santa Rosa had the will to quickly rebuild a fine modern school and soon was ready to break ground. Then suddenly the project was stopped indefinitely by Sampson B. Wright, an anti-tax crank who filed a series of lawsuits 1922-1923 to block the project. He accused county officials of crimes that could send them to jail, including criminal conspiracy, election fraud and felony misappropriation of public funds. His underlying gripe, however, was that he didn’t want a centralized high school in Santa Rosa and thought school buses were a frivolous luxury. Public anger at Wright was so great there was a community meeting called to discuss what to do about him, with a notice given that violent measures would not be considered. He finally dropped his lawsuits and the school opened in 1924 – the same year his wife filed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty, particularly because he refused to pay for electricity in their Santa Rosa home.




SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS “The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children” at Eldridge took in youths which were mentally handicapped or had severe epilepsy in the early 20th century, But once Dr. Fred O. Butler became superintendent in 1918, it became virtually a factory operation for forced sterilizations. A study four years later found 4 out of 5 of these operations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar; most males were sent there for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or gay. Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors continued through WWII and after, even as the Nazis were being rightly condemned for the same practices.


SANTA ROSA, WHERE THE REVOLUTION (ALMOST) BEGAN America was a fragile place in the spring of 1933, with considerable fury towards the banks which were foreclosing on family farms in record numbers. Sonoma county found itself in the national spotlight over the upcoming auction of the 50-acre farm James Case owned near Forestville, where he grew cherries and apples. The Sebastopol bank refused to delay foreclosure and already had a deal to sell the farm at a profit immediately after the auction. The newly-seated FDR administration got involved in seeking a compromise, as did the governor; the banker only dug in further and like a cartoon villain, vowed he would get his hands on the Case ranch. On auction day 3,000 people were jammed together in front of the courthouse in downtown Santa Rosa as the Press Democrat described a “grim determination and anxiousness” in the crowd, “somber, serious, not a smile on a single face.” But just as the sale was about to begin, it was announced that Judge Hilliard Comstock had ordered it cancelled. Case and his supporters were jubilant, both for him personally and what it would mean for other farmers now that a Superior Court judge had set such a precedent. Had Comstock not ruled that way, the mob’s actions could have gone in any of a number of directions – a riot, an attack on the courthouse, even sparking a national populist uprising which could have squelched the New Deal reforms before they took root.


TWO MARTYRS FOR THE FLAG OF THE BEARS The history of the Bear Flag Revolt and the short-lived California Republic is overdue for a revision; what is told today is almost entirely just the American side of the story, which was cast in stone near the end of the 19th century. That version memorializes all things heroic about the Revolt, particularly the story of how the flag was designed and the martyrdom of a couple of Bear Flag rebels named Cowie and Fowler. Forgotten was that many Americans at the time had mixed feelings about ousting the Mexican government, and missing are the voices of the Californios, who only sought to coexist on their ranchos. Then it spun out of control as someone on the Californio side killed Fowler and Cowie and someone on the American side killed the a pair of teenagers and their elderly uncle. Lofty principles were forgotten and it became a gang war, each side hunting the hunters on other side, both sides wanting to absolve what they did by claiming the other guys drew first blood.




HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW “Betty,” Petaluma’s giant plaster advertising chicken, sat on her nest at the south end of town for nearly twenty years. She survived the indignities of obscene graffiti and sometimes there were messages concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative. Then in 1938 someone used dynamite to blow her up. Suspicion turned to Santa Rosa and years later the crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession: “We got together a bunch of guys and somebody said it would be a great idea to blow up that big, ugly chicken. If you came from Santa Rosa, that seemed like a hell of a good idea.”


LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two theaters downtown presenting comedians, singers, novelty whistlers, birdcallers, “barnyard humor,” midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” not to mention a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. There was Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses.” As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone.


SONOMA COUNTY, FAMOUS FOR SHARKS AND LUCKY BEANS Starting in 1909, Sonoma and other North Bay counties sponsored a man named Mondula Leak in an official traveling exhibit on rails. “Mon” visited everywhere in the country except the West Coast, which probably kept local Chambers of Commerce from realizing how damned strange his operation really was. One train car was dedicated to local attractions – “the creations of Luther Burbank,” redwood trees, samples of major crops and so on. Admission to that car was free, but to step aboard the other cost 25¢ and what was there was the real draw, with oddities such as a giant stuffed shark, a “California ostrich,” live monkeys, “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) and an alligator. Sometimes there was an x-ray machine so you could see the bones in your hands. In short, it was all much like a carnival sideshow showing stuff that had nothing to do with Sonoma county or anywhere else in the North Bay. Many communities around the country charged hefty fees on circus-y exhibits like that or banned them outright – but since Mon could claim part of it was free and “educational” he had a cloak of legitimacy. After that ended in 1915, Leak settled down in Georgia and inverted his scam; now he expected businesses and Chambers in the state to pay dues to his “association” which would provide promotional space in an Atlanta warehouse. As every Sonoma county item should properly include an obl. Believe-it-or-Not! ending, please note an associate of Mon’s later embraced this business model and used it to organize the modern Ku Klux Klan.


The title of this essay, by the way, refers to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” – not the recent movie of that name, but the original Leonard Cohen poem. Fans debate exactly what it means; it seems the “thousand kisses” stands for the big, messy stack of memories we’ve collected over our lives that define who we are, and how we flounder about trying to make sense of them. In 2001 Cohen obliquely wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “…you live your life as if it’s real. But with the understanding: it’s only a thousand kisses deep, that is, with that deep intuitive understanding that this is unfolding according to a pattern that you simply cannot discern.”

Sorting through those memories can be confusing and stir emotions; sometimes you look backward and see things you regret, sometimes you’re simply perplexed about how things happened. That’s not unlike how historians grapple with the past, trying to understand why events unfolded as they did – or whether they actually took place as generally presumed. If only a diary or letter would turn up to answer a riddle; if only we could go back for a blink in time to witness a critical moment of the event itself, the puzzle would be forever solved.

If only.

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To understand the origin of the rivalry between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, think of the relationship between the Smothers Brothers.

In their classic comedy routines Dick (the one who plays bass) is the smarter of the pair, cool and sometimes smug; Tommy usually plays the man-child, a dumb cluck who becomes flustered and petulant when Dick deflates his goofy ideas. (Yes, I know Tom is actually older than Dick, Tom was the genius behind their legendary TV show, these are just their comic stage persona, &c. &c. so don’t start blasting angry tweets.)

I don’t want to press this analogy too far, but in the late 1850s Petaluma was something like Dick Smothers, needling his kid brother when he would screw up or begin crowing as if he were cock of the walk. And Tom/Santa Rosa would usually be on the defensive, sometimes getting a bit whiny about not getting his due respect even though he was trying really, really, hard.

Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, although at the time it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with only about eight actual houses. The place had no purpose to exist other than to be a county seat; the numerous squatters in the surrounding area needed a centralized courthouse for pressing their shaky homestead claims. For more background on all that, see “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.”

Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859



Petaluma had a two-year head start. While Santa Rosa was mapping out its first streets in 1854, Petaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents. They had stores and hotels, churches and meeting halls. A sketch of the town from the following year shows a mix of single and two story buildings – simply built, but not shacks, either.

Part of the deal for Santa Rosa to become the county seat required it to provide a courthouse before the end of the year. This courthouse issue would become the town’s Waterloo – or maybe a better comparison might be an albatross around Santa Rosa’s neck. (Arguing whether a bad situation is more like a dead bird or a lost battle would actually be a great setup for a Smothers Brothers routine, but enough of analogies within analogies.)

Santa Rosa’s first actual courthouse was a rush job – a temporary building later described as “a small wooden building built of rough up-and-down boards and ‘battened'” on Fourth street close to D st. Meanwhile. planning began for a permanent courthouse and jail at the current location of Exchange Bank.

Work on the courthouse/jail began in the summer of 1855 and finished just after Christmas. The Board of Supervisors called a special meeting afterward where they refused to pay the contractor, claiming the building didn’t meet specs. “Both sides got mad,” Robert Thompson wrote with considerable understatement in his history, “Central Sonoma.” After weeks of arguing the Board agreed to accept the work, albeit at a much reduced price.

Now shift forward a couple of years: The 1858 county Grand Jury declared the nearly-new courthouse was unsafe, dangerous and a “public nuisance,” with the roof leaking and walls cracked. Those drips and cracks foreshadowed a decade of woes ahead; later repairs and do-overs would about triple the cost of the original construction.1

By now Santa Rosa had its own weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, which charged the Grand Jury had “an unnecessary amount of spite at the courthouse.” Sure, the roof leaked, but it could be repaired. While there really were big cracks in the walls, “…we sincerely congratulate our county that they remained standing long enough to save the invaluable lives of this Grand Jury, and thereby reserved to future generations the vast amount of wisdom contained in their heads, and which thus far has been so sparingly imparted to their less favored fellows.”

While Democrat publisher/editor E. R. Budd pretended to laugh off the building’s problems, the Grand Jury’s findings clearly rankled; two years later – after many had likely forgotten all about it – he dredged it up again, sulking their courthouse remarks were written by “two or three Petaluma men” on a subcommittee.

The Hall of Records and Courthouse with the jail between them, 1875. View from Third street overlooking the west corner of the original plaza. Main photo Sonoma County Library



Mr. Budd appeared to be a fellow of unusually thin skin for a newspaper publisher as the Petaluma papers teased and taunted Santa Rosa. The same year as the Grand Jury report, the Courier ran a (probably fictitious) story about an out-of-towner visiting Santa Rosa and being unable to find anything that looked like a courthouse. Budd took the bait and reprinted it as part of an editorial titled, “Envy:”

The following specimen of petty spleen, shows how bitterly envious some of the inhabitants of Petaluma are of the place chosen by the people of this county for the county seat…it is quite evident that some of the more selfish denizens of Petaluma have been unable to appreciate Santa Rosa, and would like to make those at a distance look upon it in a similar light…

Budd also complained Santa Rosa was undermining itself. A bit later he wrote a lengthy editorial about his paper not getting the local support it deserved, carping that many local businesses “have not done their part” by taking out ads. There he also made a passing remark that, if close to true, provides valuable insight into how they lived at the time: “…one half the people composing this community go to Petaluma to trade.” As Petaluma was probably 90 minutes away (at least) by buggy or wagon, that shows Santa Rosa was still mostly an outpost in 1858.

But Santa Rosa’s fortunes began looking up the following year. We have an unofficial census of Santa Rosa from 1859 showing the town’s population and an inventory of businesses. (There’s a similar census of Petaluma from 1857, which enables us to neatly compare both towns at their five-year mark.)2

Primary among the new businesses was the Wise & Goldfish general store on the east side of the plaza – Santa Rosans finally had a real place to shop. “Dry Goods, Clothing, Boots, Shoes, Groceries, Hardware, Crockery, Glassware, Fancy Goods, Bonnets, and a general assortment of Ladies’ Goods,” boasted their first ad in July, 1859. Their prices were also the lowest in the North Bay, they claimed. But now that Petaluma’s hegemony over retail sales faced serious competition, the journalistic jibes from that town were no longer quite so brotherly.

Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal ran an article on that Santa Rosa census which is mostly transcribed below. Read it carefully and you’ll find editor Henry Weston was actually damning Santa Rosa with faint praise.

The article slyly implied land titles in Santa Rosa might be disputed because of legal problems with its underlying Mexican land grant (in truth, the title situation here was among the cleanest in the state, beating Petaluma to approval by eight years). It exaggerated how much had been spent on the county buildings so far while pointing out “their present unfinished state.” And the article noted “the population of the town proper is about 400,” although the federal census the next year would show Santa Rosa was really four times larger after people in the surrounding township were included.

But the worst of it was their long list of Santa Rosa businesses, which included this bit: “…one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop…” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, the actual 1859 census did not include “Jews” as a business category (you can find the entire list in Thompson’s history). This was sheer anti-Semitism by the Petaluma paper and clearly aimed at undermining the Wise & Goldfish store, which was owned by the only Jewish families in town. In the history books H. L. Weston has been admired as the godfather of the Argus and Petaluma newspapering in general, but this calls for his sterling reputation to be reevaluated.

Increasingly nasty potshots between the town papers continued the next year, with the Argus accusing that county taxes were being used to pay for civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa (one of these items can be found below). But the final salvo in this early skirmish was the 1861 effort to move the county seat to Petaluma.3

Very little was written about this at the time or since; it appears neither Santa Rosa nor Petaluma newspapers took it too seriously – and as everyone was preoccupied with the Civil War which had just begun, that’s really not so surprising. The proposal popped up suddenly in California newspapers in March, 1861, as a petition was presented to state legislators. It’s unknown exactly what it said or how long it was circulating. A counter-petition was quickly organized, arguing that it was “unnecessary, unwise and burdensome” to move. The “stay” counter-petition supposedly had far more signatures.

As Sonoma county then was deep in debt, the Santa Rosa paper argued taxpayers couldn’t pay for a new set of buildings, and it was unlikely that Mr. Petaluma was going to open his purse for the honor. “It may be, however, that some wealthy citizen is about to immortalize himself by presenting some ‘noble edifice’ to his fellows! Happy thought! Toodles forever!” The Democrat also sneered Petaluma merchants were mistaken if they expected a windfall from providing “grub, liquor and lodging” to people coming to the county seat to appear in court.

There were no rallies for or against, as far as I can tell, and editorial support for the move in the Argus was tepid, particularly after it was mentioned some subscribers were so opposed to the idea they might boycott the paper. When it came to voting day the measure was soundly defeated, passing in only three of the county’s 18 voting precincts (including Petaluma, natch).

And with that, the bell rang to end the first round of Petaluma vs. Santa Rosa. The next part of the slugfest saw the editors of the Argus and Santa Rosa’s Democrat take off their gloves for bare-knuckle fighting over the Civil War, as told here in “A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR.”

Before wrapping up this survey of 1855-1861, my newspaper readings from those years also turned up some details that may shed light on an important but murky question in Sonoma county history: Why was almost everywhere outside of Petaluma so anti-Lincoln and pro-Confederacy before and during the Civil War?

In 1859 there was a meeting in Santa Rosa to organize a local Democratic party committee endorsing “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. While there were meetings like that nationwide with the general goal of getting pro-slavery delegates elected to state Democratic party conventions, here in Sonoma county it piggybacked onto the politically powerful settler’s movement, which had its own definition of sovereignty – namely, it wanted California to declare the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent,” in violation of the federal treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. (Interested historians can read the full set of resolutions in the Sonoma County Journal May 20, 1859.)

This fusion of “settlerism” with “popular sovereignty” may help explain why Sonoma county overwhelmingly voted against Lincoln the next year in favor of the Southern Democrat candidate who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right. Maybe it wasn’t so much that the majority of the county was saying “we like slavery,” as “we’ll vote for any guy who might get us clear title to our land claims.” This is an important distinction I’ve not seen historians discuss.


1 The courthouse construction in 1855 was just for the first story, not the two story building with cupola seen in all photos. In 1859 the top floor was built and again there was a fight with the contractor. His final bill included a whopping 75 percent cost overrun, presumably related to fixing structural problems with the underlying building. Again it went to arbitration, this time the contractor settling for about a quarter of what he asked. Problems with the original shoddy construction still were not over – the jail had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in 1867, just eleven years after it originally opened.

2 In 1857 Petaluma encompassed about a square mile, with a population of 1,338. Santa Rosa in 1859 was still its original 70 acres, with 400 residents. The decennial federal census of 1860, however, shows Santa Rosa with the larger population: 1,623 compared to Petaluma’s 1,505. This is due to counting people in the entire Santa Rosa Township, not just within city limits. The 1860 census of Santa Rosa proper was 425 residents.

3 One legislator hinted the proposed move of the county seat to Petaluma was (somehow) part of a scheme to have Marin annex Petaluma away from Sonoma county, and just the year before Marin actually had asked the state to expand their border northward and make Petaluma their new county seat. Those two efforts are probably linked but I haven’t found anything further on that angle, or who was behind either effort. It sounds like a good story, tho, and I’ll write more about it should more info surface.
Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

SANTA ROSA–OUR COUNTY SEAT.– To those who have only heard of Santa Rosa as the county town of Sonoma county, and as being one of the most beautiful and thriving places in the State, the following facts and figures, condensed from the Santa Rosa Democrat, may be interesting:

The town of Santa Rosa is built on the fertile valley or plain of the same name, and on the old Santa Rosa “grant,” midway between Petaluma and the flourishing town of Healdsburg, on Russian River. To the enterprise of Berthold Hoen is the site of the place, and much of its prosperity, due. The site was fixed by him, and by him surveyed and mapped in the spring of 1854. In the year 1855, it was declared the county seat, Mr. Hoen tendering the county a building gratuitously, to be used for county purposes. The entire cost of the county buildings will be about $35,000, and even in their present unfinished state, present an appearance in structure and design creditable to the rich county of Sonoma. When completed, they will, in elegance and design, be surpassed by but few such buildings in the State. The private residence are mostly one-story cottage buildings, and for neatness and comfort will vie with those of any other county village we have knowlege of. The soil of the valley is a rich alluvium…

…Beside the public buildings, there is a fine academy for males and females, (accommodating 250 pupils); a district school, (numbering over 60 children); two churches, two resident preachers, nine resident lawyers, five physicians, two notaries public, one printing office, from which two publications are issued, seventy-five private residences, nine dry goods and grocery stores, one drug store, one hardware store, two hotels, two restaurants, two drinking saloons, two daguerrean galleries, one saddler shop, one barber shop, one tailor shop, one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop, three carpenter shops, two butcher shops, one cabinet shop, six blacksmith shops, one pump shop, one bakery, and two first-class livery stables. The population of the town proper is about 400. The climate is mild and salubrious, not being troubled so much by fogs and head winds, as the towns bordering on the coast. The greatest drawback is the unsettled condition of land titles — not peculiar to our own county — and these are in process of adjustment.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 25 1859

…Below, we give a small specimen of this talk, taken from the Argus of the 13th Jan. The editor goes so far as to call his statement “the prevailing opinion in this section,” (Petaluma):

“That Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa interests are being built up and protected, at the expense of the whole County, and to the detriment of some particular sections. That this has been, and now is, the policy of the citizens of Santa Rosa, no observant man, with any regard for truth, will dare deny. The governing policy for the last four years, has been to concentrate everything at Santa Rosa. No roads could be made unless they centered there. No bridges built, unless they benefit Santa Rosa. No regard is paid to the wants of Sonoma, Petaluma, and Bloomfield. But if Santa Rosa wants anything, even to the fencing of the plaza, the door of the county safe is thrown wide open. It is time these outrages upon the people at large should cease—this squandering of the public money for the benefiit of a few property-holders in and about Santa Rosa.”

We believe that the statement that the above is “the prevailing opinion” in that section, is untrue. That there are a few discontents in Petaluma, who find fault with this, as they do with everything else in and about Santa Rosa, is quite likely ; and that these compose the associates and intimates of the editor of that sheet, is still more probable. But we have no reason to believe that he is ever entrusted with the opinions of respectable men, even of his own vicinity. The quotation above, contains as much bare faced untruth, as we ever saw distilled in so small a space…

[lists county officials from Petaluma and Healdsburg, the 1858 Grand Jury report was the work of “two or three Petaluma men” on a committee]

…It is indirectly assorted, that the county authorities have paid for the fencing of the Plaza. This, of course, is just as reasonable as any other assertion; and yet not one dollar, directly or indirectly, has ever been paid or asked for for any such purpose. Equally false is his assertion of the building of bridges and roads for the exclusive benefit of Santa Rosa. Not one of the kind has ever been made. Altogether, we regard these complaints as very remarkable, even as coming from Pennypacker — certainly, they could come from nowhere else. [J. J. Pennypacker was the first publisher of the Argus 1859-1960 – JE]

Notwithstanding all this Billingsgate we speak of, seems to come from Petaluma, we are happy in the belief that the community in and around that place are not chargeable with them, but that among the respectable portion of that locality, a more liberal feeling exists.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 2 1860

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After ignoring opportunities to celebrate Santa Rosa’s anniversaries that spanned 64 years, Tom Cox thought, “we should make something of it” in 1968. The real question, however, was whether they would be celebrating one of the events from the town’s early history – or the ongoing obliteration of its past.

(This is part two about Santa Rosa’s 2018 sesquicentennial. Part one covers the town’s 1854 founding and 1868 incorporation, followed by its general indifference to celebrate either event.)

Cox was the long-time head of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and made that suggestion at a 1967 luncheon for the “Congress for Community Progress,” a coalition formed five years earlier by the Chamber, which claimed the Congress represented as many as 445 separate groups. Given that the town’s entire population was then only about 44,000, let us forgive any Gentle Readers who snort skeptically.

Much was made in the 1960s about the Congress, which held occasional all-day assemblies attended by hundreds of “delegates.” While it was touted as an independent citizen’s group, its sheer size made discussion unwieldy and its objectives almost always seemed to mirror Chamber of Commerce and developer’s interests. The 1968 Congress report said Santa Rosa’s highest priorities should be “Payroll and Industrial Needs” and “Downtown Futures and Potential” – way down in the basement was the preservation of parks and historical sites.

During the sixties Santa Rosa was wild about all things modern, and as with many communities, that meant enthusiastic approval of urban renewal projects. We were told it would mostly be paid for by Washington, our property values would skyrocket and we would end up with glorious cities of the future. In 1961 a scale model of a proposed Santa Rosa redesign circulated around several bank lobbies. The model (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) portrayed a downtown designed for pedestrians, with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

It was mostly bait and switch, of course. Prime locations owned by the city were sold to private developers; the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency held sway over forty acres of supposed “civic blight” and much of it was scooped up by investors. Luther Burbank’s old house and gardens survived the bulldozer, but the home he custom-built in 1906 on Tupper street – the one seen in all the pictures of him with Edison, Ford, Helen Keller and other celebs – was deemed worthless, as it was argued that the town had no need for two Luther Burbank landmarks.

By the time Thomas Cox spoke at that 1967 Congress for Community Progress lunch, great swaths of downtown was already scraped down to the topsoil and most of the rest would follow soon. The great courthouse was gone; the Carnegie library already had been replaced by what we have now. The parks were forgotten and their earth was destined to sprout bank buildings and metered parking lots. The lovely, free-flowing creek was entombed in a box culvert. Community Progress!

Cox’s talk came a few days before the dedication of the “plaza on Old Courthouse Square.” The Courthouse Square site had been already split by the street connecting Mendocino Ave with Santa Rosa Ave; what they then called the “plaza” was just the western section between that new street and the Empire Building block. The east side was slated to be sold to private developers for commercial buildings.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Hugh Codding said the tiny plaza would make citizens “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa,” and a supervisor chimed in this “perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. [Julio] Carrillo” when he donated the land to the public. Uh, no, times two.

The sale of the east side of the plaza was successfully fought by a small band of preservationists – despite being told it must be sold in order to pay off the urban renewal bonds. Sadly, they lost another fight to stop the giveaway to developers of the sheriff’s office and city hall, now the location of the U.S. Bank building. They had hoped one (or both) of the post-1906 quake buildings could be saved to create a Santa Rosa museum.

And now we come to the March 16, 1968 centennial, when Santa Rosa celebrated pretty much everything except its origins.

About 1,000 attended the ceremony in that little plaza. The city councilmen dressed in vaguely 19th century costumes and Mayor Codding introduced a man 100 years old. Some rode old bicycles or drove around in old cars and a barbershop quartet warbled, all more appropriate to a party for 1908 than 1868. State appeals court judge Joseph Rattigan told the crowd they would “shape the history of the future,” and won the prize for awful speechifying that day by saying we should “live as Santa Rosans in every dimension of wisdom and skill.”

Two time capsules were dedicated. (They were originally in front of the Empire building but now are facing the intersection of Third street and Santa Rosa ave). One was intended for 2068; the other was supposed to be opened on March 16, 2018. As our sesquicentennial event isn’t scheduled until about six months later, it only makes the choice of a September date seem stranger.

(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon sitting in front of the time capsules, 1974. Photo: Michael Sawyer/findagrave.com; original Santa Rosa News Herald image via Helen Rudee)

That was just the “Centennial Day;” the “Centennial Week” was the Rose Festival in May, and there wasn’t much of a nod to history there, either. There was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle, a tennis match and a little regatta on Lake Ralphine. A rock concert included local bands “Wonderful Mud” and “Bronze Hog.” During the Rose Parade, the Marine Corps Reserve presented a bizarre little scene in front of the reviewing stand where they enacted flushing a Vietcong soldier out of a rice paddy and shooting him dead, right there on Fourth street. As I always say, these kind of events are really for the children.

While 1968 may have been a bust as a centennial year, it was the definitely the year to celebrate Pepper, Santa Rosa’s lovable or maddening downtown character (depending upon whom you asked and when). When she wasn’t heckling hippies and jaywalkers, she was popping in the backseats of cars waiting for the stoplight to change and expecting the driver to take her somewhere – the Pepper stories are legion.

But Pepper also collected quite a bit of money when local groups were having charity drives, badgering each passerby for spare change. That March she was the guest of honor at a Rotary luncheon and in October she was feted by the Lions Club.

In a Gaye LeBaron column – yes, she was writing a gossip column fifty years ago – she quoted a letter from a reader: “I have a suggestion for the Grand Marshall of the 1968 Rose Parade: Pepper! No kidding—when you stop to think of all the hard work she’s done for almost everyone I think you’ll agree that she’s as deserving as any chosen. If we all get on Pepper’s Bandwagon she just might be selected. Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.”

She was not included in the parade (and someone griped about that in a letter to the PD) but she sat in the VIP bleachers alongside Mrs. Luther Burbank. She was also made honorary town marshal for the Centennial Year, a position she undoubtedly abused with relish.

The time capsules are Santa Rosa’s only real historic legacy from 1968 – and note that the one to be opened this year is mistakenly labeled “Bi-Centennial,” showing no one noticed or cared that wasn’t the right word for a fiftieth anniversary.

The March 17 edition of the Press Democrat offered a fat section of all things it deemed centennial-ish, and reflects the attitudes of the time quite well. The actual history section – meaning the 1906 quake and everything before – isn’t very long and just a superficial rehash from the county history books. However there’s some good wonky stuff about the development of city departments and such in the early 20th century, along with some photos I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But then it rockets to the present day, celebrating the wonders of redevelopment and what a bright future awaited Santa Rosa. There’s even a full-page article titled, “Foresight of Hugh Codding Helped Speed City’s Growth.” (Of course, not long afterwards, Mr. Foresight tied the city up in a decade-long lawsuit to forestall construction of the mall and other retail space, thus causing the downtown to further wither and die.)

So as it turns out, the judge who saw the centennial as “[shaping] the history of the future” probably did hit the right notes for 1968. And in kind of a Believe-it-on-Not! coincidence, we’re grappling with very similar issues today, trying to wrestle with how the town will be reshaped in years to come because of the fires.

There’s one more historic year to mention, for the sake of completeness: 2004, the real sesquicentennial of the year the town actually put down roots. A columnist for the PD complained “no one is celebrating,” and that a fund drive to support the reunification of Courthouse Square was going nowhere.

Well, Courthouse Square is now glued back together. That columnist was Chris Coursey, now Santa Rosa’s mayor. And like his predecessors, I’m sure he’ll steer the sesquicentennial to be more of a rosy view of our future than a contemplation on our rougher past. The date will still be wrong on the time capsule, of course, but Chris could fix that – I’d even provide a little bit of duct tape and a magic marker to change the inscription to read September 9.

Time capsules in Courthouse Square

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