5000carrillo

THE FIVE THOUSAND MORNINGS OF THE CARRILLOS

Any progress on saving the Carrillo Adobe? Nope; as of this writing (2022) what walls still exist continue to melt like very slowly thawing snow. The last restoration effort remains the shed roof put over the place thirty years ago, paid for by the Carrillo family and other donors. We should also be thankful the chainlink fence was finally repaired in 2012 after a homeless camp was found to be stealing original timbers from the building to use for firewood and tent poles.

Although it’s destined to be a park someday (right, city hall?) its future rests with the San Jose developer who owns the land and intends to build 162 condos next to it. That project is now called the “Creekside Village Townhomes” and a development plan was filed in 2020 (PDF) complete with blueprints, architectural sections, landscaping, elevation setbacks, chosen paint colors, streetlight designs and all the other trimmings a city would expect for a major housing development. The site plans only specify an outline for a “Future Carrillo Adobe Park” next door.

Devil’s advocate: Why should we even care if those ruins are preserved? We’ve been telling ourselves the same tale about the place for 150 years and frankly, it’s not all that interesting. The widow Carrillo arrives with her many children and they build the adobe. After the family moves out, a group of Americans use it for a store. Before long those fellows dash off to establish Santa Rosa and the adobe becomes a barn, a warehouse, a prune drying shed and other uninteresting things. A joke plaque could read: “On this spot nothing happened.”

It’s tragic we have allowed the adobe to fall into shambles, but it’s just as bad (or worse, in my opinion) that we have allowed its history to be scraped down to those bare bones, shorn of anything having to do with the Carrillos or how their lives were entwined with a significant period of history. Why has this happened?

Part of the reason is because researchers find few primary sources available; there were no memoirs written by or about the founding Carrillo family. Some of the Carrillo children were illiterate (at least in english) which would help explain why there are so few letters written by family members.1

There are good accounts of visits to the adobe from two english-speaking travelers (discussed below), but other than that the only contemporary accounts are incidental comments made by a U.S. government agent and others passing through the territory.

Such a dearth of original material is somewhat understandable; it was a long time ago – these were events from the 1840s plus a couple of years on either side of that decade. Less forgivable is that later journalists and historians had almost no interest in recording the family’s personal account while they were alive. Many of the founding Carrillo family lived into the late 19th century (two into the 20th), yet there are only a couple known newspaper interviews, both transcribed below for the first time. There’s more than a whiff of racism in that fact, as the Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa eagerly printed anything having to with non-Hispanics whom they recognized as “pioneers.” The paper even venerated a flagpole because it once waved the Bear Flag over the town of Sonoma, although it turned out that wasn’t even the original pole.

And for the record, that indifference continued into modern times, ending only when Eric Stanley’s 1999 Master’s Thesis made the point that the adobe was historically significant not only because it was such an old building, but also because of the cultural importance of the Carrillo family living there. His writing was later expanded and incorporated into the Roop/Wick Archaeological Study.

That document is the definitive work on all things related to the adobe, detailing also the periods before and after the Carrillo years. It presents a broad picture tracing how they navigated through some very challenging times, including after matriarch Doña María died and the strongly knit family finally crumbled apart – “change happens gradually at first, then all at once,” as Ernest Hemingway famously (but never actually) said.

What follows covers the period from their arrival in the county to when the adobe was sold to the Americans. Those were mainly happy times, when for about five thousand mornings their great herds of cattle and semi-wild horses grazed on the unfenced Santa Rosa plain, puffing clouds of steam in the cool early hours. An upcoming chapter will cover the later years of Marta and Julio, the only children who remained in Santa Rosa and struggled to make their ways in a strange, and often cruel, new world.


THE CARRILLO CHILDREN

Although I have made my best effort to verify dates, some sources present conflicting data. Please leave a comment if corrections are needed.

*
JOSEFA   Josefa Maria Antonia 1810–1893
m. Henry Delano Fitch 1829
*
RAMONA   Maria Ramona de la Luz 1812–1886
m. Jose Antonio Romualdo Pacheco 1826
m. John Charles Wilson 1835
*
LUZ   Maria de la Luz Eustaquia 1814–1894
m. Salvador Vallejo 1840
*
FRANCISCA   Maria Felipa Benicia 1815–1891
m. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo 1832
*
JOHN   Juan Bautista 1817–1841
*
JOAQUIN   Jose Joaquin Victor 1819–1899
m. 1849
m. 1875
“Sebastopol Joaquin” Profiled here
*
RAMON   Jose Ramon 1821–1864
m. 1847
Profiled here (partially)
*
DOLORES   Jose de los Dolores 1823–1844
Died at age 21, buried in Santa Clara
*
JULIO   Julio Maria Tomas 1824–1889
m. 1842
m. 1862
Profiled in upcoming chapter
*
MARTA   Maria Marta 1826-1905
m. Jose Joaquin Maria Victor Carrillo Montano 1855
*
JUANA   Juana de Jesus 1829–1901
m. David Patrick Mallagh 1851
*
FELICIDAD   Maria Felicidad de la Angustias 1833–1856
m. Victor Ramon Castro of Rancho San Pablo 1853

“I have seen Doña María Ygnacia robed in a neat calico dress of a French texture, with a broad-brim straw hat made by one of her Indian women, mounted on a horse which had been broken to saddle by some of her sons expressly for her use,” wrote a traveler of the family matriarch.2 Such a fine, cinematic introduction to Doña María, who was only 44 when she arrived in Sonoma County, mother to twelve surviving children.

Although this was not long after the Carrillos moved into their adobe in 1839, the family already had created a rancho imposing by any measures. Indian laborers managed by Doña María planted and tended fields of wheat, corn, beans and other crops along with vegetables. Teenager Ramón and another son were wrangling about 3,000 head of cattle and as many as 1,500 horses according to that same early visitor.

It was a remarkable turnaround for the family, considering the death of Doña María’s soldier husband had left them in dire straits four years (or so) past. The story usually goes that she was encouraged by a priest and her son-in-law, General Vallejo, to relocate to Sonoma County, so in the summer or fall of 1837 they trundled 700 miles from San Diego on oxcarts. But in one of the overlooked articles, “Sonoma Valley Before the Gringoes Came,” Marta told the writer they came up by sea – which certainly makes more sense, considering she was bringing along nine children ages four to 23.3

It’s also commonly said they lived for a year or so with the Vallejos before scouting out places to settle. It’s certainly possible some of the younger kids stayed that long overall, but a decision on the location was quickly made. In January 1838, son-in-law General Mariano Vallejo granted her a land grant of nearly 9,000 acres. Prior to that a “log house” had already built on Santa Rosa Creek about a half-mile upstream of the adobe site, Julio said in the interview transcribed below.

Nor was there much question about precisely where the Carrillos were going to live. There was already a heavy-duty stone foundation built some ten years earlier (“the marks where the buildings stood were plainly discernible,” Julio said) which greatly facilitated construction of the adobe. Whether the abandoned footings were intended for a full-scale mission, a satellite “asistencia” – or maybe a military outpost – is an unsettled question. (EDIT: The particular foundation Julio referred to was near the site of the village of Hukabetawi, described below, not the other pre-existing foundation on which the Carrillo Adobe was built.)

Having a ready-to-use building foundation was a great advantage, but General Vallejo probably would have urged the Carrillos to settle in the Santa Rosa area anyway. The secularization of the missions created an ongoing headache for Vallejo, as mission properties were supposed to be given to Indians who had lived and worked there. The missionaries tried to skirt the law by creating popup colonies on land they claimed belonged to the church because. Vallejo evicted them from the Petaluma area with a promise to turn all of Santa Rosa into Mission Indian lands, but granting the entire acreage to the Carrillos was an endrun to the padre’s gamesmanship.4

But catastrophe struck before adobe construction could begin. In late 1837 a soldier caught smallpox while on a trading mission at Fort Ross. Vallejo and other Californios were vaccinated and he ordered Sem-Yeto (Chief Solano) and other Indians in his immediate circle vaccinated as well, while trying to prevent an epidemic by quarantining the rest of the Indians living nearby. It did little good; in May 1838 Vallejo sent a notice to all parts of Alta California warning smallpox was raging in the North Bay. He later estimated the disease claimed some 70,000 Indians in the region and Gov. Alvarado said 200-300k were killed “as far as the slopes of Mount Shasta.” A Californio historian wrote at the time they “died daily like bugs.”

oldvillages(“Old villages” c. 1800. After the 1838-1839 smallpox epidemic only a few remained. Source: “The Ethno-Geography of the Pomo and Neighboring Indians,” Samuel Barrett, 1908. Art by Jeff Elliott)

By the time the Carrillos moved into the adobe in 1839 the world had turned upside down. In the before-times, the Pomo tribelet in the Santa Rosa area (called the Gualomi in mission records) had an established village known as Hukabetawi – where W Third St. meets N Dutton Ave. – as well as another at the site of Santa Rosa city hall. With so many deaths happening so fast, essential family and community links shattered. Like Sebastopol and Dry Creek, Santa Rosa was now a refugee camp mixing people who often didn’t know each other, with Mission Indians next to those who saw the Californios as no better than the missionaries who treated them like slaves.

The chaos of an epidemic ripping through the area surely put adobe construction on hold for most of 1838, although the vaccinated Carrillo boys probably got the jump on cattle and horse ranching. Farming may also have started by the local Pomo, as smallpox did not reach here until later in the year. In fact, I suspect the Indians who Vallejo initially sent “far away” to quarantine were told to go to Santa Rosa and start work on his mother-in-law’s house, as they had recent construction experience in building Vallejo’s own adobe home. Similarly, Salvador Vallejo – brother of the General and soon to marry a Carrillo daughter in 1840 – is credited with supervising the work and possibly the layout of the Carrillo adobe.

The Carrillo children surely looked back upon the 1840s as the best years of their lives. They were young and strapping; the boys in their early twenties or close to it, the girls starting their teens. The rancho prospered and the new adobe gave everyone plenty of room (what is seen today is just the east wing of the adobe; a north wing collapsed in 1944).

The decade was not without its sorrows. Two of Doña María’s sons died as adults; Juan Bautista was age 24, supposedly due to accidental food poisoning by the Carrillo family cook. Dolores was 21 and possibly died while a soldier. Doña María Ignacia Lopez de Carrillo died on February 28, 1849, and her will is partially transcribed below.

There was also the crisis of 1846. The Bear Flag Revolt caused a few weeks of panic because rumors spread Americans were going to kill all Californios in their sleep – while the Americans feared the Californios were planning same. Worse, the family was defenseless because their protectors, Salvador and Mariano Vallejo were being held prisoner; Julio Carrillo would soon be a captive of the Bears as well. Ramón formed a militia to protect the ranchos from possible attacks and there are questions over whether some critical events played out at the adobe, topics discussed here.

The Carrillo rancho also became a social hub for neighboring Californios. Another visitor described young men hanging around, waiting for an opportunity to race and chase down wild horses in the Carrillo’s substantial herd:


…In front of the house there was a courtyard of considerable extent, and part of this was sheltered by a porch. Here, when the “vaccaros” [sic] having nothing to call them to the field, they pass the day, looking like retainers of a rude court. A dozen wild, vicious little horses, with rough wooden saddles on their backs, stand ever ready for work; whilst lounging about, the vaccaros smoke, play the guitar, or twist up a new “riata” of hide or horse-hair…

The writer continued that after an afternoon nap they mounted up and “…away they all go in a cloud of dust, splashing through the river, waving their lassos round their heads with a wild shout, and disappearing from the sight almost as soon as mounted. The vaccaro wants at all times to ride furiously, and the little horses eyes are opened wide enough before they receive the second dig of their rider’s iron spurs…”

That colorful passage was written by Frank Marryat, who spent several days with the Carrillos.5 His visit came in 1850, the year following Doña María’s death so we’re sadly denied a description of her. By then, however, the three Carrillo girls were young women of marriageable age, and we’re treated to a memorable description of “Quilp,” there trying to court 24 year-old Marta:


Breakfast over the Spanish guests were introduced; they were all fine dashing looking fellows, with the exception of one, a short stout man; from the first moment of our meeting war was tacitly declared between us and this gentleman; we found that he was a suitor for the hand of the eldest sister, who, by the way owned a part of the ranche, and I suppose he imagined it was our intention to contest this prize with him; for he commenced at once to show his disapprobation of our presence; we called this fellow Quilp…

QUILP
QUILP
Ramón took the writer on an antelope hunt (!) and when they returned to the adobe Quilp was still hanging around, doing his best to impress Marta he was a great catch: “…he would sit down on a stool in the porch, and throwing one leg over the other, would twang the old guitar and accompany it with a Spanish hymn to the Virgin, which being delivered in a dismal falsetto, bore much resemblance to the noise of a wheelbarrow that requires greasing and was about as musical.” (I urge you to read his whole section about the Carrillos. It’s 22 short pages and is great fun.)

Doña María’s ambitious plans for her rancho required a large, year-round workforce, and according to the 1884 Robert Thompson history, “it is said that at the time of the occupation of the valley by Señora Carrillo there were three thousand Indians living in the neighborhood of [Santa Rosa].” That estimate probably came from Julio – Thompson had interviewed him in 1872.6 The number is likely an exaggeration, but even if just half that many were here it was far larger than the estimated pre-smallpox population of the original villages in the area, which shows the scope of the Indian diaspora after the epidemic.

By most accounts the Carrillos got along particularly well with their Indian workers. The former Mission Indians would have settled in to rancho peonage easily, being used to field and domestic work in exchange for food and clothing. Traditionalist Indians were accommodated by the rancho having a temazcal (sweat lodge) and those converted to Catholicism must have been exceptionally pleased when at age 13, Marta stood as a godparent at the baptism of an Indian child, which was unusual and not just because of her youth.

William Heath Davis, that traveler who visited the Carrillos early on, worried that among them were several hundred “unchristianized” Indians which might pose a threat to the family.7 Doña María told him “she had perfect confidence in her raw help because she treated them so well,” that she kept them well-fed and could speak their language. Julio likewise told historian Thompson the Indians were “…our faithful servants and with their help we were enabled to till our immense fields and drive to pasture our countless thousands of cattle.”

But in her later “Gringos” interview (below), Marta told the writer “occasionally there was a mutiny” which Doña María herself suppressed using her riata/lasso “with the Indians when they were disposed to be ugly.” There is no description of what was done with the protesting Indians once they were roped, but from the context it’s apparent punishment followed.

After Doña María died, this ad hoc Indian refugee community would also fade away quickly. There would be no more livestock, no more crops to tend. There would be no more Carrillos to serve and no more vaqueros and suitors hanging about. There would only be the Americanos, and nobody was sure of how to deal with them.

Around the Twelfth Night of Christmas – a significant holy day in the Mexican Catholic calendar – Doña María saw the shadows of death creeping towards her and wrote a will (partially transcribed below). She would live less than two more months.

Doña María was thoughtful and fair about dividing the lands amongst her children. Three of the eldest daughters – Josefa, Ramona, and Francisca – received no bequests because they were married with their own households. She affirmed Luz already had been given land between Santa Rosa Creek and “the swamp” (huh?) and asked all of the children to regard Luz as the new family matriarch. Although she and husband Salvador Vallejo had their own adobe in Napa, they seemingly spent much of their time at the General’s adobe, judging from biographies.

The three unmarried daughters shared the adobe and land bordered on the south by “El Potrero” creek (eh?) and “the limits of Santa Rosa,” which I’m guessing is approximately E street. The rest of the property belonged jointly to Julio and Ramón. Joaquin – who had his own substantial land grant on the west side of the Laguna – was left a share of the livestock.

Following the Bear Flag Revolt, Ramón took part in the Mexican-American War and remained in Southern California, returning here for a year (or so) after his mother’s death. That was when he met Frank Marryat and settled his affairs with the family, apparently never to return. He sold his interest in the land to Julio for two dollars and Mariano Vallejo gave him $16,672 (over a half-million today) which was presumably for all/most of the Carrillo livestock. Was it a coincidence that sale happened on September 9, 1850 – the day California became part of the United States?

Although there was no more ranching, some farming continued at least through the following year. U.S. Indian Agent George Gibbs came through and described conditions: “…The slovenly modes of cultivation in use, comparatively unproductive as they are, have yet the merit of requiring little or no expenditure of money in wages; the Indians receiving a bare support beyond what they can steal, and then only during the summer.”8 Once Doña María was gone, it seemed the Carrillo’s relationship with the Indians quickly frayed.

Nor was that the only change during 1851 that would have saddened Doña María. Juana married David Mallagh, who with a business partner turned the front part of the family adobe into a general store. They also opened a tavern they called “Santa Rosa House” in the adobe. Then later that year Marta, 25 years old and unmarried, gave birth to her son Agobar. The name of the father was never mentioned.

The next year Alonzo Meacham arrived and bought the store (whether the tavern was included is not known).9 Meacham petitioned the government to open a post office there under the name “Santa Rosa;” historian Robert Thompson quipped, “Mr. M. is entitled to the gratitude of posterity that he did not call the post office Mallaghsville, Buchanansburg, or some other stupid name of like derivation.”

Also in 1852 the Carrillos began selling off their inheritance. Julio sold seventy acres to Meacham, which would become the east side of old Santa Rosa (E street to the middle of Courthouse Square). The situation with the three youngest sisters was more complex, as Doña María had left her other portion of the rancho to them jointly. Felicidad owned 337½ acres outright; Marta co-owned portions with Juana and Luz. It was the deed shared with Luz that became a later scandal.

According to the “Gringos” article found below, one day Marta was surprised to receive an eviction notice because her 1,600 acres had been sold. Shown the new deed, Marta – who could neither read nor write – discovered her name had been forged, and the person who did it was Salvador Vallejo, Luz’ husband. Not wishing to cause a family disgrace, she kept quiet at the time and went to live with one of her brothers. That story has been often retold by history writers since.

None of that is true. County records (Book H:115) show that on May 21, 1852, she indeed signed the deed of sale with an “X” and it was properly witnessed. Luz also signed with a mark while Salvador wrote his full name.

marta deed

This is not to say that Salvador might have cheated her in some other way – such as not giving her a complete share of the proceeds – but the document was not forged. The writer of the 1900 newspaper article must have misunderstood (there was certainly plenty of other villainy in Salvador Vallejo’s life she might have mentioned).

The Carrillo family was also about to lose ownership of the adobe. An old friend of Meacham’s became his partner, before he decided he wanted to be a farmer instead and sold his share to another guy and his nephew. The new partnership called Hoen & Co. turned it into a major trading post. Wrote historian Thompson: “That summer of 1853 business was lively at the “old adobe;” all the freighting was done by pack-mules and it was a purchasing point for settlers up the Russian River valley, and as far north as Clear lake. Trains of pack mules might be seen at all hours either loading or uploading freight…”

Juana and husband David apparently still lived there, and when a smallpox epidemic passed through Santa Rosa their child (Helena Felicidad) died. That loss might have been the reason the Mallaghs decided to sell the adobe and move to San Luis Obispo, where older sister Ramona lived.

They had always rented that front part of the building with the store for $25/mo. Marta – the last unmarried daughter – was living with one of her brothers (according to “Gringos”) and once the Mallaghs were gone there would be no one from the family remaining. With the rest of the adobe vacant, the new owner demanded Hoen & Co. rent the whole place for $300 per month.

Hoen and his partners refused to even negotiate with Walkinshaw, the new landlord.10 Instead, they went to Meacham, who had bought those seventy acres from Julio a year earlier. Paying Alonzo $12/acre, they set up shop over there and added a new line of business: Selling real estate.

Thus sometime, probably in the early autumn of 1853, came a morning when the Carrillo adobe was no longer anyone’s home. There was no smoke seen rising from the chimney, no smell of fresh tortillas in the kitchen, no shutters open to invite the sun. All was quiet and still, except for the distant pounding of many hammers driving nails a mile further to the west.

NOTE ON THE TITLE IMAGE: Some Carrillo family members on Ancestry and FaceBook have asserted this young woman is Marta Carrillo. It is probably not her or any of her sisters, but it is impossible to prove either way. (EDIT: Eric Stanley has corrected me that the set of images likely did include some of Doña María’s daughters.) It came from a set of daguerreotypes purchased decades ago by an out-of-state collector at an estate sale. The background image is a photograph from the Sonoma County Museum collection titled, “Fountaingrove with hills surrounding Santa Rosa” and has been slightly tinted here for effect.marta from ancestry


1 Some of the children could not even write their names, yet others were literate in spanish and maybe english. In 1864 the Democrat published a well-written english language letter from Julio, while Ramón and Francisca strategized via letters during the 1846 Bear Flag revolt in spanish. Doña María corresponded with son-in-law Henry Fitch. I have not seen copies of any of these documents, so some/all may have been dictated.

2 Seventy-five Years in California by William Heath Davis; 1929, J. Howell, pp. 25-26. This passage did not appear in the original form of the book, Sixty Years in California published in 1889. The entire section reads: “Doña María Ygnacia was ambitious, and cultivated large fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn, beans, peas, Jantejas [sic – he meant Lentejas/lentils], and vegetables of every variety. I have eaten from water- and musk melon of a hot summer day in the broad corridor of the homelike adobe dwelling. I have seen Doña María Ygnacia robed in a neat calico dress of a French texture, with a broad-brim straw hat made by one of her Indian women, mounted on a horse which had been broken to saddle by some of her sons expressly for her use, ride over the hacienda and direct the gentiles in sowing and planting seed and in harvesting the same. She supervised the farming herself, but the management of the stock and rodeos was left to her son José Ramon and his brother. José Ramon inherited his mother‘s gift. Although she was the mother of eleven grown daughters and sons, she was well preserved and still looked handsome with all the charms of her younger days. She was of medium height, with all the graceful movements so characteristic of her race.”

3 “‘Sonoma Valley Before the Gringoes Came,’ written for the Sunday Bulletin, March 11, 1900”: undated and anonymous, 7 typewritten pp. Gaye LeBaron Collection, Sonoma State University Library

4 The Creekside Village Archaeological Testing Program, Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California by William Roop, Emily Wick, 2008; pp. 75, 278-280, 285-286

5 Mountains and Molehills, Or, Recollections of a Burnt Journal by Frank Marryat; 1855. pp. 61-82

6 “Narrative of Julio Carrillo as given by him to by Robert A. Thompson editor Santa Rosa Democrat”; 1872. Bancroft Library, UC/Berkeley (READ). The eleven page manuscript is mostly political remarks and gossip from the late 1840s, but has passages about the rancho and Indians, although not the est. 3,000 population. It shows Julio was quite an articulate speaker in english.

7 Davis op. cit.

8 Roop/Wick op. cit. pp. 287-288. Gibbs’ report reflects his barely concealed contempt for the Californios as well as their use of Indian labor.

9 The common story told about Alonzo Meacham held that he was a shopkeeper burned out by the great San Francisco fire of May, 1851. Classified ads in the Alta California show he was first an auctioneer and then had a company selling building stone until September of that year.

10 Robert F. Walkinshaw lived in Santa Clara and had no other interests in Santa Rosa – he was never mentioned in any of the papers as coming through the area. But a few years earlier he was a controversial figure. In April 1847 he was the sailing captain of the Schooner William, which arrived in San Francisco Bay with a valuable cargo of mining equipment from Mexico, including gunpowder, intended to be used at a mercury mine near San Jose. As this was during the Mexican-American War, the ship was seized by the Americans. The schooner was flying an English flag and in Admiralty Court hearings it was claimed the tools were owned by a British firm. Walkinshaw was a Mexican citizen and members of the firm had lived in Mexico for many years but were still British subjects. Although the judge conceded the vessel and cargo were property of a business based in a neutral country, everything coming from an enemy nation must be taken from its owners as being spoils of war. Military governor of California Richard Mason, however, stepped in and ordered the ship and its cargo released.

 

sources
 

SONOMA VALLEY BEFORE THE GRINGOES CAME
(Written for the Sunday Bulletin, March 11, 1900)

Santa Rosa, March 3. – Old and feeble and bent with age, in a little cottage on Fourth street in this city, lives Marta Carrillo, daughter of the remarkable woman whose indomitable energy and intrepid courage blazed the pathway for civilization in this fair valley of the Santa Rosa.

Marta has lived here seventy years. Many changes have occurred in that time – changes swift and wonderful, to Marta, swifter and more wonderful with each passing year – each one leaving the old lady a little more bewildered than did the last. And the one change which Dona Marta cannot understand at all, and, indeed, one which she makes no pretense of understanding, is the sad, stern change in her own condition that bespeaks the fallen fortunes of the house of Carrillo.

Time has passed quickly with Dona Marta, and to her it seems not so very long ago that all this country about here, including the site where now stands the city of Santa Rosa, belonged to her mother, to her brother and to herself. The memory of those old days is to her fresher than those of more recent and less pleasant times. She recalls distinctly the day when her mother’s residence, the old adobe house, now crumbling to decay on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, was the only dwelling in this section, and when the cattle of the Carrillos wandered over leagues upon leagues of this land, which is now parceled out among “the Gringos,” with only a single acre of it left in the possession of a Carrillo.

All Marta’s brothers and sisters are dead. All died comparatively poor. But the name of the family is inseparately interwoven with the early history of this State; one of Marta’s sisters was the wife of General M. G. Vallejo, Military Governor of Alta California; another sister was the mother of Governor Romualdo Pacheco, while a third married Colonel Salvador Vallejo, brother of the general of that name.

In the year of 1826 Father Ventura, one of the founders of the Mission of New San Francisco, or Sonoma, returned to San Diego after spending three years among the Indians of Northern California. Among his friends in the southern settlement were the family of Colonel Joaquin Carrillo. The colonel had died during the absence of the good padre, leaving a rather small estate to his widow and her nine children. When the estate had dwindled, in the course of three years, to an amount so small that the family could subsist upon it only with great economy, Father Ventura bethought him of the beautiful and fertile country, far to the north, where a home might be built and land in any quantity obtained for the taking. The priest urged the widow of his friend to go to this new country far to and north of the Sonoma Mission, picturing its beauties, its adoptability to cultivation, the docility of the natives, who, he said, could be employed at farming and herding. He bade her place her trust in God and the saints, take her family, go to the country he described, and she would be blessed.

And so Dona Maria Ignacia Lopez, the widow of Colonel Carrillo, with her four girls and five boys, set sail for San Francisco. The family reached Sonoma, where they found the young commander, Vallejo, in charge with a few Mexican soldiers. Dona Maria and her children remained in Sonoma several months. During that time two courtships were in progress, and before the widow left the shelter of the settlement her daughter, Frances Benicia, was wedded to Commandant M. G. Vallejo, while the latter’s brother, Salvador, at that time a captain, espoused Lus, another daughter of Dona Maria.

At that time the country lying west of Sonoma was very little known, except that near the Coast. Nevertheless, Dona Maria determined to follow the advice of Father Ventura and seek a home for herself and children in the then almost unknown land that bordered on the Mission of New San Francisco.

With a band of cattle, a few horses and an ox team, they set out, accompanied by an Indian guide. After two days’ travel they reached a spot that appeared to be suitable for their purpose, and there laid the foundation for what afterward became famous as the Rancho de Cabeza de santa Rosa. The first step was to construct a dwelling. Dona Maria designed the structure and assisted her sons in making the mud bricks and, after they had been dried in the sun, in plastering them together. The result of their labor still stands near Santa Rosa, though the old adobe is now used for a barn and is crumbling away through lack of repairs.

Dona Maria’s executive ability, so unusual in the women of her race, made her the dominant, ruling spirit of the rancho to the very day of her death. It was not long after her first occupation of the land before she had gathered about her a large number of Indians. These she set to work to till the land, to herd cattle, to thresh grain and to do the general work of the place. The Indians were tractable, as a rule, but occasionally there was a mutiny, and during troublesome times the bravery of the pioneer woman is said to have been greater than that of her sons. In those days firearms were exceedingly scarce. The principal weapon was the “rista,” or lasso, which was used against man or beast with equally good (or bad) effect. The long rope with the noosed end was the chief argument employed by Dona Maria with the Indians when they were disposed to be ugly, and though she often faced great odds, it is not of record that the lady was ever worsted in an encounter.

As the years passed the cattle increased in number until they could be counted by thousands. The boys and girls grew to manhood and womanhood. Juanita married Don Pacheco; Marta, the youngest, was as yet unmarried.

In 1840 Dona Maria applied to the Mexican Governor, Manuel Jimeno, at Monterey, for a title to her land. She was given a grant of two “sitios” (leagues) under the caption of “El Rancho de Cabeza de Santa Rosa.” About the same time her son, Joaquin, applied for and received title to the grant known as the “Laguna de Santa Rosa,” consisting of three sitios, adjoining the land of his mother. This made an area of fifteen square miles of land, owned by mother and son.

All went well with the Carrillos until the death of Dona Maria, about 1848. Then the trouble began. The heirs had a disagreement over the division of her estate, which was finally settled, however, principally by the method of the strong arm. Then the Americans began to arrive in large numbers. They cultivated the Mexican habit of gambling, but usually to the disadvantage of the Mexican.

Once divided among the children of Dona Maria, the great estate passed rapidly into other hands. In one way and another the property was disposed of to the Americans, who soon overran the country until not an inch of the original grants was left in the possession of the Carrillo family.

About 1855 Dona Marta married her cousin, Joaquin Carrillo. Their early married life was one or many hardships and privations until the husband by hard work had accumulated a little fortune of three or four thousand dollars. Then they purchased the acre of ground in Santa Rose whereon they now live with their daughter and two little grandchildren.

A few years prior to her marriage, Marta was still in possession of a portion of her share of her mother’s estate. This consisted of 1600 acres lying between Santa Rosa creek and Matanzas creek. These boundaries would now include a goodly chunk of the city of Santa Rosa. One day Dona Marta was served with a notice of ejectment. When she protested she was shown what purported to be a deed to the property, signed by herself. They told her that her brother-in-law, Salvador Vallejo, had effected the sale and he had been paid the purchase price. This was all news to Marta, for, while she could ride a bronco or throw the riata with skill and grace, she had never been taught to write and could not even scribble her own name. But she would not bring disgrace on the family by making complaint, so the purchaser of a magnificent property at one-hundredth part of its value was permitted to take possession, and little Marta, robbed of her birthright, went to live with one of her brothers. The brothers were equally unfortunate; within a few years they, too, had lost their possessions. A few years more and all the children of Dona Maria were dead – all except Marta. But in the meantime love had come into her life and smoothed over the rough places and abided with her through all the years of trouble that followed. And, though lands and cattle and retainers are hers no longer, Dona Marta is happy in the little cottage on the little acre of ground – all that is left of the once vast domain of the Carrillos.

– manuscript copy courtesy the Gaye LeBaron collection, Sonoma State University

 

 

LAST WILL OF MARIA YGNACIA LOPEZ CARRILLO (excerpt)

…I declare that I was lawfully married to Don Joaquin Carrillo (now deceased), in which marriage we begot our legitimate children, Josefa, Ramona, Maria de la Luz, Francisco, Joaquin, Ramon, Juan, Dolores, Julio, Marta, Juana, and Felicidad.

I declare as my executors my sons Jose Ramon, Joaquin, or Julio. I declare as legitimate heirs of the property that I actually possess my daughter, Maria de la Luz, Jose Ramon, Joaquin, Julio, Maria Marta, Juana de Jesus, Maria Felicidad de las Augustias. – (The exception of Josefa, Ramona, and Francisca, who have come to have no share in the property willed.) I declare that the property which I actually possess and which belongs to me is derived from the personal labor of my sons and daughters mentioned in the above clause. – I declare the land that my daughter Luz actually possesses, and its boundaries, are the Santa Rosa Creek, above, almost as far as the limits of the swamp which belongs to me; and the width shall be the swamp, above, along the edge of the surrounding hills. –

I command that my house in which I now live be given up, with all its appurtenances, incomes, outlets, furniture, gardens, fences, and cultivated lands to Marta, Juana, and Felicidad; I declare the limits to be the Santa Rosa Creek, below, as far as the junction of the creeks on the North; and on the South, the creek known by the name of El Potrero as far as the limits of Santa Rosa on the East. –

I command that the rest of my property be divided in equal parts between my children already mentioned; my son Joaquin, having received some cattle on his account, shall have these deducted from his inheritance. – (I bequest to Julio the house and lot in Sonoma without this being counted in the remainder of my property.)

I command that the rest of my lands be divided in equal parts between Jose Ramon and Julio. I entrust my daughter Luz with my family, for her protection, as well as my own sons and daughters, they may look on her as sent by their mother. I entrust my sons not to be unmindful of assisting their sisters in all the emergencies necessary to pass through life, as the sisters may assist their brothers to the best of their ability…

Sonoma, January 6, 1849
Maria Ignacia Lopez

– Translated by Brian McGinty, The Carrillos of San Diego: A Historic Spanish Family of California (part four): The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4; December, 1957, pg. 375-376

 

 

THE OLDEST INHABITANT.

What He Has Experienced in the Past — What He Thinks of the Future — No Failure of Crops for a Period of Forty Years.

Knowing the deep interest felt in the matter of the rainfall, we have interviewed an actual oldest inhabitant, in the person of Julio Carrillo, and give our readers the benefit of his experience extending over a period of forty years, from 1837 to 1877:

When did you first come to Sonoma county, Julio?

In 1837. In the fall of that year my family built a log house on Santa Rosa creek about half a mile above the old adobe now owned by Mr. Hahman. The adobe was commenced in 1838-9.

What is your recollection of the seasons? What years were notably dry?

I remember that the winter of 1838-9 was much the same as this — the nights were cold and frosty. The first rain fell in the month of February.

Did you have any rain in March?

We had some rain in March, but think there was none after that.

Did you have in a crop?

Oh, yes; we had planted wheat, corn, beans and peas.

Did the crop mature?

Yes; we had a fair crop. There was plenty of grass and no loss of stock in this part of the country.

What is your recollection of the following winter?

In 1839-10 there was a good deal of rain. I saw snow for the first time in my life that year, on the Petaluma and Cotate [sic] hill. (The latter is now called Taylor Mountain.) There was no snow in the valley. I had come up from San Diego and having never seen snow, I rode out to the hills to take a closer look.

How were the crops that year?

We had a good crop.

How about the next season?

In 1840-41 we had a great deal of rain and snow on the mountains. In February, 1841, there came a tremendous fall of rain. I had gone from the adobe house, where I then lived, to Sonoma, and could not get back. Sonoma valley was entirely flooded; the water came up to the town. The whole of Santa Rosa valley was flooded. That year a mill that Capt. Cooper was building at the mouth of the laguna, and had nearly completed, was entirely washed away. That was the heaviest rainfall I remember.

Were there any other notable seasons within your recollection, either remarkably dry or wet?

There was but little rain in 1843-4, but we made good crops of wheat, corn and peas.

How about the following seasons?

There was nothing remarkable until the wet winter of 1849-50.

The next very dry winters were 1862-3 and 1863-4, when, as everybody knows, we had more than average crops here, owing to the late spring rains.

What do you think of the prospect this season?

I think it will be a dry year, but it does not follow that we will have a failure of the crop. It makes but little difference about rains now if we have them in the spring, and without spring rains you cannot have a crop, no matter how heavy the rainfall in the winter months. That is my experience. Without spring rains we are gone up; but we have never failed since I have been here in having enough rain to mature a crop.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 13 1877

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palanceripley

THE WAX CARTOONIST IN THE CHAPEL

Guess which of these men is fake. Hint: It’s the one whose smile actually seems genuine.

Between 1971 and 1998, Santa Rosa had a Ripley museum near downtown. No, it wasn’t one of the amusement halls as can be visited down on Fisherman’s Wharf, with its shrunken heads and other curiosities. This was a museum dedicated to the memory of Robert Ripley, whose popular “Believe it or Not!” syndicated cartoons made him a celebrity. He was also a Santa Rosa native and is buried in the Odd Fellows cemetery.

Despite his fame, it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone would want to create a museum in his honor. A biography was published a few years ago which I reviewed here; Ripley, I wrote, was “a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.” He had few (if any) friends and when he died in 1949 he passed mostly unmourned, with hardly anyone turning out for his funeral other than immediate family.

Still, his was a household name even after death and Santa Rosa enthusiastically endorsed the idea of the museum. No surprise; after all, if this city is known for anything it’s for leeching off the names of famous people who lived here, so Robert Ripley slips in neatly post-Luther Burbank and pre-Charles Schulz.

A Ripley museum had been proposed twice while he was still alive, both times by Ripley himself. And he specified it had to be in a particular building – the Church From One Tree.

Portion of the "Believe it or Not!" cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Portion of the “Believe it or Not!” cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Even before Ripley was born in 1890, the church was a local landmark and a West Coast tourist attraction (see sidebar below). It was actually the First Baptist Church, located at the corner of Ross and B streets, and the Ripley family were members – well, his mother, at least. His father Isaac was among those who helped build it in 1873. The church gained much wider recognition when Ripley included it in one of his cartoons that appeared in newspapers everywhere.

Ripley’s first bid for the church came in 1940, when he wrote to the pastor and political leaders that he wished to buy it “to house the relics, records and mementoes of early California days” alongside his own “exhibits sufficient to make a complete and interesting museum.” (Decades later, Hugh Codding tried the same feint by claiming he planned to donate a museum to the Historical Society while just a “remainder would be devoted” to his taxidermy collection, which ended up glomming most of the building.)


THE CHURCH BUILT FROM ONE TREE

Before the Ripley museum and even before Ripley’s Believe it or Not! cartoon with the church, it was a tourist attraction; by the turn of the century they had a gift shop selling souvenirs and postcards, such as the one seen below.

The original redwood tree was as tall as a 25 story building and was logged in 1873 by the Murphy Bros. company in Guerneville. Knowing they had an order for wood to be used in building a church from ground up, Rufus Murphy kept lumber cut from that tree separated. Only when the church was dedicated the following year did he reveal it all came from a single tree.

In the mid-1890s an article in Pacific Baptist magazine questioned the origin story. By then the church was so well known that disputing item was widely printed nationwide. To refute the charges, Santa Rosa attorney Thomas J. Butts, who had worked at the sawmill as a youth, published in 1900 an affidavit (reproduced at the end of this article) specifying all particulars related to the tree and the millwork, including names of all men involved. Butts wrote the Murphys decided to use the tree in order to promote California redwood as high quality lumber and also “as an advertisement for his mill,” which was then lagging behind its Guerneville competition as the #3 sawmill in the area.

churchpostcard1900

A year passed before it was agreed the city would buy the land and Ripley would move the church elsewhere. Gone was any mention of objects of historical interest; now the whole museum would be Ripley’s “curioddities” which the mayor gushed would make it “one of the principal tourist attractions in the state.” Ripley was expected to arrive here in a few days to seal the deal – but everyone forgot about it five days later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Ripley’s next bid came in 1947. Now it was proposed to be “a shrine in memory of the cartoonist’s mother” while “housing a museum of California pioneer life,” according to the Press Democrat, and moved to an undetermined city park. Robert L. Ripley died before this plan was seriously considered.

Anyone who lived in Santa Rosa during the mid-1950s will recall the next chapter of our story. The Baptists had outgrown the church and planned to build a new one at the corner of Sonoma Ave and Yulupa Ave (today it’s the New Vintage Church). The city, meanwhile, really, really, wanted the B and Ross street location for a new parking lot. Thus in 1956 it was agreed Santa Rosa would buy the property while the church would give away the building to any non-profit, non-sectarian group that vowed to preserve it (or any portion of it).

But this time there was no Robert Ripley ridin’ to the rescue – no group said, “yes, please, we’d like to move an 83 year-old building which is already known to have structural problems” and that the Baptists refused to consider offers from other churches certainly cut down on the already limited options. As time passed it increasingly looked like demolition was in store.

The city of Santa Rosa finally agreed to take the building, justifying the donation of a church because it was an historical monument and tourist attraction. There was still no firm decision on where to put it; the leading contender was Franklin Park, followed by Burbank Gardens, the Junior College and Juilliard Park. One letter-writer to the PD suggested leaving it where it was, just raising it and building a parking lot underneath.

Also, the city council said it would not use public money to pay the projected $13,500 moving costs (about $138k today). To its credit the Press Democrat spearheaded a major fundraising campaign, publishing dozens of stories about the effort and listing names of donors. The biggest single event was a gigantic rummage sale on the west side of Courthouse Square, where $3,300 was raised. Among items sold were women’s fur coats and an automobile; it was considered to be the largest event of its kind ever held in the North Bay.

An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The rummage sale was held less than three weeks before an option would expire on a choice parcel adjacent to Juilliard Park, and the fund was still short. The PD redoubled its efforts by running coupons for 1,000 readers to send in one dollar to save the church, donor names to appear on a “permanent plaque”. It was a nail-biter, but the fund crossed the threshold a single day before the deadline. The building was moved to its present location (technically 492 Sonoma Avenue) during the autumn of 1957.

At the close of the 1960 Rose Festival there was an official dedication ceremony and about a hundred visitors per day stopped by during the monthlong open house. Then after that…zip. It was available for $5/day to educational or cultural groups, but if there were any events they weren’t publicized. The rest of the 1960s went by with hardly any mention of it in the papers aside from “on this day in the past” nostalgia items.

Come 1970, when the Church of One Tree was more likely the Church of Many Cobwebs for having sat undisturbed over a decade, someone recalled how Robert Ripley was hankering to use it as a museum. Santa Rosa was already Ripley-curious; in 1967 Ripley International Inc. opened its “Believe It Or Not” museum at Fisherman’s Wharf and the PD reported “plans are being made to bring part of the museum to Santa Rosa. It will be placed on display in a downtown location.” While that didn’t happen, a deal between the city and the corporation was made with remarkable speed, and by October 1970 it was settled the church would be rechristened as the “Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library.”

ripleycouponA group calling itself “Friends of Robert L. Ripley” was formed. Together with the Sonoma County Historical Society and Press Democrat, they declared “a worldwide search is underway for Ripley letters, cartoons and other items to display in the church,” the PD reported. For months the paper published the coupon shown at right to solicit donations.

Mementoes and ephemera trickled in but the gleanings were thin. Ripley’s nephews donated christmas cards received by his sister and snapshots of his homes. There were autographed copies of his cartoon books. Someone had letters an armless boy wrote to Ripley. There was a note sent to him by a Santa Rosa man asking why there was a Ripley street in town; Ripley replied it was named after himself (that was a lie – the street dates back at least to the 1870s).

Items loaned by Ripley Int’l were mostly photos of Ripley globetrotting or schmoozing with celebs in nightclubs. The museum borrowed a suitcase with stickers from all over the world, his pith helmet and the Chinese dressing gown and slippers he liked to wear while drawing. For some reason known only to himself, Ripley hung onto the front door from his childhood home at 117 Orchard street and now that was coming back to Santa Rosa, too.

And then there was the creepy wax figure of Ripley sitting at a drawing board.

It didn’t look much like him; as I wrote earlier, what defined his appearance were his buck teeth, which flipped outward in such a disturbing manner it appeared he was wearing something from a joke shop. The eyes and nose were also wrong and the real Ripley had a doughy face. In short, the wax model was extremely flattering to how he really looked. And then there was the bizarre expression, simultaneously wary and bemused.

The Ripley museum opened June 1971. What few photos can found of the interior shows the walls lined with standard museum display cases and blowups of some of his cartoon panels resting on easels. A panel told the history of the church. There were also some oddities on loan from the “Believe it or Not” collections including a fur-covered trout, a porcupine fish and a stuffed calf with two heads.

ripleyraccoon(LEFT: Crawford Brooks looks on as raccoon owner Drew Goetjen makes a paw print in front of the Ripley dummy. Press Democrat, Sept. 9 1971)

The museum had a promising start; in the first three months the Ripley museum drew over 5,000 visitors. Curator Crawford Brooks had a talent for dreaming up PR stunts, such as establishing the world’s only “museum pet register.” Brooks appeared on Johnny Carson in 1973 and a few years later several people who had been immortalized by Ripley were invited to the museum for a photo op. The star was Plennie Wingo, who walked from Santa Monica to Boston – backwards. (He made other backward treks in Europe and backwalked again from California to Texas.)

But there were also problems. Someone stole the left arm off the wax figure in 1972 and in 1974 two 16 year-olds broke in and ransacked the place, turning over display cases and pulling both arms off the Ripley figure after stripping it. (I am astonished those boys didn’t think to steal the head. All the young punks I knew when I was that age would have realized it was an opportunity for some truly epic prank.)

ripleyvandalized(RIGHT: Vandals disarmed the Robert Ripley wax model. Press Democrat, April 14 1974)

Attendance steadily dwindled over the following years. There was a call for volunteers to become docents but it appears no one wanted to. It was no longer open seven days a week, hours became restricted to midday and it was closed except during warm weather months. It wasn’t open at all for most of 1984 because repairs were being made after a fire damaged the steeple and roof. (It started on the outside wall by the men’s restroom and believed to have been arson, but never proven.) The interior and Ripley exhibits were unharmed, including the wax cartoonist.

By 1988 there was talk at City Hall about either moving the church again or kicking out the museum so it could be rented for weddings, concerts and such. City Manager Ken Blackman told City Council the building “will never amount to much” at that location, and $20k was approved for a consultant to study the issue (of course).

ripleypostcardIn fairness, some measure of those problems were the city’s fault – the place wasn’t easy for visitors to find. There was no signage and out-of-towners were given directions it was “across from Burbank Gardens” or “in Juilliard Park.” People were upset enough about this that they wrote letters to the Press Democrat once they were back home.

The Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library closed in 1997 or 1998. The exact date isn’t known because its closing wasn’t noted by the PD – it hadn’t been mentioned in the paper for years, in fact.

Moving the church – sans museum – came up again in 2001. (When it was being considered earlier, Gaye LeBaron’s city-hall-know-it-all, Sam the Shark, quipped they should just put the thing on rollers and start promoting it as the “Church Built on Four Wheels.”)

This time the proposal was to send it three blocks east to Rae Park as part of a new “Heritage Park” that would stretch from the Burbank Gardens to E street on the south side of Sonoma Ave. Also to be moved there was the Hoag house, which has since been demolished. The project received unanimous approval from the city Planning Commission but the estimated $1.5M price tag was too much for even our spendthrift City Council.

With the Church From One Tree about to celebrate its 150th birthday in 2023, the Old Dear is probably ready for another century-plus after recent major renovations to stabilize the structure and restore the stained glass windows. It can be rented via the Santa Rosa city website, which also has a very good virtual tour of the interior.

 

(TOP PHOTO: “Believe it or Not” TV shows have been a mainstay of the broadcast industry since 1949, when the earliest version was hosted by Ripley himself. This photo was from the 1981 revival on ABC, when host Jack Palance filmed a segment at the Santa Rosa museum. Palance is most remembered as the gangster or cowboy who killed someone and/or was killed himself in that movie you watched for a few minutes on TCM some time ago.)

 

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Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

HUGH CODDING’S “DEAD ZOO”

Santa Rosa schoolkids in the 1960s-70s may remember field trips to the museum. No, not to the place on Seventh street with its neoclassical architecture – that didn’t open as a museum until 1985. Before that the schoolbus drove to a nondescript industrial building on Summerfield Road which was the “Codding Museum,” although in truth it was mostly Hugh Codding’s hunting trophy room.

Codding, it seems, had been blasting away on all continents (except Antarctica) since the late 1940s. “I don’t say hunting is good,” he told a biographer, “it’s just the way I am. I don’t play golf. Hunting and fishing I like because you get a little reward at the end. It’s like a stick with a wienie on it.”1

Inside the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History” (as it was formally known) there were some four hundred stuffed animals or parts thereof. There were bears of all kinds in scary poses, a Bengal tiger and a leopard along with other animals that had menacing claws or antlers. There were entire walls of mounted heads and sometimes the big game wasn’t so big; there was a South African dik-dik which was about the size of a cocker spaniel when Hugh killed it. There were glass eyes staring back at you from all directions. There were dioramas where the animals were arranged in something like their natural settings, except the animals never moved or blinked. It was like visiting a dead zoo.2

That museum at 557 Summerfield Road was shared with the Sonoma County Historical Society, which rented the front lobby from Codding for $1/year. What was displayed in their room was mostly random old bric-a-brac better suited for an antique (or junk) store, as described in the previous article. But Codding was using the Historical Society’s participation to lend his taxidermical souvenirs a measure of legitimacy. That motive was clearly on display in early 1963 when he sought permission for a 5,000 sq. ft. building at the NW corner of Hoen and Farmers Lane. He told the Santa Rosa Planning Commission it was to be charitably offered to the Society while the “remainder would be devoted to items of natural history interest.” That plan was scrapped later that year when Codding’s tenant at the Summerfield Road address moved out, making a space of the same size immediately available. The Historical Society and Hugh’s stuffed things moved in there and opened a few months later.

Having his trophies on display did not end or even slow down Codding’s hunting trips and safaris, and when the museum opened he said it would need to be expanded in a couple of years. If anything his urge to bag wild game only increased after the mid-1960s. When he was on the City Council many votes were missed because he was shooting up in Alaska or elsewhere. Wyoming was a favorite; he and a handful of buddies would disappear up there for a week or more at a time.

Although he had killed one elephant (at least), Codding bought a baby one for $7,500 and avoided paying sales tax by claiming it was livestock he was fattening up. “The city attorney threw a fit,” he told a biographer.3 He had his construction crew build an elephant house near his home, hired a trainer/handler to care for it and after awhile the animal was making regular appearances at the newly-opened Coddingtown, which was then unroofed. He kept it about six months before sending it back to the Southern California dealer.

The curator for the overall museum was Ben Cummings, a retired chemical engineer and Hugh’s brother-in-law. He had no experience with managing any sort of museum but was a conservationist, having been chairman of that committee at the Sierra Club’s big New York chapter. Ben was also a fine artist and the landscapes seen in the dioramas were his work. He quit in 1981 1984 to take up painting fulltime after declaring there was nothing more for him to do at the museum, according to a Press Democrat interview.

In truth, there was lots of work to be done. While his dioramas were realistic, that sort of static tableau was widely considered outmoded. In the photos below it’s shown the signage was just a card naming the animal(s) seen behind a plate glass window – unless visitors were being guided by a very adept docent, there was nearly zero educational content to be gleaned. By then, better museums were incorporating videos into displays or using Walkman cassette players to provide high quality self-guided tours.

Besides being over forty years younger than Cummings, the new curator was an actual scientist committed to environmental education: Paleontologist Raj Naidu. He put most of the trophy heads in storage, added new regional geology and fossil/dinosaur displays, expanded community outreach and began programs for docents and teachers. Naidu told the PD that “our visitors these days know we’re not a ‘glorified trophy collection.'” It’s said Codding did not get along well with Naidu, and it may be because of that.

Attendance was now better than ever, drawing 10k visitors a year. But once the history museum on Seventh street opened in 1985, Codding’s offering was at a crossroads. Yearly operating expenses were $100,000 and completely underwritten by the Codding Foundation. In May 1989 the Coddings gave Naidu notice they were shutting it down. Hugh told the PD the closure “has nothing to do with finances” and today Connie Codding says Hugh was crestfallen to learn people were disparaging the museum because of the wildlife trophies.

Closing the museum meant those many hundreds of wildlife trophies would need to be rehoused or liquidated. Some would be kept by the family or given away. Selling many of them, however, would be difficult or even impossible; the world had changed since Hugh’s killing spree began in the 1940s and many states now banned the sale or purchase of wildlife taxidermy, particularly when the species was endangered/threatened. California (as might be expected) has the strictest laws in the nation.4 To Hugh Codding’s great good luck, in to his newly shuttered museum walked Ron Head, who was hoping to score a Tule Elk trophy for his classroom.

Ron was a hugely popular instructor at Petaluma High School, teaching environmental/natural resources classes. Earlier that same year he had taken the school’s Outdoor Activities Klub [sic] whitewater rafting on the American River and had launched the “Animals for Everyone” program, where high school students visited elementary schools and community groups to show and speak about exotic animals including pythons, a boa constrictor and a tarantula.

“Kids come in expecting Bambi, but I do my best to burst their bubble about the natural world,” Head told the Argus-Courier. “Our class is not like a Disney movie; there’s never a dull moment.” In 1976 he invited an owner of a tame mountain lion to bring it in to his classroom where it roamed around unleashed.

Codding and Head hit it off well enough, as both were outdoorsy types and especially because of their shared interest in hunting. Ron was offered a job which he turned down.5 Undeterred, Codding made another offer: Head could have the entire inventory of the museum. Free. There was only one catch: He would only give the collection to a non-profit.

For Codding this would be the sweetest deal possible. There were no restrictions on donating a taxidermied creature, even those species which could no longer be stuffed under state, federal or international laws. And since it was to be a charitable donation, there was a tax write-off for its full value – which was pegged at $1,000,000.

For schoolteacher Ron Head it would be like cliff diving into unknown waters. He would immediately have to create a 501(c)(3) corporation, convince the school board to allow that and allow him to accept the collection. He would have to find a large enough space to house it all. And he would have to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.


A MUSEUM LIKE NO OTHER

Behind the student parking lot at Petaluma High School can be found a most remarkable and unique place: the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, the only student operated natural history museum in the nation.

Open to the general public most Saturdays, the hour-long tour led by trained high school student docents aims to teach visitors about the importance of wildlife conservation/preservation. There are other programs including a week-long summer camp for 5-12 year-olds that sound like great fun.

The docent handbook written by Phil Tacata (Ron Head’s successor) includes this inspiring passage: “…you have the ability to change the future, and it starts by teaching the children of our community about the beauty, the power, and the fragility of this wonderful world around us. It starts with you communicating your knowledge of wildlife and transferring your passion for nature to the next generation, to inspire them to love it as you do, TO TEACH THEM THAT THIS WORLD IS WORTH PROTECTING.”

Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed
Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

Against high odds, Ron pulled it off. Aided by an outpouring of support from the Petaluma community, a small army of volunteers and workers from the Codding construction company, an old bus garage on the high school campus was converted into the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, which opened in 1992 (see sidebar).

There are still some heads on the walls but the larger animals are no longer encased behind glass in dioramas. It is very much a hands-on experience for small kids to have memorable encounters with the museum’s living “animal ambassadors” and for the older students serving as docents to gain confidence and teaching skills.

As for questions about the dead mounted animals, the docent handbook suggests explaining honestly that Codding killed them “because he wanted trophies.” If the visitor struggles with understanding that answer, a docent can offer a carefully balanced perspective: “Mr. Codding came from a different era, one in which attitudes towards trophy hunting were different than they are today. You can also continue to explain that, today, we know that trophy hunting is usually a destructive practice, but because Mr. Codding donated these animals to us, we can use them as examples to teach you why it’s important to protect them.”

Connie Codding says she and Hugh visited the Petaluma museum many times and a child once recognized him, presumably from the bronze bust on display. The youth told them he couldn’t wait to be old enough to be in high school and learn to become a docent. “He just glowed with happiness when he heard that,” she recalls.


1“Hugh” serialized bio by James Dunn; Sonoma Business magazine 1993-4

2The “dead zoo” analogy comes from an earlier article, “HE’S HERE TO KILL ANIMALS FOR THE DEAD ZOO” which told of a taxidermist who was arrested in Lake County for killing birds during 1908. He was on a collecting expedition for Lord Walter Rothschild, a wealthy amateur zoologist who was trying to collect specimens of nearly every creature on Earth, living or dead. The British children of Hertfordshire mockingly called Rothschild’s private natural history museum the “dead zoo.”

3 “Hugh”, op. cit.
4 The best summary of state laws regarding the sale of taxidermy can be found at EstateSales.org.
5 Details of the interactions and agreements between Hugh Codding and Ron Head are drawn from the History of the PWM slideshow. Slides 11 and 13 describe the terms of the donation.

Photos of the Codding Museum exhibits courtesy the Petaluma Wildlife Museum

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