Even as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was still underway, excitement was building over the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition that was to be held in Portland, Oregon the following summer. It would be the first expo held west of the Rockies – a part of the country still exotic to most Americans – and also held promise of being a smaller-but-grander successor to the event in St. Louis. President Roosevelt had committed almost a half million dollars (the 12-acre federal exhibit would ultimately cost almost 2x that), the great European nations were planning buildings with opulent displays (Italy’s exhibit was valued at over $1 million), and 19 of the 45 states also would welcome the public via their own pavilions at the fair. California alone spent about $100,000 on its state exhibit.

Throughout California, cities, counties, and large industries were making plans for a significant presence at the Portland fair, and Sonoma County was no different; in March 1905, a civic group was formed to “work to advance our Imperial Sonoma” at the fair, with a board of directors elected at a banquet held at the Hotel St. Rose, attended by 160 of the county’s movers and shakers. “‘Unity’ was the slogan sent out from the assemblage,” the Press Democrat reported Mar. 10, and it looked like old animosities were to be set aside, even the Petaluma/Santa Rosa feud that went back to the Civil War.

Fat chance.

As the October Press Democrat editorial (below) reveals, our newly-unified Sonoma County had no official presence whatsoever at the exposition. Aside from some olive oil sent by the Rincon Heights Olive Co. in Santa Rosa, the only local business representing the county was the Petaluma Incubator Company.

(At right: Views of exhibits in the California Building at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, taken from the state committee’s summary report. TOP: Note that there are bottles and jars on display everywhere, even on the tops of high columns where it would be impossible to read labels. Not counting bottles of finished products such as wine or olive oil, there were over a thousand jars filled with just nuts, seeds, cereals, soils and fruits. MIDDLE: The entrance to the state’s forestry hall. Despite the pavilion’s sturdy construction, it was only a temporary building erected for the fair and was built in less than three months. BOTTOM: Seen to the right is another column encased in bottles. Why there is a stuffed elephant at the back of this hall in the California pavilion is anyone’s guess; there were no taxidermists listed among the exhibitors.)

Unlike Sonoma County, other parts of California weren’t sitting out the dance. Besides contributing to their general regional displays (San Joaquin Valley, Bay Area, Coastal Counties, etc.), fourteen counties had their own representatives at the show to pass out literature and sing their glories. Even Glenn County had a rep in the pavilion – a place so middle-of-nowhere that I defy you to describe where it is or name a single town from memory.

Sonoma’s absence not only failed to promote the county, but also probably hurt the region’s economy. Although hops were the major crop grown here, not a single locally-grown bud was sent the fair. Visitors instead saw an exhibit from a Sacramento grower, which included a tabletop model of a hop farm so impressive that a photo was included in the state’s report.

Sans Sonoma County, the exhibition was a major triumph for the state. Visitors from California wore with pride a yellow badge to announce their presence, with an average of 300 attending each day. State exhibitors took home 518 awards from the fair, over half of them gold medals.

So why did Sonoma County utterly fail to make a showing? The Press Democrat editorial doesn’t even hint at who’s to blame, which is a pretty good clue that the newspaper’s good-old-boy clique was probably responsible. But at that blow-out March banquet, one speaker made a prescient observation: “Judge Seawell said that when he looked over the assemblage one thing was conspicuous to him – there was quite an aggregation of wealth and a great many men of recognized intellect of Sonoma County present at the festive board… the success of the new venture depended on a financial backing, the men at the festival board would put their money forth and make it the success which it deserved to be.”

Also, the big laugh at the dinner apparently was a remark by a representative from the California Northwestern railway, who “urged the disappearance of the ‘knocker’ and playfully remarked that a ‘knocker’ was the kind of a man in following the suggestion of the certain doctor, to ‘be chloroformed.'”

My guess is that both speakers made those comments because they feared it wouldn’t end well. The Santa Rosa interests probably didn’t like the idea of promoting Petaluma egg farmers, and I doubt few outside Santa Rosa supported the town’s wildly ambitious goal of doubling its population from 10,000 to 20,000 in the next five years. I’m sure all factions saw nothing wrong with sitting down over dinner and applauding for “unity,” but paying for it’s another matter.


Sonoma county lost another good opportunity when it failed to take advantage of the chance offered by the Portland Exposition to advertise its resources and advantages to the world. The Exposition is now a thing of the past and we cannot go back and correct the mistake we made in neglecting to prepare a proper exhibit and arrange for the right kind of representation there, but we can at least make up our minds that we will not be left out of such a thing very soon again.

Every county in the state paid its proportion of the $90,000 appropriated by the last legislature to meet the expense of maintaining a state exhibit at Portland, but it was only such counties as augmented the above by special appropriation and individual effort that received any direct benefit. This is the kind of work that appeals most directly to the people. While a very considerable indirect benefit of course results from a general state exhibit, the counties maintaining exhibits of their own and making individual efforts to secure homeseekers are always the ones that first accomplish the desired results.

One good example of the way in which individual effort can be made to apply in instances of this kind is presented in the case of the illustrated lectures given daily in the assembly hall fitted up for that purpose in the California building. Every half hour a different lecture was given and each was illustrated by colored slides and moving pictures. Appropriately worded placards announced the hours at which the views from the different counties would be shown, and anyone interested could, by dropping in at that time, gain a splendid ida of what the location he had in mind was like, besides hearing its advantages entertainingly and intelligently set forth by the lecturer. Alameda, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Stanislaus, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Ventura, and the Pajaro valley were all represented here, and these are the locations that will be apt to reap the principal benefit from the state’s appropriation. Agents on the ground and kept supplied with good descriptive literature are also important factors in such cases, and in the days to come Sonoma county should remember these things.

– Press Democrat, October 18, 1905

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“Sonoma County Progressive Association Formed,” read the March 10,1905 Press Democrat front page headline. Surprising news, even more so because of the newspaper’s approval. Editor Ernest L. Finley’s politics were the opposite of progressive — a few days afterward, he would slam President Teddy Roosevelt for appointing an African-American to a position where he would have some authority over “white people.”

Words evolve, and “progressive” had more than one meaning circa 1905. Historians now label the late 19th-early 20th century decades as a progressive era, which saw the emergence of various liberal movements that were, among other things, pro-labor, pro-suffrage, anti-trust, and anti-child labor (good general article here, if you’re unfamiliar with this history). By the time Teddy Roosevelt famously created the national “Bull Moose” Progressive Party in 1912, the definition of “progressive” was locked into its current useage.

But in the earlier part of the century, “progressive” also meant something more like, “pro-civic improvement.” A progressive citizen demanded sewers and paved streets and new schools and hospitals – and was willing to vote for bonds to pay for the improvements. Municipal bonds were usually enthusiastically promoted by the papers, and when there were no local votes pending, the newspapers praised the merits of bonds passed in neighboring communities. In 1904, the LA Herald congratulated Pasadena and Long Beach on showing progressive spirit for passing bonds that paid for new water works and fire engines; the San Francisco Call possibly beat the drums for the Oakland muni bond campaign more than Oakland’s own Tribune.

The Press Democrat was late to play the “progressive” card to win passage of a bond, but when they came to the table, they played to win at all costs. The banner headline above was not just strident, but threatening, and the accompanying article leaned hard on fear. Without a better water system a “menace to health” was possible, not to mention “more parched lawns.” The sewer system was inadequate and a lawsuit was threatened against the city over lack of capacity (Santa Rosa was already under injunction for dumping sewage into the creek, foreshadowing modern-era legal actions against the city for treated wastewater in the Russian River).

Voters turned out in large numbers to approve the bond, with 1,094 casting ballots – sizable because although Santa Rosa had a population just over 10,000 and women were not allowed to vote, of course. The Press Democrat reported, “The landslide, however, exceeded the expectations of even the most sanguine of the prophets…carriages were dashing here and there [yet] one would hardly have known that an election of such moment to Santa Rosa’s progress was taking place.”

That $200,000 bond had passed just months after a failed Dec. 1904 try to win approval for a $75,000 school-only bond because classrooms so overcrowded that chairs were not even available. The new bond set aside $35k for schools — which seemed generous, until close examination showed that $5 thousand went just to buy two (apparently overpriced) parcels and build modest schoolhouses south of Santa Rosa Creek and in Roseland. Children, I think our word for the day is, “unprogressive.”

But promoting local bonds wasn’t really the main stated objective of the Sonoma County Progressive Association, although it was formed just a few weeks before the bond vote. Its main goal was to “work to advance our Imperial Sonoma” at the upcoming Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon that summer. This might be the only example where the meaning of “progressive” was stretched to embrace advertising local commerce or tourism.

Civic leaders from all Sonoma County towns met for a banquet at the Hotel St. Rose that Wednesday night, and listened to speakers urge that the County develop plans for a big presence at the Portland Exposition. Judge Seawell remarked that Sonoma County had allowed its candle to remain too long under the bushel. “‘Unity’ was the slogan sent out from the assemblage,” reported the PD, and as usual at these occasions, poor, put-upon Luther Burbank stood and said a very few words to great acclaim.

But aside from that swell dinner in Railroad Square and passage of Santa Rosa’s muni bonds, there was no more mention in the 1905 newspapers of the Sonoma County Progressive Association, or for that matter, participation in the Portland Exposition. Although the fair was considered a great success for the West Coast, Sonoma County just couldn’t get its act together, as Press Democrat editor Finley tsk-tsks in the editorial that follows.

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Santa Rosa’s municipal bond passed in March, 1905, and look who walked in with over $200,000 to buy every single bond: James Wyatt Oates, the prominent lawyer who built the home that would become known as Comstock House.

As reported in the article below, competing financiers were “amazed” by Oates’ bid, which came with no strings attached and offered $4,001 over the face value of the bonds.

Oates was well-off, but couldn’t have purchased the bonds for himself – they were worth the equivalent of something over $6 million today. That he was representing a consortium was confirmed by a small item in the June 11 paper that noted the bonds were officially “turned over to the purchaser, Colonel James W. Oates, who acted for himself and other local capitalists.” The identity of these investors is unknown; Oates kept his business affairs quiet, even while making sure the newspapers were kept apprised about his social doings.

Obl. Believe-it-or-Not factoid: March 28, 1905 must have been a big day for Oates. Not only did Santa Rosa voters approve this bond, but the Santa Rosa Republican also published its announcement that Comstock House was completed, including a remarkable 3-column sketch of the house.

Colonel James W. Oates Is Successful Bidder, Giving a Bonus of $400

The meeting of the City Council last evening was honored by the presence of many men of finance. These were drawn by the opening of bids for the purchase of the bonds for $200,000 recently voted for municipal improvements.

The bonds were purchased by Judge James W. Oates. His bid was a premium of $4001 in addition to the par value of the bond issue. Other financial men present were amazed at the amount of premium offered by Colonel Oates, and one buyer’s representative who ventured to inquire into the matter and asked for an interpretation of the high bid, was promptly “sat upon” by the genial Colonel.

The bidders for the bonds were E. H. Rollins & Son, President E. F. Woodward of the Union Trust-Savings Bank, James W. Oates, President J. H. Brush of the Santa Rosa National Bank and A. W. Halsey & Co. of San Francisco.

E. H. Rollins & Son bid par value, accrued interest and a premium of $786, conditioned on the furnishings of a certified copy of the proceedings leading up to the bond issue satisfactory to the firm’s attorneys.

President E. F. Woodward’s bid was par, secured interest and $107.5 premium. The bidder stated that if the proposal was accepted his bank would be willing that there would be delay in delivering bonds until the money was actually needed by the city, for the period of six months if necessary, without interest being charged. Fifteen days notice to be given when money was required.

Colonel James W. Oates’ bid was clear cut and offered $204,001 for the bond issue.

[Details on other bids]

…[T]he bid of Colonel Oates was accepted. In seconding the motion Councilman Brown called attention to the fact that there was no strings on the bid of Colonel Oates, such as furnishing a certified copy of proceedings for an attorney’s inspection, and there would be no delay and no excuses found for refusing to take the bonds. He declared the bid was the most businesslike proposition made to the Council.

The motion to accept the bid was unanimous…

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 17, 1905

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