“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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